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Leslie Nielsen, 1926 - 2010

David Hudson

To follow up on the clip from George Romero's Creepshow that Danny posted last night, here's a sampling of what's being said about Leslie Nielsen, who's died at the age of 84.

"Mr Nielsen, a tall man with a matinee-idol profile, was often cast as an earnest hero at the beginning of his film career, in the 1950s," writes Anita Gates in the New York Times. "His best-known roles included the stalwart spaceship captain in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956), the wealthy, available Southern aristocrat in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) and an ocean liner captain faced with disaster in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). In the 1960s and 70s, as his hair turned white and he became an even more distinguished figure, Mr Nielsen played serious military men, government leaders and even a mob boss, appearing in crime dramas, westerns and the occasional horror movie. Then, in the low-budget, big-money-making 1980 disaster-movie parody Airplane! he was cast as a clueless doctor on board a possibly doomed jetliner. Critics and audiences alike praised his deadpan comic delivery, and his career was reborn."

Keith Thursby picks it up from there in the Los Angeles Times: "Producers-directors-writers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker hired Nielsen and other veteran actors Robert Stack, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges, all perfectly cast to spoof their own heroic and very serious images. 'I will be forever grateful to them,' Nielsen told The Times in 1991. 'It is just an amazing roll of the dice. I am so lucky to be a representative of their humor.' Nielsen then was cast in Police Squad!, which aimed to do to cop shows what Airplane! did to disaster movies. It lasted all of six episodes on ABC, but Nielsen moved on as [Frank] Drebin to the 1988 movie The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, with George Kennedy, OJ Simpson and Priscilla Presley among his co-stars. Its success led to two sequels. 'Leslie has the idea to play it maybe not straight but deadly serious,' David Zucker told the LA Daily News in 1994. 'You can take any one performance and just transfer it from a comedy to a drama. There's just no difference — that's what he can do.'"

"Though everyone loves Airplane! and The Naked Gun series, not everyone appreciates Nielsen's gifts," argues Matt Singer at IFC.com. "He's been perennially dismissed as the 'dumb guy' in those 'dumb movies,' as if his work was almost anthropological in nature. But look at all the skills he possessed. He could deliver the silliest dialogue seriously and the most serious dialogue with a wicked comedic edge. He was an amazing physical comedian. He was believably tough in an onscreen fight. And he gave a double take like nobody else in the business."

"By all accounts he was also a stunningly gracious man (he was Canadian, after all) and a great guy to talk movies with," writes Scott Weinberg at Cinematical. Edward Copeland recalls a couple of dozen roles, then adds, "I never did hear when he started carrying that fabled whoopee cushion around with him at all times."

Glenn Kenny: "To me the funniest thing about Leslie Nielsen's career was that even after definitively sending up his stolid screen persona in [Airplane!], and ostensibly ensuring that he'd never be taken seriously as a straight thespian again, he was nevertheless cast as the psycho john who gets offed by La Streisand in the risible Nuts, and apparently played the role with such conviction that he managed to genuinely scare the crap out of the leading lady on set. Weird."

Updates: Dave Itzkoff has a bit of online viewing at the NYT: "Mention Mr Nielsen to five people and see if four of them do not immediately reply, 'Enrico Pallazzo!,' the fictional opera star that Frank Drebin is attempting to impersonate when he so memorably massacres 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in the first Naked Gun film. (That we could only find a version of this clip in which the spoken dialogue has been overdubbed in Italian seems somehow fitting.)"


At NPR, Marc Hirsh recalls Nielsen's opening monologue the night he hosted Saturday Night Live back in 1989. Nielsen explained to the audience that he "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?'"

"[T]he greatness of the Naked Gun films also lies in the character Nielsen created," argues Isaac Chotiner, blogging for the New Republic. "Lt Frank Drebin is more than a buffoon (although he is definitely an idiot) — he's also a  morally upstanding, and extremely likeable figure who is compelling enough to make the films better than they otherwise would be."

Ronald Bergan: "Unfortunately, Nielsen's comic persona didn't stretch very far beyond Drebin, although he was better than his material in Repossessed (1990), a parody of The Exorcist; as the suave count in Mel Brooks's Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995); and as agent WD-40 in Spy Hard (1996). However, he hardly raised a smile in the misconceived Mr Magoo (1997) or the horror spoofs Scary Movie 3 (2003) and 4 (2006), although Nielsen's appearances as an even dimmer version of President George W Bush, at one stage appearing in the nude, slightly redeemed them. In contrast, he successfully toured the US in a one-man show as the great American lawyer Clarence Darrow, proving that, surely, Nielsen could be taken seriously."

Also in the Guardian, Catherine Shoard comments on a pretty robust collection of clips.

The L's Mark Asch: "There is much to decry about the careers of Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker — chiefly their role in ensuring that parody has surpassed satire as a mode of American humor, which implies some ugly things about our national sense of complacency and self-congratulations — but at their best, which is to say in their stuff with Nielsen, their work had a quick, compulsive taste for absurdity at its most, well, primal. Watching stuff like this as a grown-up is basically a matter of figuring out how hard, and for how long, you're willing to keep up the act of being a reasonably sophisticated adult. It's not funny, it's not funny, it's not funny, and that's why it's so much funnier than it has any right to be."

"He always seemed to be having a blast with his late-career renaissance and kept gamely plugging away in that same spoof genre right up until last year's Stan Helsing and Spanish Movie," writes Sean O'Neal at the AV Club. "It's not getting caught in the gears of a combine or having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, but goofing around is also a pretty good way for a man to die."

"Of all the films he starred in, the one that has most often been the subject of scholarly studies was the hugely influential science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, a film in which Nielsen played a sincerely serious role." At Film Studies for Free, Catherine Grant gathers links to a baker's dozen of these essays.

"When I caught up with him with in 1995, during a New York junket for Dracula: Dead and Loving It," recalls Joe Leydon, "he was gleefully pranking each journalist who ventured into his hotel suite with a hand-held device that emitted a loud burst of... well, what sounded an awful lot like an industrial-strength fart. Yes, you guessed it: He caught me completely unawares as soon as I sat down. And can't remember who laughed louder or longer, me or Leslie Nielsen."

"The affection moviegoers feel for this man is intense," writes the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips. "I had the pleasure of interviewing Nielsen in September 2008 out at the Hollywood Blvd Cinema in Woodridge, prior to a Naked Gun screening. Under his breath, just before we went on, he warned me that he might lose his way during an anecdote or two. I should just keep going, he said, and eventually he'd rejoin the train of thought. It went well; no blips or hiccups and a lot of laughs. The audience relished him. The character of Frank Drebin — more of an attitude than a character, a deadpan, tough-guy cartoon — might've worked with someone else in the role. But who? Who better? No one."

"When I interviewed the Airplane! co-directors for a 30th anniversary piece this past summer," recalls Matt Zoller Seitz in Salon, "they said the film's success was based almost entirely on casting a spoof with actors known for playing things straight — Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Beaver's mom Barbara Billingsley — and telling them to behave as if they were in a nail-biting drama. Some of the cast took a while to get into the ZAZ groove; Nielsen was in it from Day One."

"[H]e often spoke of his second career in the tones of a man who couldn't believe his good fortune," blogs the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "In a sense, Nielsen was right to be dumbfounded. He didn't change, everything else did — the movies and the culture and the audiences who looked at this stalwart, white-haired gentleman and suddenly saw one of the most hilarious guys around."


For the "Filmmaker" monologue at around 4:22.

Updates, 11/30: "At our first meeting," recalls David Zucker in the Hollywood Reporter, "he mentioned proudly that he had done an episode of M*A*S*H. We assured him we wouldn't count this brief comedy experience against him. But when he read the Airplane! script, he 'got' its unconventional nature and offbeat style. We heard later that he told his agent, 'Take whatever they offer; I'd pay them to do this.'"

Frank Drebin "didn't seem that different (at least at first glance) from, say, Karl Malden in The Streets of San Francisco," writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. "However, whereas Malden and his ilk were crumpled, downbeaten figures, Nielsen was almost insanely cheerful.... Take lines like these: 'This is Frank Drebin, Police Squad. Throw down your guns and come on out with your hands up. Or come on out, then throw down your guns, whichever way you wanna do it. Just remember the two key elements here: one, guns to be thrown down; two, come on out!' Other actors would have mugged them up. Nielsen adopted a mock sobriety that made him all the funnier."

Two more remembrances in the Guardian. Hadley Freeman: "Personally, my favourite of Nielsen's roles was as Lucas, Blanche's uncle and Dorothy's boyfriend on The Golden Girls, providing the world with the blessed opportunity of watching Nielsen and the equally wonderful Bea Arthur share not only the screen but also several embraces." And for comedian Chris Addison, Nielsen's films "have given me so very much more pleasure than it's reasonable to expect to be given by another human being you've never met."

"The usual line is that Nielsen was a rather bland handsome leading man until ZAZ tapped his natural talent for deadpan," writes R Emmet Sweeney for TCM. "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."

Ryan Gilbey in the New Statesman: "Zucker was right to feel that it was in his own work... that Nielsen was at his best. 'Leslie became a kind of shorthand,' he said. 'A lot of people cast him, including Mel [Brooks]. I don't know. It's been less effective, I think. But Leslie loves to play golf and he also likes to work. He doesn't mean any harm by it, he's a great guy. He deserves it.'"

Viewing (6'57"). Joe Leydon posts Keith Olbermann's farewell to Nielsen.

Update, 12/1: AO Scott in the New York Times: "What made the old cop shows and disaster movies so susceptible to mockery — to the extent that they could survive in the pop-cultural bloodstream only when dosed with irony — was that their clean-cut, strong-featured heroes represented the last vestiges of a squareness that had been thoroughly routed by the youth culture of the 60s. Pilots, doctors, police detectives, ship captain: these were the kind patriarchal figures whose authority was almost completely undone, but who were still in some way necessary.... Looking back, it is easy to see that the times required someone like Leslie Nielsen."

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