It’s fair to say that if you were to look in a picture dictionary for “career of two halves” then sat next to that would be a picture of Leslie Nielsen.
Leslie Nielsen died this week. This was thirty years after he stared in the film Airplane!, probably the funniest film ever made and one splits Nielsen’s career in two.
His work before that date has barely made an impact on me. During the first half of his career his roles were along the same lines as his lead role in The Forbidden Planet, the stoic lead. It seems almost strange to see him in films that aren’t comedies. I recently watched The Poseidon Adventure where he played the Captain of the ship. He barks orders and acts as a person of authority and gravitas which was strange to say the least.
Then along came Airplane! and what was essentially the same role. He was Doctor Rumack, a doctor played with authority and gravitas. But it was the straightness with which this authority and gravitas was played that made it funny. Despite everything going on around him Nielsen was the calm eye of the hurricane.
He followed this with the role that would define him for a generation; Frank Drebin. Initially in the TV series Police Squad! which barely lasted a series, Drebin returned in The Naked Gun which cemented him as an icon in the comedy genre.
The Naked Gun is, like Airplane! before it, a work of comedy art. The outright stupidity of the film should bring it collapsing down around itself but Nielsen shoulders all of it and carries the film to greatness. He stops Drebin from becoming annoying, keeping the whole of the film in line. And the dialogue, oh the dialogue. Written down it’s superb but out of Nielsen’s mouth its pure fried gold. People talk about Spinal Tap being the most quotable film but surely it’s The Naked Gun with almost every line of Nielsen’s mouth being an absolute corker.
After that we have, essentially, that role played over and over again. Not that this was always a bad thing, I don’t have too many issues with Naked Gun 2 1/2 and 33 1/3. It’s was the roles around this, Drebin-lite characters that didn’t do anything or funnier than Nielsen did in the original Naked Gun. This isn’t a bad thing, as typecasting goes it’s not horrific and Nielsen himself seemed to have no problem with it. It felt like he was treading water and it also would have been nice to see him return to a more serious role.
His casting in the last couple of Scary Movies wasn’t ideal as his presence in these films seemed to give them a credibility that they didn’t deserve. This is the same with several of his other parody films, the law of diminishing returns was quite harsh on these and weren’t anywhere near the heights that he was capable of.
None of that really matters because in two films Nielsen secured himself film immortality. As long as civilisation is around and watches movies people will be talking about and quoting Airplane! and The Naked Gun.
As legacies go, it’s one of the best. Let’s just remember those films and forget about the others.