Life became a little less funny with the passing of Leslie Nielsen over the weekend. The world lost the unlikeliest of comedic legends.
If you had asked someone to describe Leslie Nielsen prior to 1980 you might hear adjectives like “handsome leading man” or “silver haired villain.” You would never hear adjectives like “funny man” or “comic genius.”
But then in 1980 along came a little movie called Airplane! All of a sudden, Nielsen’s career would literally and figuratively take off in a whole new direction. Now Nielsen wasn’t the only actor who the triumvirate of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker cast against type. Who knew that Robert Stack could take out Hari Krishnas and the Moonies out with one fell swoop? Who knew Lloyd Bridges had an addiction to glue? Who knew Peter Graves was so curious about Turkish prisons? And who knew Barbara Billingsley was so fluent in jive? But despite their brilliant turns Stack, Bridges, Graves and Billingsley generally weren’t cast in other comedic roles.
So what made Nielsen’s turn as Dr. Alan Rumack so special? Nielsen not only played him straight he was downright serious. Surely you can’t be serious? Well, I am serious and don’t call me Shirley. But serious or not, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker had only scratched the surface of Nielsen’s potential as a comedic actor. They would cast Nielsen as Lieutenant Frank Drebin in a television series called Police Squad, a satire of police procedurals which aired on ABC in 1982. Unfortunately, ABC never fully embraced the vision of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker and cancelled the series after only six episodes. Despite getting the axe, Police Squad would develop a loyal and enduring cult following.
Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker also weren’t quite ready to relinquish custody of Lieutenant Drebin and neither was Nielsen. Six years later, their persistence paid off with the release of The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad. It enjoyed the kind of commercial and critical success that so alluded Police Squad. Over the next six years, The Naked Gun would spawn two sequels. At a time when most actors would slow down, Nielsen reached the height of his popularity in his sixties.
To give you an idea of just how popular Nielsen was in the early 1990s, I remember attending Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 1993. There must have been at least a hundred thousand people there. When Nielsen (who was born in Saskatchewan) came on the video screen to give a few remarks he received the loudest applause of the night.
Let me offer one more anecdote. When the second Naked Gun movie came out in 1991 I was still living in Thunder Bay having just graduated from high school. I invited my friend Renny Maki out to see the movie with me. Now he hadn’t seen the first Naked Gun movie but I had assumed he heard of it. As it turns out he thought The Naked Gun was a straight police drama. So when he saw the first sight gag it really threw him for a loop. Don’t get me wrong. He thought the movie was hilarious. But I thought it was even funnier that he didn’t know it was a comedy. At the time, Renny and I were opposites on the political spectrum (he was the conservative and I was the socialist.) So in the years that followed when Renny and I disagreed about something in front of others and he seemed to be getting the upper hand in the argument I would invariably point out, “Yeah, but Renny thought The Naked Gun was a serious movie.” People would look at Renny as if he had lived under a rock. But it was all in good fun.
I think my mother probably summed up The Naked Gun movies when she described them as “pleasantly silly.” It is an assessment with which I completely agree. As I become older I find it harder to laugh. Things are either not as funny to me as they once were or what is considered fashionably funny just isn’t funny at all. Leslie Nielsen’s brand of humor has aged well and is devoid of the meanness that is often at the core of contemporary humor.
For all the ridiculous situations Lieutenant Drebin found himself in and for all the absurdity that ensued, Nielsen nevertheless played that character with warmth and empathy that made people want more. My favorite scene in The Naked Gun takes place when Jane (played by Priscilla Presley) pulls a gun on Drebin. Despite facing certain death, Drebin tells her of his love and proposes marriage and in a brilliant variation of the ending of Casablanca, Drebin says, “It’s a topsy-turvy world, and maybe the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans. But this is our hill. And these are our beans!” Not only does Jane agree to marriage but it stops an on-field brawl between the Seattle Mariners and the California Angels, it moves Curt Gowdy to tearfully apologize for yelling at Jim Palmer, and results in an embrace between Jew and Arab.
I can only hope that some enterprising network will pay tribute to Nielsen by airing a weekend marathon of all six Police Squad episode, The Naked Gun trilogy and, of course, Airplane! In a world full of danger, terror and general anxiety unease, Lord knows we could all use a really good laugh.