Screenshot from Airplane!, which transformed him from a dramatic actor into a comedic actor. by Kevin
If there is one actor who made me smile all throughout my childhood, well, it was Robin Williams. And, if there was a second actor who I was able to watch in almost anything --- and would force myself to watch in anything, even the worst of the worst crap that I thought needed to go straight to video and then straight into the garbage because it was a pathetic excuse for a movie---that actor was Leslie Nielsen.
I'll never forget going to a Hollywood Video store with my father one Friday night. I was probably about 10 years old and had developed a huge love for comedy movies especially the classic films of the 1980s---films with Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and others, many of them with histories appearing on Saturday Night Live.
My dad gave me a suggestion, Airplane! , and since it was "PG" it was something I could bring home without upsetting my mother. I put it in and laughed hysterically. The film quickly became a favorite that I would watch over and over again. It had some great dirty humor that I grew to appreciate more and more as I got older. Indeed, it was and still is the perfect comedy movie. And the style of comedy in the film was the perfect style for Nielsen.
Those who are fans of the film remember these golden nuggets of dialogue:
Airplane! was the quintessential spoof movie, one of my favorite brands of movie to look for in video stores and to watch in theaters (although it's been quite some time since a good spoof has been produced).
Nielsen, of course, went on to appear in Police Squad! , which developed into the classic Naked Gun movies. The Naked Gun owned up to the fact that Nielsen stole every moment of Airplane! . It was Nielsen's film and one with a performance he would be asked to replicate in countless movies until his death on November 28, 2010.
A few nuggets from the Naked Gun movies:
His uncanny narration allowed for beautiful setups for laugh. He was a natural when it came to playing the the straight-faced fool.
Directors like The Zuckers knew exactly how to give him a shining role. People like Mel Brooks could recognize the genius of what Nielsen did in film, no matter how low-brow it seemed. But, future writers struggled to reproduce the success Nielsen had in his first outings.
Films like Spy Hard, Wrongfully Accused, Scary Movie 3, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It were each good vehicles for Nielsen and were somewhat enjoyable but the films were lacking, which led to a waste of talent.
It's too bad that the last film Nielsen did was Stan Helsing , a film that proves writers over the past decade have been complicit in killing off or cheapening the art of the spoof movie. For now, it is always blatantly obvious in these films, which attempt to lampoon other films, that the studios are just churning out comedic schlock to make a quick buck and with characters who think if they say they are "Iron Man" they have now successfully spoofed Iron Man. They drop a cow on Iron Man for a cheap laugh and move on to the next truly lower-than-low-brow scene to give the next character to be "spoofed" a cameo appearance.
The art of the spoof was something Nielsen understood and could bring out through his performances. He knew you couldn't make it outright obvious that you knew you were spoofing or satirizing a film. Airplane! doesn't work because the actors appear to know what they are doing. It works because the actors are most certainly lost in the genre that they are sending up. In other words, you write a good film and then you replace serious dialogue with jokes, puns and quips.
I and others will always have Leslie Nielsen's movies to put on for a good laugh. They were films to watch with friends, to quote with one another and, for me as a film student, they were films which inspired scenes in student short films I wrote and produced. In fact, I think it's time for another viewing of The Naked Gun.