LESLIE NIELSEN, 1926 – 2010

November 30, 2010


Leslie Nielsen always played off the beat. Before he delivered a punchline, there was a hitch, a pause, a dumbfounded look off-screen – that made him a devastatingly funny actor. When he finally delivered the deadpan kicker it was in a sonorous tenor drained of emotion, a hollow thud of obliviousness. With his granite-jawed, silver-haired good looks he could say any absurdity with a straight face and a straighter vocal tone, and in collaboration with non-sequitur artists like the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, he created some of the most ingratiating buffoons in film history. And this after a long and overshadowed career as a genial and arrogant leading man on television.  Mr. Leslie Nielsen passed away yesterday at the age of 84, while being treated for pneumonia.

Frank Drebin (The Naked Gun) and Dr. Rumack (Airplane!) are the twin monuments of my youth. Their commitment to ignoring the outside world is so intense it is almost saintly, and I worshiped them with religious fervor. Without the distractions of other human beings, Drebin and Rumack misinterpret every conversation, translating it through their simple-minded narcissism. In The Naked Gun, when Ricardo Montalban offers him a cigar, Drebin takes it as a personal question of ancestry: “-Cuban? -Ah no. Dutch-Irish. My father was from Wales.” Nielsen clips off the words quickly, with the blithe assurance that every query concerns himself. The speed in his response belies a majestic false modesty: everything is about him, but he’ll rush through it to prove he doesn’t care.

Then there’s the legendary “Don’t call me Shirley” bit from Airplane, which results from a similar misinterpretation of an innocent turn of phrase, “surely” to “Shirley”, from the descriptive to the personal. And what makes the line canonical is Nielsen’s stone-faced line-reading, an immobile expressionless mask of  vapidity. It’s hard work to be that straight, and at NPR Marc Hirsh quotes Nielsen’s Saturday Night Live monologue from 1989 to prove the point:

He didn’t understand why he had been asked to host a comedy show, because he was neither a comedian nor a comic. A comedian, he explained, was someone who says funny things. A comic was someone who says things in a funny way.

Nielsen, on the other hand, was someone who said unfunny things in an unfunny way, and for some reason, people laughed. To demonstrate this, he delivered an innocuous line – something along the lines of “Mr. Jones, sit down, I’d like to talk to you about your son” – twice. The first time, he said it as though he were in a drama, and the response was muted.

Then he told us that he was going to say the exact same unfunny line as Lt. Frank Drebin, in an unfunny way, and he did exactly that, and the audience exploded. It wasn’t just indulging him as prompted, either. Without actually tilting his delivery in that direction, Nielsen made it genuinely funny. To underscore his point, he then broke character with a look of happy exasperation and basically said, “See?”

He didn’t sell jokes or wink to the audience, but played it blank. He’s the nowhere man of dramatic acting, working to disappear into banalities until his voice is a low purr and the sound of words becomes more important than their meaning. You pay attention to the surface of things with Nielsen’s jokes, the way he harrumphs and says “Well” before a police car bursts into flame in the distance, or the hard emphasis he puts on the “p” in “poopy pants” (from an epic verbal duel with Robert Goulet in Naked Gun 2 1/2).

But the arc of Nielsen’s career is so much vaster than his sublime work with ZAZ and the later parodies (all of which are underrated to some degree, especially Dracula: Dead and Loving It); I had to delve into his TV work to see where he began. The usual line is that Nielsen was a rather bland handsome leading man until ZAZ tapped his natural talent for deadpan. But there are some raucous early performances that tend towards paranoid men suffering from quiet desperation. Even when he went prematurely gray and became a stock network guest star he gives his roles edges of self-absorption and arrogance.

Tales of Tomorrow is an early gem, a science-fiction anthology show that aired live on ABC from 1951 – 1953. Nielsen acted in six episodes, three of which are available on the site. In “Ghost Writer” (1953) he’s a struggling novelist who takes a gig polishing stories for a successful author. Then his tales start coming true.  “Appointment On Mars” (1952) finds him on the red planet struggling to contain the paranoia of his crew and his own madness as Uranium deposit riches loom (it’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre in space). And “Another Chance” (1953) casts him as a desperately poor husband who steals a valuable brooch and then undergoes a memory erasure procedure to start life anew. In all of them he’s on the edge of madness, which the cramped sets and long takes of the live TV medium really enhance.

He’s only a few years out from his NYC training at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which was under the sway of Sanford Meisner’s version of Stanislavski’s “system”, now known as the Meisner Techniqueand similar to Lee Strasberg’s famous “method”. Nielsen’s tight, raging performance in  “Another Chance” is the closest to the method he’d ever get. It’s a bracing, moody piece where he’s knocking back liquor in the first shot and gets more disoriented from there, until he gets his mind wiped by a supercilious doctor. Eventually his repressed past starts drilling back into the present, with Nielsen’s language expertly slipping into the names and places of his former life. It’s a mannered but powerful performance in this surprisingly complex forerunner of  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind .

Even the lax Hitchcock Presents episode, “The $2,000,000  Dollar Defense” (1958), finds Nielsen self-destructing. Here he’s a cuckolded husband accused of murdering his wife’s lover. The method intensity has worn off, and the cool Nielsen persona is setting in, introducing hints of snobbery and elitism to his emerging suave demeanor. A similar scenario pops up over 20 years later in George Romero’s Creepshow (1982, the same year as his comedic breakthrough with ZAZ, Police Squad). In this theatrical horror anthology (he’s an unsung hero of the form), Nielsen plays another husband with revenge on his mind. This time he buries Ted Danson in the sand, hoping to drown him in the tide. In keeping with the self-reflexivity of the whole enterprise, he hams it up, whistling “Camptown Races” as he leads Danson to his doom, and bitchily snapping off lines like “She’s waiting for her knight in shining corduroy” before watching W.C. Fields on TV.

But that’s not nearly as jolting as his appearance on Rod Serling’s horror anthology Night Gallery in 1971 (“A Question of Fear”) as an eye-patched and mustachioed war veteran challenged to spend the night in a haunted house. Claiming to have never felt fear, Nielsen’s hyper-masculine Colonel swashbuckles his way into an old dark house. There is very little dialogue as he navigates soldier-ghosts with burning hands, swinging blades and probable poisons. The final act is expository lard, but the Colonel is another example to place in Nielsen’s hubris-filled menagerie.

There were undoubtedly instances of the stoic network hero during his long TV career, like on the Disney show The Swamp Fox, but they are not readily viewable. But what is available shows that he played far more than just the “earnest heroes” that the NY Times described early on in his career. Even the most straight-laced roles, like his two guest spots on Murder, She Wrote (both on Netflix Instant), contain hints of self-absorption and menace. In “My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean” (1986),  he plays a cruise liner captain with barely contained arrogance, hitting on the intrigued Jessica Fletcher with intransigent persistence. Then, in “Dead Man’s Gold” (1986), he plays a former flame of Jessica’s, but one profligate with money and in hock to a pair of well-mannered loan sharks. With a charismatic swagger barely masking his self-destructive tendencies, he gives Jessica a romantic kiss-off.

Nielsen’s genius was codified in Airplane!Police Squad and The Naked Gun, but there’s a whole swathe of work to happily sift through if we want a fuller picture of his career. In the shift from the method theatrics of Tales of Tomorrow to the suave horniness of his Murder, She Wrote cads lies the DNA of Frank Drebin, a process of wearing down to the essential blankness of the Hollywood leading man, and to a deadpan for the ages.


August 20, 2010

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On July 2nd, 1980, AIRPLANE! was released in the United States. For its 30th anniversary, the Film Society at Lincoln Center held a screening and a Q&A last night with directors and writers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (hereafter known as ZAZ). Ever since I stumbled out of THE NAKED GUN (1988) as a giddy seven-year-old, the ZAZ initials have been emblazoned in my consciousness, their screenplays replacing large chunks of my grey matter. I am not an impartial observer. But it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that ZAZ’s peak equaled those of the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks in the density of quality jokes-per-minute. Their approach was unique in that these comedies didn’t use comedians. Their laughs came from the cognitive dissonance of watching handsome leading men spout intricate absurdities. All of the performers play the straight man, while the writing is the star.

As Zucker put it, it was “as if we were taking real movies and re-dubbing them.”  (From my main source,  Robert J. Emery’s The Directors: Take One, Vol. 1) It is a constricted style, with little room for characterization or pathos. We are always laughing at these characters, rather than with the complicit guffaws of a Duck Soup. If the jokes fail, there is nothing left. But the ZAZ team was so relentlessly creative within these limitations that the strain never showed until Naked Gun 33 1/3 (1994), which I still treasure anyway.

Jerry and David Zucker grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where their mother, David said, would “talk back to the TV and criticize what was going on. That’s kind of where the satire comes from.  She was an actress from the time she was five.” When they went to college, they started making jokey Super-8 movies, including one “about Jerry running around campus trying to find a place to leak.” (I urge Paramount to spend large amounts of money restoring this). After graduation, they hooked up with childhood friend Jim Abrahams, and in 1971 started up the Kentucky Fried Theater in the back of a Madison, Wisconsin bookstore.  Their blend of live improvisation with film and video skits landed in Los Angeles a year later, and became a cult hit.

Airplane! was the first screenplay ZAZ wrote, but they couldn’t sell it, so they adapted their stage show to the screen, and the Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), directed by John Landis, became a considerable success. Airplane! was next, the result of a fortuitous night of television:

We used to leave the video tape recorder on overnight just to catch the late movies and to get the commericals so we could re-dub later and spoof them in some way. One night we recorded a movie called Zero Hour. It’s a 1957 movie starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden. It was one of those “airliner in trouble” movies.

With the series of Airport films topping the box office, ZAZ took Zero Hour as their template for a parody, making a remarkably faithful adaptation. At the Q&A ZAZ said they even mimicked the camera setups, needing all the shortcuts they could get as first-time directors.

Originally the structure was going to be the same as Kentucky Fried Movie, with spoof commercials breaking up the main feature, an airline disaster film. But the feature was getting such a positive reaction, they cut everything else out. Intent on making a film with the same feel as Zero Hour and other late night flicks they were watching, they hired Joseph Biroc as their DP (Robert Aldrich’s long time lensman, he would shoot …All the Marbles the following year), and Elmer Bernstein to do the score. When they told Bernstein that they wanted a B movie score, he deadpanned, “so you think I’m the right one for it?” After he guffawed throughout the test screening, David remembered, they knew they had the right man.

Next came the casting. David Zucker:

We were watching these Airport movies and thinking, “Charlton Heston is just too funny.” The trick was to cast serious actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges. These were people who up to that time had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of the time were.

Paramount originally pushed Barry Manilow for the Ted Striker role, but then reluctantly agreed to ZAZ’s plan for the leads. As a compromise, Paramount insisted on casting name comedians (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Robin Williams) in supporting roles.  During the Q&A at Lincoln Center, Jerry Zucker talked about how they kept this from happening. Their producer, Howard Koch, supported their decision to go with dramatic actors, so he would intentionally bomb the pitch, telling the comics that the script was “shit”. Jimmie Walker was the only star to sneak through their defenses: he cleans the plane’s windows before bouncing off the fuselage.

The actor most closely associated with ZAZ is Leslie Nielsen, but his part was originally offered to Vince Edwards, who turned them down, irrevocably changing the course of Nielsen’s career and my childhood (Jerry Zucker said they also pursued Charlton Heston and Jack Webb for different roles, to no avail). At that time, Nielsen was taking anodyne TV roles, and the studio told Zucker that he’s “the guy you hire the night before.” But Nielsen was eager to sign, telling his agent, “I don’t care if you have to pay them. I want to do this movie.”

Graves was the most reluctant, unsure of why he was being cast in a comedy. Here was Zucker’s pitch:

We told him it was going to be a new kind of comedy that didn’t rely on comedians but relied on the jokes and the seriousness of the characters and the absurdity of the situations. And the straighter he could play it the better it would be.

While this group of old professionals may have been wary, they got the job done, as usual. Of all of the straight men, Lloyd Bridges’ work still stands out. His air traffic controller, McCroskey, spoke with the speed and bravado of Lee Tracy from a 30s newspaper film like Blessed Event. It’s a performance of controlled mania that ZAZ gifts with some of their greatest riffs, including the “I guess I picked the wrong week to stop drinking” routine that Bridges snaps off with a growling panache. He’s also superb in the ZAZ spinoff Hot Shots as the absent-minded President, whose endearing idiocy now looks like a model of Will Ferrell’s buffoonish take on George W. Bush.

One of the greatest unsung performances in the spoof pantheon is Stephen Stucker’s Johnny, Bridges’  flamboyant assistant who is always ready with a sarcastic retort. In deference to his wit, ZAZ let Stucker, a Kentucky Fried Theater alum, write all of his own lines  – which still generate some of the biggest laughs in the movie. A whirligig of transgressive jollity, he could turn a weather map into a pterodactyl and impishly unplug the runway lights before an emergency landing. He’s a force of nature, the only actor ZAZ allows to be a comedian, mocking the proceedings from the inside. A legendary character, he was a classically trained pianist who showed up to his Kentucky Fried Theater interview in two-toned leather hot pants. Tragically, he was one of the first actors to announce he was suffering from HIV. He died in 1986 at the age of 38.

The other sublime work here is by Leslie Nielsen, as Dr. Rumack. He is perhaps the straightest man in film history. He paralyzes his facial muscles as much as his immovable silver hair – there is not even a hint of a smile or a glint of emotion. His eyes are glazed and serious, and rarely looks at anyone in the face. He prefers to tip his head up to gaze dramatically off camera. It is a turn of extraordinary woodenness, a solid oak of uninflected speech and metronomic movement. It is the Platonic ideal of ZAZ performances. Nielsen’s commitment to looking oblivious is unshakable, and that kind of perfection is beautiful, and forever funny. He would be nominated for an Emmy for a similarly flawless routine in Police Squad! (1982), ZAZ’s short lived cop show spoof that was canceled by ABC after six episodes. They were able to revive the concept for The Naked Gun six years later, which taught me how to boil a roast: “Very hot. And awfully wet.”

At the end of his late 90s interview with Robert Emery, David Zucker says, “I guess the test is if the movie still works twenty years later. We’ll see in a couple of years if it’s still funny.” Now it’s been over 30 years, and it’s still cracking me up.

Postscript: Top Secret (1984) is incredible too.