Most actors will know early in their career which genres work best for them. Whether it’s John Wayne and westerns or Boris Karloff and horror, these actors will usually excel in their respective genres for their entire career. Other actors may find that they can act in a particular genre, but can’t seem to achieve success doing so. In these instances, some actors will switch genres to determine a fit that works for them. In terms of changing genres, many comedic actors can sometimes find success in drama, but the opposite is rarely true. Comedy requires a different understanding of acting, including facial expressions, deadpan deliveries, and . . . timing. And yet, while the transition from drama to comedy is rare, actors like Leslie Nielsen have found success in doing so. This week’s two films highlight two of Leslie Nielsen’s best comedies.
Length: 88 minutes / 1.47 hours
If I told you that Leslie Nielsen didn’t act in a comedy until 24 years into his career, you’d likely respond with, “Surely, you can’t be serious!” And yet, this is the honest truth (and don’t call me Shirley). From films like Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Nielsen managed to develop a career as the “serious” archetype. So, when a movie like Airplane! (1980) came along, many thought the film was going to be a serious “disaster” film along the lines of The Towering Inferno (1974) or the aforementioned The Poseidon Adventure. Leslie Nielsen’s deadpan acting of comedic lines merely accentuated the silliness that is contained in this disaster parody. One would almost wonder if Nielsen could have entered comedy earlier without developing the more serious personas to play against for maximum contrast and maximum comedy.
Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) is on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago when many of the passengers start to show symptoms of food poisoning. Rumack is able to make the diagnosis because, between the options of steak or fish, he had the lasagna. Unfortunately, the flight crew all had fish, so now it’s up to flight attendant Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) to find someone who can fly the plane. As it just so happens, her former boyfriend, Ted Striker (Robert Hays), is on the plane and has the skills as a former fighter pilot to land safely. Of course, his PTSD has affected his nerves, leading to his “drinking” problem. Dr. Rumack pulls Striker aside to let him know what’s at stake here. Through a bit of coaxing and encouragement, Rumack convinces Striker to fly the plane just as they come within range of landing at Chicago.
The Naked Gun
Length: 85 minutes / 1.42 hours
After the success of Airplane!, the directors gave Leslie Nielsen a starring role in a television parody of detective shows known as Police Squad! This show eventually spun off into The Naked Gun film series, which included From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991), and 331/3: The Final Insult (1994). By the time these films were concluded, Leslie Nielsen’s association with comedy was undeniable. He would go on to act in a number of other parodies, including Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), the James Bond parody, Spy Hard (1996), as well as a number of pop culture collage parodies like Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006). Nielsen’s ability to never take himself that seriously was even exemplified after his death in 2010, with the epitaph on his gravestone being a simple fart joke: “Let ‘er rip.”
Upon returning from his vacation to Beirut, where he inadvertently foiled the plans of all of America’s enemies, Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) must exonerate the Police Squad from drug charges before Queen Elizabeth II (Jeannette Charles) arrives in Los Angeles. As the Queen’s security for the visit, any negative press on the Police Squad could be detrimental to the whole department. Meanwhile, drug lord Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalbán) had developed a plan to create a sleeper assassin to take out the Queen. In a plan reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Ludwig hopes to use a beeper to trigger his assassin. To keep the Police Squad from foiling his plans, Ludwig assigns his assistant, Jane Spencer (Priscilla Presley), to distract Lieutenant Drebin. Through Drebin’s bumbling, he manages to save the day, while also preventing his own death at Jane’s hands by proposing to her.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 laugh-filled Leslie Nielsen roles
Bacon #: 2 (Nuts / Eli Wallach -> Mystic River / Kevin Bacon)