THE BACK PAGES

You think I’m joking?

His deadpan turn as cluedout cop Frank Drebin made the Naked Gun movies. And his first comedic film, Airplane!, still defines the spoof genre today. But is Leslie Nielsen actually funny?

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 1 2006
THE BACK PAGES

You think I’m joking?

His deadpan turn as cluedout cop Frank Drebin made the Naked Gun movies. And his first comedic film, Airplane!, still defines the spoof genre today. But is Leslie Nielsen actually funny?

JAIME J. WEINMAN May 1 2006

You think I’m joking?

THE BACK PAGES

His deadpan turn as cluedout cop Frank Drebin made the Naked Gun movies. And his first comedic film, Airplane!, still defines the spoof genre today. But is Leslie Nielsen actually funny?

film

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Is Leslie Nielsen funny? The creators of the CTV sitcom Robson Arms certainly think that the veteran Cana-

dian actor, who turned 80 this past February, deserves his prominence as a comedy actor. Gary Harvey and Susin Nielsen (no relation) will add Leslie Nielsen to the cast of their show when it returns for a second season this fall. Asked whether he is funny, they say (via email): “Anyone who says ‘no’ to this question is an idiot!”

If so, the idiots include a critic for the online British magazine Film Focus, who saw Nielsen in Scary Movie IV and wrote: “One wonders if it’s not now time for the old fella to retire.” Or film critic MaryAnnJohanson of www.flickfilosopher.com, who says of Nielsen: “He never has been funny.” Or Mark Bazer, a writer for the Boston Phoenix, who summed up this line of thinking several years ago when he wrote: “Leslie Nielsen is not funny.” Apparently some people think Leslie Nielsen isn’t funny.

Wherever you come down on the question of Leslie Neilsen’s comic talents, one thing is certain: Nielsen was the last person anyone expected to become a comedy star. For decades, he was a hard-working actor who appeared in feature films and hundreds of television episodes, most of them without a comedic moment. There were some unintentionally funny moments, as in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, where Nielsen (playing the romantic lead) told the scantily clad Anne Francis: “I’m in command of 18 competitively selected super-fit physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days!” But he always read such lines as though there was nothing absurd about them.

Like his Canadian contemporary, William Shatner, Nielsen cultivated a deadly serious, theatrical style of line delivery. It was a common acting style in the ’50s, when Nielsen started making a name for himself in movies. And like Shatner, he started to seem a bit oldfashioned as that style of acting fell out of favour; in the 1972 hit The Poseidon Adven-

ture, Nielsen’s performance as the captain came in for some ribbing. But the style wasn’t out of favour with writer-directors David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, who were making a movie called Airplane! They wanted Nielsen, not in spite of his serious delivery of silly lines, but because of it.

Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams wanted to parody the solemn, straight-faced B movies and TV shows they’d grown up watching. They deliberately filled the movie with people from those films and shows: unsmiling, deadly serious figures like Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges—and Leslie Nielsen. On the DVD commentary for Airplane!, the directors recall that their casting director scoffed at the choice of Nielsen to play a key role: “Leslie Nielsen’s the guy you hire the day before you start shooting.” But that was the whole point: for a spoof of B-level movies, they needed a B-level actor.

MaryAnn Johanson explains that the directors used Nielsen in much the same way that Margaret Dumont was used in the movies of the Marx Brothers: “The deadpan, oblivious square in the middle of a lot of manic chaos .’’Airplane! made Nielsen a sensation. Unlike the other veterans, who occasionally looked as if they were in on the fun, Nielsen acted like he really was in a ’50s B movie. When he replied to the cry “Surely, you can’t be serious!” with “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” he didn’t seem to get the joke. And that in itself was the joke.

The movie makers were so pleased with^ Nielsen that they gave him the star role in their TV series Police Squad!, a send-up of self-important ’70s cop shows. As the incorruptible detective Frank Drebin, Nielsen was the perfect embodiment of the wooden, humourless TV cop. He was so stolid and stiff that even the other characters seemed puzzled by his inability to see that crazy things were happening. Police Squad! only lasted six episodes, but fans remembered it so fondly—especially the way Nielsen would freeze in place at the end of episodes, in a send-up of TV freeze-frames—that it eventually inspired a series of feature films.

The way Johanson sees it, Nielsen was funny in these projects not because of anything funny he did, but because of how he

was used. “He appeared in the midst of some cinematic and TV insanity, while appearing not to notice the insanity that was going on around him. And okay, I’ll grant that there may be a particular talent in that.”

Michael Bazer agrees that it takes real talent to pretend you don’t know you’re in a comedy. “Nielsen does deadpan as well as anyone,” he says. “So, that’s obviously a comic skill, and in that sense he is not merely funny, but can be hilarious.”

But starting with 1988’s The Naked Gun, the first big-screen adaptation of Police Squad!, Nielsen’s acting style started to change a bit. Under the direction of AirplanePs David Zucker, he was still doing his deadpan act for long stretches of the movie, but some scenes were given over to slapstick and pratfalls—a type of broad comedy that Nielsen had

never tried before. In certain scenes, for the first time, it actually seemed he was trying to be funny. Not coincidentally, those weren’t among the funniest scenes in the movie.

As Nielsen traded on his new status, he made movies in which he tried to be a slapstick comedian, instead of looking serious as the slapstick went on around him. Dave Arniott, a writer for the publication PhatFree Entertainment, wrote: “Leslie never seemed to realize that what made him so funny in Airplane! was that he wasn’t actually playing funny. This meant that when he found himself dealing with less skilled writers and directors, he found it very easy to lapse into unfunny mugging and double takes.”

Most of Nielsen’s attempts at conscious, non-deadpan comedy, in spoofs like Spy Hard and Wrongfully Accused, resulted in box-office failure. Nielsen teamed up with another veteran, Mel Brooks, for Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called Nielsen’s performance “a major liability” in the film. Worst of all was Mr. Magoo, where Nielsen played a live-action version of the nearsighted cartoon character, and spent 90 minutes bumping into things. It was a long way from the style of acting that had made Nielsen so successful in

Airplane! Instead of just being Leslie Nielsen in a comedy, he was trying to be something he’d never been: Leslie Nielsen, crazy comic.

Johanson thinks that part of the problem is with the nature of comedy today: there’s no room for deadpan, and everything has to be brash and crazy, even when something

NIELSEN HAD ALWAYS BEEN THE DEADLY SERIOUS GUY. HE DIDN'T SEEM TO GET THE JOKE. AND THAT WAS THE JOKE.

subtler would be funnier. “Nielsen is now the butt of jokes,” she says, “not the immovable object around which the humour once flowed.” Though Nielsen sometimes returns to serious roles—as in a one-man stage show where he played lawyer Clarence Darrow—he still tries to present himself to the public as the crazy, slapstick-happy Leslie Nielsen they saw in parts of Naked Gun and its sequels. The creators of Robson Arms, who haven’t met Nielsen yet, have heard stories of what a funny man he is: “We hear Leslie brings a whoopee cushion to set. We hope this is true. We love nothing better than a fart joke.” But they have also heard what is confirmed by others who have worked with Nielsen, that “he is a genuinely lovely human being.” And unlike Shatner, who has also tried to be funny in recent years, Nielsen is a famous Canadian actor who actually works in Cana-

da sometimes. Recently he appeared in the Canadian comedy film Men With Brooms, and his Robson Arms gig will take advantage of his popularity with Canadian audiences. “We like to try to attract some big Canadian stars to our show,” say the creators. “It’s hard to get viewers for Canadian shows, period, so

anything we can do to attract more eyeballs is very important.” Whether or not Nielsen is a comedian, he is unquestionably an experienced actor with name recognition— which may be what a Canadian sitcom needs in its sophomore year.

Moreover, the creators make it sound as if Robson Arms will give Nielsen a chance to do something other than act wacky. In the role of an angry old man, on a show that has serious moments mixed in with comedy, the creators say he will have “a chance to do both the comedy and the tragedy of a broken man.” And because the character is in a wheelchair, there won’t be much time for pratfalls.

There are also signs that Nielsen is getting away from the attempts at wackiness and back to the deadpan style that served him so well in the ’80s, especially since he re-teamed with David Zucker on Scary Movie III and IV. Speaking of Nielsen, Zucker recently told the Washington Post: “He’s smart. He knows not to crush the scene. The advice I give is let the lines do the work. Don’t put any spin on it.” And when Nielsen doesn’t put any spin on a line, the line usually turns out to be very funny.

So, is Leslie Nielsen funny? When he tries too hard to be funny, maybe not. But sometimes an actor can be funny without trying too hard, and Nielsen may be one of them.

Even his detractors know that. Bazer, who once wrote that Nielsen was not funny, now adds: “I love the guy.” M