29 November 2010

Don't call him Shirley

Many of you may already be aware that Leslie Nielsen died yesterday. Having had some impact on my enculturation as a kid and the development of my sense of humor, I thought it appropriate to write a few paragraphs on the man and his career.

Nielsen did some great work in the field of comedic film, but like any actor he also performed in some really lousy movies. This may have been unavoidable in the last couple of decades, having fallen in as a regular in the Zucker Brothers' films (once a great parody team, now factory engineers of vapid no-brain spoofs). What I'd like to do here in this post is talk about three great works that Leslie Nielsen has left us to admire, lest anyone be tempted to remember him for his role in Superhero Movie. Shudder.

Airplane! (1980) I probably don't need to trump this or worry that it will be forgotten, but I had to mention it first because it is by far my favorite work that Nielsen was involved in. It was also his first major comedic role, setting the stage for the career he'd be known for. My mom recorded this off of television when I was 9 or 10 and my developing sense of humor encountered it at just the right time. I loved the movie as a whole, but to me Nielsen stole the show with his deadpan performance as Dr. Rumack. "Captain, how soon can you land?" "I can't tell." "You can tell me--I'm a doctor."

Police Squad! (1982) Few today remember this short-lived television show with much laud (it got canceled after six episodes), but it was a hilarious work of comedic genius. All the one-liner rapidity and comedic timing of Airplane!, wrapped up in a 30-minute television show. It is renowned in some circles as one of the few shows on TV never to have jumped the shark. One of my favorite gags on the show was the "freeze frame" at the end over which they ran the credits. Rather than broadcasting a still, the actors all just froze in place, sometimes in the middle of pouring liquid (which proceeded to overfill the cup and run everywhere), sometimes in the middle of booking a criminal (who looked around confusedly for a moment before slowly slipping away from the frozen cops and running off).

Police Squad! also laid the foundation for the much better known film The Naked Gun. Not many people pay attention to that movie's subtitle: From the Files of Police Squad! Personally, I think the series was funnier overall than the movie, not to mention a bit cleaner. But then you don't get to watch O.J. Simpson... Oh wait. Maybe that's a good thing.

Forbidden Planet
This was Nielsen's premiere role in film--and a lead role at that! Don't watch this movie expecting the deadpan, wise-cracking Leslie Nielsen you've come to know. He's completely straight-arrow and no-nonsense in this film, the captain of a starship sent from earth to a distant planet to investigate the disappearance of an entire colony. He plays opposite the formidable Walter Pigeon, working off a script that was inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest. Forbidden Planet was one of those early sci-fi films that set the standard for all other sci-fi films to follow. It's also notable as the premiere performance for Robby the Robot, an iconic cinematic automaton who continued to appear in science fiction spots for the next five decades. In the movie's titles, Robby is credited as "himself." And Nielsen got to star alongside him.

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