Monday, November 29, 2010

Nice Beaver

Leslie Nielsen


Roger Ebert called him the "Olivier of spoofs," and there isn't anyone out there who would disagree. Check out the internet today; it seems everybody has a favorite line from one of his parody films, uttered with complete sincerity in Nielsen's signature deadpan.

He escaped an abusive childhood in Canada by joining the WWII effort, though he was too young to be deployed. After studying at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto (yes, there is such a place), he headed to New York on a scholarship at The Neighborhood Playhouse. He worked in summer stock and debuted on Broadway in 1952's Seagulls Over Sorrento, but it was on screen that he began to be well-known. He was a regular on the live episodics of 50s television, and had over 50 such credits in one year alone. He was a natural leading man type, with strong good looks and a height over 6 feet. His film debut was in the regrettable The Vagabond King (Leslie later nicknamed it "The Vagabond Turkey"), but the performance lead to a contract with MGM, and a starring role in the sci fi classic Forbidden Planet. He played opposite Debbie Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor, which proved he was a viable leading man for both action films and romances. But after several years on contract (and after losing the role of Messala in Ben Hur to Stephen Boyd), he became a free agent. His leading performance in the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox is still well-regarded, and throughout the 60s and 70s, he appeared regularly on the dramatic series of the day.

He did not have much luck headlining his own series; during the decade of the 60s, he starred in 3 programs which were not hits. One of those, Bracken's World, is one of my guilty favorites (I wrote about it when its costar Peter Haskell died). Nielsen joined the show in its second season, in an effort to stall sliding ratings, but he was unable to save the program and appeared in only 13 episodes before it was cancelled. Shortly afterward, he appeared in the potboiler The Poseidon Adventure, playing the captain who is bullied into sailing a cruise ship without enough ballast. The logical thing happened of course: a wave flipped the boat upside down, and a new film genre was born: the all-star disaster flick.

Nielsen's career took the turn for which we are all eternally grateful in 1980, when he was one of a group of serious actors cast in Airplane!. This parody film is included in the AFI Top Ten Comedies of all time, and Leslie's "Don't call me Shirley"is one of the top 100 movie quotes, again as chosen by the American Film Institute. Airplane! was featured on the Dance Party a while back, and I wrote a bit about the film at that time, go here if you are interested.

The success of Airplane! lead its creators to chose Nielsen to play the lead in their TV series Police Squad in 1982. The show was (and still is) a scream, but required the audience to pay attention to get all the humor. ABC shifted the series around a couple of times before cancelling it after only 6 episodes were produced. (In each of those episodes, the earnest narrator intones the name of tonight's "Special Guest Star." Immediately following, that guest star would be gruesomely murdered and vanish from the episode.) The critics loved Police Squad, and the creators of The Simpsons are sure it would have been a smash had it been produced 20 years later. As it was, though Nielsen received an Emmy nomination for his performance (he lost the award to Alan Alda in MASH), the show was considered one of the big flops of the year.

But Police Squad provided Leslie with a new career as a film farceur. His parody film credits include three Naked Gun movies, which were in fact continuations of his TV series, as well as spoofs of The Exorcist, 2001, Dracula, and The Fugitive. He played President Harris in Scary Movie 3 and 4, and Scary Movie 5, with Nielsen again reprising his role, awaits release. He even wrote a parody autobiography, "The Naked Truth," portraying himself as an Oscar winning actor who had slept with Elizabeth Taylor. He is also known for a series of comic instructional videos called the "Bad Golf" series.

Leslie Nielsen suffered hearing loss at an early age, and was legally deaf throughout his career; he depended on hearing aids, and was an activist for the Better Hearing Institute. In recent years, he returned to the stage, touring the country in a one-man show about Clarence Darrow. He died over the weekend from pneumonia at the age of 84.