Leslie Nielsen: Remembering a Classic Hollywood Character

A strange sound could be heard in the room. It was a “phhhhhflllllt!” in fits and starts.

Damn! Could someone have really released gas?

How uncouth. How uncool.  Especially in a high class joint like L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills.

Or did they?

Leslie Nielsen inhaled. “Somebody fart in here?” asked the actor incredulously. His nostrils flared, taking in the “smell” of the gas leak. His facial expressions then changed, reflecting utter disgust.

I, and a few other writers who had attended The Naked Gun press junket, looked at each other, then around, hoping to scope out the culprit.

Nielsen pulled a whoopee cushion out from under his arm. “Got ya!” he laughed. The white-haired actor was delighted at his childish prank.

That’s the kind of guy Leslie Nielsen was. And when I heard that he had passed away at the age of 84, it was the first thing I thought of.

To many people, Leslie Nielsen is best known as Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad, a bumbling detective whose non-sequiturs, rapid-fire dialogue and klutzy moves undermine his deadly serious demeanor. In a short-lived but much beloved TV series and three feature films from the ZAZ team (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker), Nielsen was a one-man burlesque show, a living cartoon character who was “the old guy” in on the joke.

Of course, by the time ZAZ cast him as Dr. Rumack in their sleeper hit Airplane!, he was already 54, with white hair and a full career of playing mostly serious characters behind him. (The Zuckers and Abrahams previously put him in a bit their Kentucky Fried Movie). Baby boomers remembered him as an action hero, such as the title role in the Disney series Swamp Fox (playing the same character Mel Gibson played in The Patriot), and Commander J.J. Adams of Forbidden Planet,  or for dramatic appearances in hundreds of TV shows, including Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, Peyton Place and The Untouchables.

But it was Frank Drebin that showed the world a different side of the Regina, Saskatchewan-born actor. He certainly seemed to relish the fact that, at middle age, he was able to reinvent himself in a whole new way and was able to tickle the funny bones of college-aged kids who didn’t know him from his previous roles.

Of course, Nielsen went on to take full advantage of The Naked Gun’s enthusiastic reaction, becoming the “King of Spoofs” throughout the latter part of his career. The ZAZ projects begat a whole new subgenre of comedy: the reference-filled parody that continues today. So, in fairly quick succession, Nielsen cranked out such efforts as Repossessed;  Dracula: Dead and Loving It for Mel Brooks;  Spy Hard;  Wrongfully Accused, a ribbing of The Fugitive and other thrillers; 2001: A Space Travesty;  Scary Movie 3 and 4 (for David Zucker); Superhero Movie; Stan Helsing; and the so-far-unreleased Spanish Movie.

Some were funny, some were not, but Nielsen’s stoically silly presence was always welcomed.

During that press junket in Beverly Hills for 1988’s The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, I got to interview the ZAZ team, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban and producer Robert K. Weiss.

But it’s Leslie Nielsen and his staccato-like wind breaking I’ll always remember from the trip.

Surely, I don’t jest.