And don’t call me Shirley

When I heard last evening that Leslie Nielsen had died at the age of 84, I immediately thought — as I presume most people did — of the comedic roles he played during the last three decades of his acting career, beginning with Airplane! and continuing most notably with the TV series Police Squad! and the Naked Gun movies it spawned.

Often lost in that thought, however, is that Nielsen’s first comedy successes resulted from his not previously having been viewed as a comic actor. It’s a marvelous study in contrast — which is, after all, the very essence of comedy.

What made Airplane! funny was the absurdity of seeing actors whose screen images were stereotypically strait-laced — Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, George Kennedy — doing and saying outlandish things. Think about the classic scene where Graves’s airline pilot makes homosexually suggestive remarks to a young boy: “Have you ever been in the cockpit of an airplane before? Have you ever seen a grown man naked? Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Do you like movies about gladiators?” It’s shockingly funny, because at that point we mostly knew Peter Graves as the humorless secret agent Jim Phelps from Mission: Impossible. Did Graves ever utter a funny line in the entire run of that series? Did he ever even crack a smile? I don’t think so. Thus, when he makes these outrageous comments in Airplane!, it’s hilarious because, well, we didn’t know Peter Graves had that in him.

Now imagine, say, Will Ferrell in that same Peter Graves role. (Yes, I know Will Ferrell was in junior high school when Airplane! was made. Just go with me here.) It wouldn’t be as funny, because we expect outrageous comments from the mouth of Will Ferrell. The jokes would be the same, and Ferrell’s take on them might be more inherently humorous, but the impact of contrast would be lacking.

When Airplane! appeared, most people knew Leslie Nielsen — if indeed they knew him at all — as the sober-sided space captain in Forbidden Planet, or the equally somber ocean liner captain in The Poseidon Adventure, or the daring but dull Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion in the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox. He was not an actor one expected to hear tossing off deadpan one-liners like the one in the headline of this post. Nielsen’s stiff-upper-lipped persona (as well as a previously untapped gift of timing) made him the perfect contrast for humor — a contrast he milked to great financial reward for the next 30 years.

Unfortunately — at least in my view — Nielsen didn’t know when to quit. In the aftermath of his first Naked Gun bonanza, he cranked out more than a dozen execrable films showcasing his newfound penchant for deadpan comedy, each of which proved more rancid than its predecessor. It’s one thing to find a fresh horse to ride; it’s entirely another to keep beating that horse long after it’s expired. Had Nielsen contented himself with the two movies that made his reputation, plus the TV series that inspired the second of those two movies, he’d be remembered as an unqualified comic genius. As it is, our fond memories of those noteworthy roles are muted by the likes of Repossessed, 2001: A Space Travesty, and Scary Movies 3 and 4.

If you like science fiction, and have never seen Forbidden Planet, you owe it to yourself to check it out on cable (it turns up periodically on the classic movie channels) or DVD. It’s one of the very few films from the bug-eyed monster era of sci-fi flicks that still holds up well today. (It’s more or less a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in space opera dress.) Nielsen is effective in stolid action hero mode, Walter Pidgeon gnaws scenery as a brilliant but mad scientist, and Anne Francis — later the star of TV’s first female-lead detective series, Honey West — fills out a miniskirted space dress with aplomb.

Thanks for the good times, Mr. Nielsen. And remember… when you’re offered a choice between steak and fish for dinner, always choose the lasagna.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Celebritiana, Cinemania, Dead People Got No Reason to Live, Disney, Ripped From the Headlines, Teleholics Anonymous

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