Thursday, November 28, 2013

Don't Call Me Shirley: A Tribute to Leslie Nielsen

Growing up, one of my favorite actors and comedians was always Leslie Nielsen. He always had a funny line or silly expression, his delivery was always crisp and his timing perfect. He was the consummate funny man, the perfect buffoon. Funnily enough, many fans of his probably aren't even aware that he didn't start out as a comedian, in fact that he spent a good majority of his acting career as a more serious, dramatic actor. But aside from loving his work, the one thing that as irony would have it, will now connect the two of us for all of time, is the fact that he passed away on my birthday, November 28th.

Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, on February 11th, 1926, Leslie William Nielsen was nearly thirty years old when he first started his film acting career (starting in television in 1953). His first major film role, in fact his first leading role (and second on-screen movie credit) was in the 1956 science fiction masterpiece "The Forbidden Planet". It was more than likely that film that I first saw him in as a child, played at some point on late night television, scaring the crap out of me with it's invisible "Id" monster, and fascinating me with the ever-awesome "Robbie the Robot". His role in that film was central in inspiring the role of future space captains in sci-fi series such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, and quite frankly, if I do say so myself, his acting was top notch.


But of course, people who are only familiar with Mr. Nielsen from his comedy films that would come decades later, would most likely be shocked to not only see him without his trademark gray/white hair, but acting in a totally serious role as well. In fact, as stated before, much of his career was spent as a serious actor. From the mid-50s clear through the 1970s, he starred or co-starred in mostly serious fare. One notable exception, was playing a "straightman" astronaut to Don Knotts' buffoon character in 1967's "The Reluctant Astronaut" (a rather good movie I must say). But the difference here, compared to his later work in comedy, is that he is not the funny man in the picture, he is the serious, hansom, heroic type whom Don Knotts' clumsy, shy, goofball type aspires to be. He actually spent quite a lot of time, especially in the 60s, playing in crime dramas and thriller type films, as well as the odd western and other such fare. It wasn't until 1980, after working in film and television for 25 years, that you might say he "finally found his calling", in a small but eternally memorable side-role in a little movie called "Airplane".

"I just want to tell the both of you good luck, we're all counting on you."

Co-directed by Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, "Airplane" came out of nowhere as a spoof on late 1970s airplane disaster movies, and went on to become a smash hit. It's important to note Abrahams and the Zuckers, who also co-wrote the film, as well as the specific brand of comedy they fostered, a combination of sight gags and snappy dialogue that you really have to pay attention to or else you'll miss it, reminiscent in some ways of classic Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. Nielsen's somewhat minor role as airplane passenger "Dr. Rumack", was his first real turn at comedy on-screen. And he really hit it out of the park, becoming the most memorable character in a film filled with a great and funny ensemble cast. He was so memorable and successful in the part, in fact, that Abrahams and Zucker were inspired to create a television show concept specifically for him and his dead-pan style.

Materializing in 1982, "Police Squad" was a delightfully witty and goofy parody of series "procedural" police dramas like "Dragnet", that sadly only lasted six episodes before being prematurely cancelled. It seemed that it was just too far ahead of it's time, with no laugh track, and their usual brand of sight gags and funny wordplay. Again, it was the kind of thing you actually had to pay attention to to "get" and laugh at, and it seemed that the average home television audience didn't have the attention span to do that. But thankfully, it inspired the creators to bring the concept back six years later, this time back to the theater audience that had so appreciated "Airplane", in the form of 1988's "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad".

"Detective Frank Drebin......Police Squad"

In between, Nielsen started gradually building his comedy resume. Such as in a little known 1983 sci-fi comedy called "The Creature Wasn't Nice" (aka "Spaceship"), a hilarious space farce that I will absolutely be giving it's own article in due time. But it wasn't until '88 with the release of "The Naked Gun" that he really hit it big as a new Hollywood icon of comedy. And the irony in that, is the fact that by that time, when he finally became a big star in his own right, recognized the world over, he was 62 years old. But, as the saying goes, "better late than never". Naked Gun was such a hit that it spawned two more sequels, both equally hilarious, in 1991 and 1994. The 90s became, in a way, the decade of Leslie Nielsen, as he had a string of spoof comedies, such as the 1990 "The Exorcist" parody "Repossessed", the '96 James Bond/Mission Impossible spoof "Spy Hard", and the '98 send-up of the smash hit "The Fugitive", aptly titled "Wrongfully Accused". He also had a turn as the iconic cartoon character in a live action production of Mr. Magoo, as well as a hilarious villainous role as "Colonel Chi" in the 1993 action-comedy "Surf Ninjas".

"Good Evening!"

One of his favorite roles of mine, saw him having the honor of featuring in the last directorial effort of another of my film heroes, Mel Brooks, in 1995's "Dracula: Dead and Loving It". While not a huge success at the box office, nor loved by critics (what do they know anyway?), this film still went on to become a cult classic to many fans, and honestly, it's one of the funniest works of either man. Just to have these two icons of comedy work together on a project was a big deal, and they didn't disappoint as far as any of their true fans are concerned. The film itself was mostly a direct parody of the '92 Francis Ford Coppola directed "Dracula" adaptation, but Nielsen's performance is pure Bela Lugosi, and he channels it well. Mel Brooks himself also played the key role of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, vampire hunter, and so audiences get treated to not only Brooks' comedic writing and direction, but we get an on-screen rivalry between Brooks and Nielsen as well.

Mr. Nielsen stayed active with both television and film roles right up until the end, including hilarious side-roles in successful spoof comedies "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4" (which saw him re-team with David Zucker and Jim Abrahams), as well as 2008's "Superhero Movie". Unfortunately, on November 28th, 2010, just as I had turned 29 years old, Leslie Nielsen passed away in his sleep from complications due to pneumonia, at the age of 84. As a final bit of humor, he chose to have the phrase "Let 'Er Rip" put on his headstone, but as odd as it may seem, I felt that somehow, at least to me personally, his final "joke" if you will, had been dying on my birthday. Not really funny, of course, but certainly strange, and while it really sucked to have someone I loved and respected as an artist die on the day I was born, since then, I always think of him around this time of year, and of course, when I think of him, I smile.

He was a great man who gave us a lot of laughs, and more importantly, he genuinely seemed to love what he did, right until the end of his days. And I guess, in the end, there isn't much more you can ask for than that.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Welcome Retro Revolutionaries! Feel free to leave your own thoughts or feedback on these fantastic retro memories!