Heroism in American movies always lives a whisker away from self-parody, and Leslie Nielsen was blessed with the skill and the opportunity to play in the cracks between the two. Would the actor, who died Sunday at 84, have been as mindblowingly funny in 1980's "Airplane!" if his Dr. Rumack had camped it up and played for laughs? Of course not: The genius of the performance is that it's the exact same one Nielsen had given eight years earlier as the ship's captain in "The Poseidon Adventure" -- same stoic deadpan, same wooden professionalism, same earnest cluelessness. The only differences were the surrounding madness and the star's knack for timing,
That last, it turned out, was the game-changer. In "Poseidon," Nielsen had had to work with lines like "The Greek God Poseidon. God of storms, tempests, earthquakes and other miscellaneous natural disasters. Quite an ill-tempered fellow." He delivered them stolidly and without spin, knowing he was but a cog in the movie's popcorn wave-machine. In "Airplane!," by contrast, he famously responded to another character saying "Surely you can't be serious" with "I am serious... and don't call me Shirley," and if the joke is a groaner from the dim days of vaudeville, the pause with which the star set it up and then sent it home took the laugh to an entirely new level. With that pause, Nielsen commented on the gorgeous dumbness of the joke itself and the dull, workmanlike nobility of the persona he had established over 30 years of movies and TV. There was self-awareness in that pause, and it forced us to look at Leslie Nielsen in an entirely fresh light -- as a master satirist of his own cliche.
There were other slabs of aging studio beef in "Airplane!," and they all had a fine time: Lloyd Bridges sniffing glue, Peter Graves asking a little kid if he'd ever seen a grown man naked. The late Barbara Billingsley -- Beaver's mom! -- resuscitated her career with the single line, "Excuse me? I speak jive." But none of them leapt on the chance the movie offered them the way Nielsen did, to not only become more than a Hollywood found object but to build an entire second career riffing on the delicious absurdities of playing a found object.
So the "Naked Gun" franchise, on TV in the original six-episode "Police Squad!" and then in three big-screen spin-offs, allowed Nielsen to take self-parody to greater heights, sometimes with overplayed slapstick but just as often with a sly stentorian idiocy that made all the actors who had to play it straight look like ... bigger idiots. Nielsen would skewer "Dragnet" by setting up scenes with an imitation of Jack Webb's droning, by-the-book narration, and only the blissful illogic gave the game away: "I'd just come from the stockyards. We'd gotten reports of hundreds of cows that had been senselessly slaughtered in the area, but I couldn't find any evidence. I stopped off for a hamburger and checked in with headquarters."
What a blessed relief this must have been for a funny man who by dint of the cultural era he rose through and his own unremarkable handsomeness had been forced into one jut-jawed hero role after another. "Forbidden Planet" (1956), Nielsen's second movie, is a classic of 1950s sci-fi -- it comes off as a merry mash-up of "The Tempest" and "Lost in Space" -- but the star, playing the doughty spaceship captain, is the one schmoe not allowed to dip into camp or comedy. He's like James T. Kirk without the edge, but it was 1956, and sci-fi space jockeys weren't allowed to have an edge. Nielsen prospered in westerns, melodramas, romances, and an awful lot of TV -- he first came to my kiddie attention as Colonel Frances Marion in Disney's mid-1960s Revolutionary War series "Swamp Fox". But he couldn't do comedy because there was no space in the culture for a conventional-looking leading man who made fun of himself. (That had to wait until irony went mainstream; Adam West in TV's "Batman" arguably pioneered the approach Nielsen would take as his own, but he was ahead of the curve and imprisoned in the role.)
Yet Nielsen ached to be as funny onscreen as he was off it: He was apparently the wild card on the "Airplane!" set, employing a handheld fart machine to keep the rest of the cast on their toes. At the same time, he often spoke of his second career in the tones of a man who couldn't believe his good fortune. 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.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
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