First of all, we should note that Leslie Nielsen was a popular and versatile actor who performed in over 100 movies and even more television shows, in both dramatic and comedic roles. He was certainly more than a “one-hit wonder” as Lt. Frank Drebin from both the TV series, Police Squad, and the “Naked Gun” films that came about as a spin-off of that series.
As a matter of fact, up until he appeared in the successful film, Airplane, Nielsen had done very little in the way of comedy. Short of a leading role opposite Debbie Reynolds at the start of his career in a light comedy titled Tammy and the Bachelor, Nielsen had done only serious roles on the screen.
As a younger actor, the Canadian-born Nielsen had what Hollywood considered to be “leading-man” looks, so they liked him for the more serious material they sought to present. Of course, good looks alone will not carry you far in show business, particularly if you are a man. You must be able to act. Fortunately for Nielsen and the audiences who saw him, he was never deficient in that area.
It was only after the pepper turned to salt atop his head, that producers began to examine his possibilities for comedies. When Nielsen made Airplane in 1980, he provided the filmmakers with the very thing any successful comedy-be it film, TV or the stage-desperately needs to be successful: a superb straight-man.
Some of the people we regard among the great comedians of modern times, such as Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason, were essentially straight men who set themselves up as foils for other peoples’ jokes. Go back, if you can, and look at these comedians’ television work, and you will be able to see for yourself.
Leslie Nielsen, first in his role as Dr. Rumack in the 1980 film, then as Lt. Frank Drebin, did Gleason and Benny one better as a straight-man. While those two would show they were painfully aware they had been scorched in a comedic moment, Nielsen’s characters remained absolutely oblivious to the gag, whether it was verbal or circumstantial. It turned out to be a formula, superbly executed by the actor, that worked even better than the more traditional foil’s role.
If the casting of Leslie Nielsen in a comedy was somewhat daring in 1980, making the movie, “Naked Gun” (Actually titled, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!”), in 1988 was nothing short of audacious. The creators of the TV comedy Police Squad put together a smart and very funny series in 1982. ABC gave it six episodes, took a look at its less-than-blockbuster ratings and-Surprise, surprise!-pulled the show from its lineup. Spinning off a TV success into a movie is one thing, but spinning off a failure is quite another.
Fortunately for Nielsen and for the movie-going public, the three “Naked Gun” films did well enough to have a three-picture deal. To be sure, they did not do Harry Potter well, but well enough.
Box office aside, they were very funny and sometimes hilarious. There may not yet have been filmed a sequence as amazing as the climax to the third film, which takes place at the Academy Award ceremony. And, more than anything else, it was Leslie Nielsen, in his deadpan performance as Lt. Drebin, who put those films over the top.
Lesile Nielsen died peacefully in his sleep from complications of pneumonia on November 28, 2010.
The mentioned films