Well, it is a sad week in Regina, and not only because the Saskatchewan Roughriders lost again in the Grey Cup.
On the evening of the Grey Cup we also got the news that Leslie Nielsen had passed away in Florida from complications from pneumonia, age 84. Nielsen, of course, hailed from Regina, his birthplace, before spending his formative years in the Canadian North.
Whenever there's news about an actor - especially a Canadian actor - passing away it always triggers a flood of memories. For most movie and TV fans remembering Nielsen's work, it should trigger a smile and a laugh, because in the latter part of his career he worked on some very funny stuff. The Naked Gun movies. Airplane! You get the idea.
What made those roles in the latter part of his long and storied acting career so memorable was the fact that the roles that really made him famous really went against the type. For much of his career Nielsen was the straight "dramatic" actor, the ultra-serious one in movies such as Forbidden Planet and numerous other MGM productions. He was also a regular in dramatic roles on TV in shows such as The Bold Ones and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He played the captain in The Poseidon Adventure. Lots of serious roles.
But he didn't become a big star until very late in life, when he landed some comedic roles that allowed him to turn his "serious" persona on its head.
Nielsen owes a lot to Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker for launching the most successful phase of his acting career. He had a relatively small role in the original Airplane! movie as the doctor onboard the flight, but it instantly became memorable as he played his ultra-serious persona to the hilt.
"Surely you can't be serious." "I am serious - and don't call me Shirley."
Abrahams and the Zuckers knew they had a potential comedic gold mine on their hands with Nielsen's performance. So they brought Nielsen back to star on TV in the comedy show Police Squad! The show basically promised to be more of the same kind of silliness we got from Airplane! While the focus of the Airplane! movies was to spoof disaster movies like Airport, Police Squad took dead aim at the police shows that had dominated TV over the years. Nielsen once again played an ultra-uptight character, Lt. Frank Drebin, to maximum comedic effect.
The show only last six episodes, but remains fondly remembered to this day for being one of the funniest shows to air on TV. The term they have for such shows is "Brilliant But Cancelled."
People didn't forget the show or Nielsen's character. That inspired the creators to bring the whole Police Squad! series back to life in movie form, with the three Naked Gun movies. Also in the cast was O.J. Simpson, whose real-life encounters with the police were unfortunately all too real.
The result was exactly the kind of success that had eluded the previous Police Squad! show on TV. The box office for those three movies led to a long and varied career for Nielsen in one "parody" movie after another, including efforts like 2001: A Space Travesty, Spy Hard, Scary Movie 3 and 4, and other movies. On this point I have to mention a personal connection. My brother actually worked on Scary Movie 3 as the "third assistant director". So, yes, he worked on the same project as Leslie Nielsen. It's a small world, is it not?
Nielsen appeared in 1997's Mr. Magoo, and also appeared in the hilarious golf instruction series Bad Golf Made Easier. He also wrote an autobiography which was totally tongue-in-cheek and full of embellishments. Granted, not all of these roles were great roles in good films, but all this activity kept Nielsen busy and in the spotlight at an age when many other actors would either be slowing down or running out of high-profile roles to do.
It's fair to say that Leslie Nielsen's appearance in Airplane! served not so much to revive his career as to relaunch it in a new and memorable direction. But he also owes a lot to his earlier, more serious dramatic roles. You might say that if he hadn't had the serious roles, his later career as a deadpan funnyman wouldn't have been so downright effective and hilarious.
It takes skill to be funny. It takes skill to be a serious actor. But oftentimes the funnyman has trouble crossing over to serious roles, and vice versa. It takes a lot of skill to be serious and funny at the same time.
All that needs to be said about Leslie Nielsen is this: he was seriously funny.