September 27, 2016


David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker were three wiseasses from Milwaukee who killed time watching movies. They gained an admiration for the stoic leading men in cheap genre productions, those actors who jutted their chins and remained expressionless through the most absurd scenarios. ZAZ’s whole comic ethos stems from these viewings – their main characters are virtuous idiots wandering through a world that explodes with gags around them. These dopes’ deadpan obliviousness provide the majority of punchlines in  Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun trilogy. And there was no one more virtuous or more idiotic than the fools portrayed by Leslie Nielsen – who was ZAZ’s platonic ideal for a comic actor. Often mistaken for his  Airplane!-mates Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves, he had that aging leading man gravitas (and mane of gray hair) and could play everything straight, reciting the most ridiculous lines as if he was in an airplane disaster film like Zero Hour (1957, the model for Airplane!). ZAZ’s follow-up to Airplane! was the short-lived and joke-packed TV show Police Squad! (1982), a parody of M-Squad and other square-jawed cop shows. The TV version was canceled after four episodes (six would air), but strong reviews (and a lead actor Emmy nomination for Nielsen) kept the project alive until ZAZ adapted it into the  The Naked Gun, which airs tomorrow night on TCM as part of their “Salute to Slapstick.” It is with The Naked Gun that Nielsen fully displays his comic gifts, a tour-de-force of deadpan, face-pulling, and pratfall.


“We invariably would get to discussing our history together, reminiscing a bit and renewing our good-natured debate about who the hell was luckier to have met the other, Leslie Nielsen or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team. The truth was, all of us knew how grateful we were to have each other in our lives, both professionally and personally, and we expressed it to each other often.” – David Zucker

Leslie Nielsen was the last person cast in Airplane!, with David Zucker claiming he was the third choice for the part of the questionably educated Dr. Rumack. Nielsen, an inveterate prankster and master of the whoopee cushion, was eager to act stupid on screen, so he told his agent,  ‘Do not negotiate. Accept! I’ll pay them to do this part!’ ” He was a perfect fit for ZAZ’s brand of humor, and he was brought on to play Det. Frank Drebin in Police Squad! (1982), a hilarious, doomed enterprise that was canceled because, per ABC entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos “the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” In other words, it wasn’t a show you could have on in the background and get the gist – you had to pay close attention to register the density of jokes on display (Joe Dante directed two episodes, and some of his same spirit shows up in Gremlins 2) . It all starts in the opening credits, in which the guest star is always killed (i.e. Robert Goulet is killed by a firing squad) and the on-screen and voice-over episode titles never match up. There are physical bits that reappear in the movies (pillowcases have devastating effects), visual absurdities (a gunfight of inches), and a barrage of verbal punning (my favorite bit: “-How did you know she handled the loan office heist? -It was just a little hunch back at the office. – I thought so, I brought that little hunchback with me. Charlie come out here!”).


Nielsen is gently befuddled throughout. They key to the whole Drebin character is his reactions to the jokes made at his expense. When he offers a credit union teller a smoke by asking, “Cigarette?”, she responds with, “Yes, I know.” Instead of arguing with her about semantics, he pauses a beat, his eyes shifting up and down, before muttering, “Well…” He is confused but wants to play it off as natural, which summarizes Drebin’s whole existence.


The Naked Gun is Police Squad on a bigger budget, so his superior officer Alan North is replaced by George Kennedy, and his airheaded partner is played by O.J. Simpson (no comment). ZAZ has Drebin investigating a hunch that wealthy philanthropist Vincent Ludwig (a hissing Ricardo Montalban) is involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth II, who is planning a visit to Los Angeles. Of course Drebin falls for Ludwig’s assistant Jane (Priscilla Presley), a clumsy femme fatale and confused cook (her trademark meal: boiling a roast). The plot climaxes at a California Angels baseball game and an uninterrupted barrage of gags, from insane blooper reels (tiger attacks at 2B, CF wall beheadings) to a hypnotized Reggie Jackson trying to murder a royal family member.


The film keeps the same joke density as the show, with throwaway lines and visual gags pushing out of every frame, whether it’s the floating chalk outline of Nordberg or dialogue like, “I think we can save your husband’s arm…where would you like it sent?”. Then there are the big showpieces, which include a press conference in which Drebin wears a microphone into the bathroom, filling the room with the guttural sounds of his celebratory moaning as he looses his bladder. Or there is his first date with Jane, a masterpiece of visual gags (tearaway suits, full body condoms, a cheery post-Platoon screening) and  Drebin’s confession of a lost love: “-It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. – Goodyear? -No, the worst”. It is beautifully rhythmic nonsense with a killer punchline that Nielsen intones with passion and sincerity.


In 1988 the New York Times quoted David Zucker: “Mr. Nielsen’s rare gift is to get moviegoers to laugh at him even as they feel sympathetic. ‘Audiences love Leslie,’ he said. ‘Part of it is that he looks so dignified and serious, and yet he betrays such insecurity, such a fumbling quality.’ ‘I always looked like whatever I was doing, I did very well,’ Mr. Nielsen said, laughing. ‘Of course, in ‘Naked Gun’ I do nothing well, and that’s the key to Frank Drebin.’ Nielsen is a master at doing nothing well, and for my limited moneythis makes The Naked Gun one of the funniest films ever made.

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.