If it weren’t for David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the passing of Leslie Nielsen would have mostly been noted by fans of 1950’s sci-fi. Without ZAZ, Nielsen would be best remembered as the vanilla lead of Forbidden Planet. To be fair, Nielsen gave what the role required: a stiff resolve, and the look of the perfect American (or North American, Nielsen was a Canadian). But in terms of acting, the role didn’t require a lot of heavy lifting, and Nielsen was another in a line of handsome but bland actors who slummed in those (at the time) children’s pictures. After that, it would be probably be his role as the Captain of the ill-fated Poseidon in The Poseidon Adventure to which he was most memorable on-screen. Had it not been for his willingness to make fun of himself (and perhaps a vague similarity to Ronald Reagan), he would have continued on the road he was on for most of his career, which included guest spots on such shows as Fantasy Island, The Golden Girls, and Murder, She Wrote. Perhaps the autumn years would have been spent at cons getting horror fans to pay money for his autograph because of his brief turn in George Romero’s Creepshow. It was a career littered with special guest spots and lower-billed authority figures, the career path of many who came to close to becoming studio system stars, but didn’t have that extra oopmh.
But when Leslie Nielsen was cast in 1980’s Airplane! a second career was born, albeit one that took almost a decade to come into bloom. Nielsen was one of many older actors called on to mock their straight-faced demeanor and bland good looks in the hit comedy, and though both Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges would return to work with ZAZ, it was Nielsen who they based a show around with their dismal failure Police Squad (in Color!). Running an all too brief six episodes, Police Squad is one of those great flukes of television history, and one of the most unintentionally perfect shows ever to air. Nielsen’s Frank Drebin is an ingenious comic lead – he’s a clueless but effective police detective in the middle of a ZAZ world. The show cemented his rhythms for these roles – Nielsen was drop dead funny when he was completely oblivious. And the show wouldn’t work without such a great anchor. But even after that, it took time for Nielsen to catch on, so much so that he was cast in a relatively serious role in Barbara Streisand’s Nuts in 1987. It was when Drebin was resurrected for 1988’s Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad that he finally caught on. The film was a smash hit, and it cemented Nielsen’s comic chops (while also spawning two sequels).
Though Nielsen could be the highlight in some truly terrible comedies, he was limited by the quality of the writing. Too often he was called on to mug, which works against what made him so great – Nielsen’s comic persona is based around him not being aware that he’s saying something funny or outrageous. Unlike Bridges or Stack, or even Peter Graves, Nielsen’s lack of definition in the early part of career made him perfect as a representation of an earlier era without the baggage of well-known roles. But even if the movies were lesser, Nielsen had a joy about him even in something as flimsy as a Scary Movie 3. He knew what a gift his second career was, and even when he wasn’t funny, he could make a bad comedy that much more lively.
The legacy of his work is undeniable, as his work with ZAZ was very influential on a lot of comic writers, but specifically in Nielsen you can see the template for Stephen Colbert, and Police Squad was obviously the blueprint for shows like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Though the Naked Gun franchise has not aged as well as Airplane! or Top Secret!, the first film still has some great laughs (as do the sequels), and I’ve intentionally kept this piece from becoming a quote fest – there are just way too many great lines that Nielsen sold as well as any great comic performer. But if any work should be saluted as Nielsen’s greatest accomplishment, it should be Police Squad (in Color!). The show never lurched above minor cult status in America, but I suspect it made a larger impression in England. When I talked to Peter Serafinowicz and Robert Popper about Look Around You, Police Squad was one of their biggest reference points, and Edgar Wright also mentioned the show while noting Nielsen’s passing. If you have yet to experience it, here’s a taste: