Jim Giovanni, a talented impressionist and comedian who performed frequently with Robin Williams in the beginning of his career and later, with his character Buck Butane, went on to open for Willie Nelson and other country greats, died last Friday of a heart attack. He was 66.
Giovanni was born in 1949 and grew up in rural Marin County. In the 1960s, he began performing at local clubs and concerts, doing impressions that had a political bent.
"People would ask me, 'Do you want to do this Spiro Agnew resignation night ... with Rick and Ruby and the Firesign Theatre?'" Giovanni told the Stockton Record back in 2002. "I opened for Country Joe McDonald in 1968, up there doing Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as the Smothers Brothers."
In the early '70s, Giovanni began performing at a San Francisco folk club called the Holy City Zoo, and is credited as being the first comedian to perform at what would become a legendary comedy venue. He would later make his TV appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.
In 1977, Giovanni, Williams and Bill Rafferty, another San Francisco comedian who performed at the Holy City Zoo, were featured in one-hour special that aired on NBC called The Great American Laugh-Off. Filmed at the Great American Music Hall, it was Williams' first television appearance, and it would lead to both he and Giovanni joining the cast of the New Laugh-In that same year. A revival of Rowan and Martin's hit sketch show from the early '70s, the New Laugh-In only lasted a season.
"I was on there for six episodes," Giovanni told the Record. "I did impressions of General Patton, Columbo, the Godfather, and nobody recognized me."
Unlike Williams, Giovanni wasn't able to parlay his TV work into bigger and better things, though he did end up in a few movies, including 1988's Tucker: A Man and His Dream. But he continued to work as a club headliner and also, as Butane, opening for country stars such as Nelson, Merle Haggard and Earl Scruggs.
John Kelly of Kelly Productions, a talent agency that represented Giovanni, said he was in contact with the comedian up until last year, finding him gigs.
"He was a great, old school guy," Kelly said. "Just a real sweetheart. Everyone loved him."
A memorial service is scheduled for Monday, May 23 at St. Peter's Church in Pacifica, where Giovanni had lived most of his life.
Watch Giovanni perform his impressions back in 2010: