December 2, 2010

Remembering Leslie Nielsen.

I might have been the only 13-year-old boy that went to the movies specifically to see Wrongfully Accused. My brother was definitely the only 10-year-old. But, of course, we were laughing louder than anyone else in the building. Such was the power of Leslie Nielsen.

We saw it with our grandma in West Chester, Pennsylvania; I bet she didn't enjoy it at all. Honestly, there's not a lot to laugh at...unless you're a fan of the comedy stylings of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker. They're the men behind Hot Shots!, BASEketball, Mafia! and the final two installments in the Scary Movie series. And, of course, they turned Leslie Nielsen into one of the most beloved comedic actors of his generation.

It started in Airplane!, which seems dated now only because every spoof movie of the last 30 years has stolen from it. That's where Nielsen became beloved, developing a comedic persona that made him legendary for the next 15 years and at least very rich for 15 more. He provided most of the movie's really memorable quotes; I can't imagine being in an unexpecting Airplane! audience, seeing this stoic man delivering ridiculously out-of-place lines with an stone-like poker face.

It's even crazier that, before Airplane!, Nielsen was a dramatic actor. He screen-tested for Ben Hur and apparently appeared on every television show of his era, so most audiences had seen him before. That must have made it even more jarring when he dropped deadpan responses to comments like "Well, we had a choice of steak or fish," with "Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna."

Actors don't usually do that. They don't transition from straight drama to pure comedy, especially not Zucker/Abrahams comedy. But Nielsen, along with the equally memorable Lloyd Bridges in Hot Shots! and Mafia!, did just that. They took lifelong serious personas and made themselves into legendary comedic actors, icons for people of my generation that like their jokes fast, silly and surprisingly witty. They looked like normal actors, and they used it to their advantage. Maybe it was aging that gave them the freedom to do so, to realize that they could take what they've built up over 30 years of acting and use it to really make people laugh.

Nielsen is probably even more well known for his work in the Naked Gun movies, where his Lt. Frank Drebin bumbles around with OJ Simpson's Nordberg and drops lines like "Cheer up, Ed. This is not goodbye. It's just I won't ever see you again." Lots of people swear off his later work, Spy Hard and the aforementioned Wrongfully Accused, but I find them to be just as funny in their own way. The jokes are a bit stupider, the plots a bit more lazy and hackneyed, but in the end, there were still a bunch of great moments where Nielsen worked his magic. This spoof of The Fugitive's escape scene is as funny as anything in the Naked Gun movies:

And this Spy Hard scene, although horribly out-of-context, is just a little sampling of the movie's understated cleverness (for a post-Naked Gun Nielsen film, anyway). Plus, it has Robert Guillaume!

Nielsen also popped up in the very forgettable Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4, probably as a "thank you" to director David Zucker, or maybe the other way around. Regardless, it was great to see him on screen in one more prominent role, even if the movies weren't that funny and most younger people probably didn't understand who this weird white-haired man was. But if one kid in each audience took a liking to his jokes and ended up stumbling upon Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult in the process, that's all worth it right there.

Leslie Nielsen died on Sunday, November 28th at the age of 84. He taught me that being funny isn't all about mugging for laughs or belting out a big obvious punchline. It's also in delivery, in a subtle glance or brief pause, in taking basic language and situations and pushing them slightly over the line into absurdity. Like a midget at a urinal, he kept us all on our toes. He will be missed.

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