Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nielsen Rated

There were two Leslie Nielsens, as it turned out. Who knew?

Depending through what prism you looked at him, Nielsen, who passed away the other day at age 84, was either a serious, steely-eyed man who played in B-movies and spoke with a hard-boiled style, or he was a rubbery-faced clown who became a caricature in his second life as the lead in the "Naked Gun" movies.

But after the "Naked Gun" series, which was spawned from his hilarious send-up of himself in the "Airplane!" movies---both franchises written, produced and directed by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers---it was impossible to take Nielsen seriously. Not that he wanted us to, and not that taking him for a clown was a bad thing.

The original "Airplane!" came out in 1980, and one of the delicious things about it was the brilliant casting of players like Nielsen, Peter Graves, Robert Stack and George Kennedy---actors who were never associated with anything remotely funny. Yet here they were, seemingly having a blast satirizing everything they'd done prior to "Airplane!"

The delivery of the lines was just like it would have been for deadly serious films like the ones "Airplane!" most aped---the "Airport" series---but the words were for play and for laughs, yet Nielsen et al. spoke them as straight as an arrow.



Nielsen was plucked by Abrahams and the Zuckers to star in the short-lived TV series, "Police Squad!," as Lt. Frank Drebin, a character that would eventually be transferred to the big screen vis a vis the "Naked Gun" films.

Nielsen's Drebin was Maxwell Smart-ish---that is, Drebin was a buffoon and incompetent, yet he always got his man. Surrounding Nielsen was always a backdrop of sight gags that barely paused throughout the entire movie.

Nielsen himself was a sight gag, when you think about it.

Leslie Nielsen displayed a flair for comedy that no one---and I mean no one---thought he possessed. Maybe not even Nielsen himself.

Nielsen parlayed his new-found role as a comedic actor in other non-"Naked Gun" projects, but he mostly played the same character, albeit in different clothing: the class clown, crazy uncle who could say juvenile words like "fart" and make you laugh in spite of yourself.

Nielsen worked as long as he could, before health issues took their toll. And there was a reason behind that, according to him.

"Doing nothing is very hard to do," he once said. "You never know when you're finished."

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