Slick as a seal in his black satin jacket, Ron Smith extends a hand to a visitor and immediately scrutinizes him. "I know who you look alike -- David Geffen. You know David Geffen?"
You know Ron Smith? Ron "Celebrity Look-Alike King" (his label) Smith? The man you call when you need a Dick Nixon to liven up a sales convention, when you want Prince but you can't get Prince, or when you need Sinatra but you definitely don't want the real one? He's the man who created an imitation Chuck and Di wedding in Chicago while the real couple were in London. His fake Ron and Nancy hosted a fake inaugural ball in Washington for the reelection. Last year he searched the country for a Mr. Clean look-alike for Procter & Gamble, and the winner got a $30,000 contract to stay bald and mop floors.
A man who never met a dead ringer he didn't like, Smith has been searching cities, towns and villages here and abroad with regular media blitzes for the past 10 years to build his network of 10,000 look-alikes. "Ten thousand look-alikes, sound-alikes and impressionists," he says with the insta-fax recall of the successful salesman. "We do exactly what Rich Little does, only we have a different set of tires."
His blue-green eyes seem never to blink, as if afraid they'll miss a passing face that could be a Face, that could be money. You look like George Segal, he told someone in Bloomingdale's recently, offering a contract on the spot. (Trouble is, it was George Segal.) This month he hosted an extravanganza at the Capital Hilton for Statue of Liberty look-alikes, part of a $75,000, 15-city quest. The winner got a fat year's contract with Smith and participated in the Fourth of July festivites in New York. He footed the $75,000 bill of the national search himself, he says.
Ron Smith Celebrity Lookalikes, based in Los Angeles, started with one Jimmy Carter and one Gerald Ford. A decade, several representatives around the world and two lawsuits later, it has Elvises, Ronald Reagans, Nancy Reagans, Clark Gables, queens of England, ad imitatum. He's even got a male Barbra Streisand and a female Paul Williams (he hasn't marketed the Paul Williams like he should have, he says).
"Look-alikes have been around since before I was born," says the image-entrepreneur, ever weighing his words in the VIP lounge of a downtown hotel. "Studios have used them, and movies and television. I've just taken something and organized it, made a business of it and put some order to it."
And laughed all the way to Burbank.
It doesn't seem a business so much as an international exchange house. The agency hires out contractees under a dynamic tariff system dependent on People magazine mores. The monetary value of a look-alike fluctuates like the French franc, depending on the real celebrity's popularity, how far the look-alike has to travel and other variables. Some can make up to $50,000 a year, Smith claims. You're top dollar these days, for instance, if you look like President Reagan, the first lady or, for some inexplicable reason, Ted Kennedy. But if you resemble Jimmy Carter, now's the time to break into real estate. When Carter lost the 1979 presidential election, "the price of our Jimmy Carter look-alike took a nose dive," Smith says. "It was almost like he lost the election. He was depressed for a good six months."
Smith, however, never loses. As the middle man, the Kelly to the Girls, he does very well. But ask how well and you get algebra: "We pay the look-alikes good money per hour and then we'll charge the clients that call us X amount of dollars."
"We have tremendous expenses," he explains. "Public relations, lawyers. I'm always on the road constantly meeting look-alikes, letting people know we exist." Besides, he says, "it's not like they're calling for James Caan and we're in the background. We're in the foreground." Smith vaulted into that foreground in the mid '70s when, as an agent with International Famous Management, he was approached to promote a Halloween extravaganza at the Hollywood Palladium. "We got hundreds, thousands of calls from people telling me they were look-alikes." He started Ron Smith Celebrity Lookalikes immediately thereafter. His third contractee was a Burt Reynolds.
"When I started, I felt like I was Orville Wright trying to fly an airplane," he says. "Now I feel like I'm on a ship to another planet."
"We're patrolling the waters" is another Smithism. The idea is that, like the old AT&T, RSCL represents a benevolent and necessary monoply, saving the real stars from cranks by creating an official Smith seal of approval ("the stars are my friends"). Seems that some look-alikes let the glory go to their facsimile heads and run up hotel bills claiming to be, say, Rod Stewart. "I tell them to remember it's a fun thing," Smith says. "I tell them, 'Remember, you're Number 2. You're a copy and don't ever forget it."
Some of the imitated have not been flattered. Former RSCL contractees Phil Boroff (who looks like Woody Allen) and Washingtonian Barbara Reynolds who resembles Jackie Onassis) were sued by the real McCoys because the ads the look-alikes posed for didn't run disclaimers.
"The clients neglected to follow our guide lines," Smith says, "which is a clear, legible disclaimer that these people aren't the real celebrities."
His lawyers settled out of court, he says. "They say the sign of success is when you're sued."
Smith is reaching yet again into a mental grab bag of instant quotes, prepared anecdotes and did-you-knows.
Instant quotes: "Imitation is flattery." "I'm in the illusion business, and I'm selling illusions of illusions. "We give the rest of the world the next best thing."
Anecdotes: Aaron Spelling called him for a Michael Jackson look-alike. Michael Jackson called him to wish him luck with a Jackson look-alike search. Charlton Heston wanted a queen of England look-alike to "knight" Roger Moore.
Did-you-know: "Charlie Chaplin went to his own look-alike contest and lost?"
"Actually, I've told you some stuff that I've never told anyone before," he says.
Now it's on to grand long-term plans -- the movie, the TV movie, the look-alike magazine and "on-camera stuff, doing my own stuff, playing my self, because I enjoy that. Kinda like a Dick Clark."
"That's not a good example, Dick Clark."
Whatever the secondary success, Smith says he is content to have become the Celebrity Look-Alike King.
"When I started, 1 percent of the world knew I existed. Now 99 percent knows about Celebrity Lookalikes. And as long as we're the Johnny Carson of the business, I'm happy."