With his slack-jawed look of befuddlement, generous mane of quasi- distinguished white hair, and wardrobe seemingly made up entirely of Sansabelt slacks and golf shoes, Leslie Nielsen may remind you fondly of that dippy uncle whose liquor cabinet you gleefully raid at every major family gathering. But it was not always thus.
Young fans who fall in the aisles at Nielsen’s bug-eyed double takes in the wildly popular ”Naked Gun” series probably see him only as a goofball for the ages. The truth is that part of what made Nielsen’s first appearances in Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedies (the 1980 movie Airplane! and the 1982 TV series Police Squad!, from which the Naked Gun movies were derived) so hysterical to boomer audiences was Nielsen’s debunking of his own image as a ”serious” actor—a would-be leading man in the ’50s, and a ubiquitous TV presence thereafter.
The actors we remember best from the first full decade of the Cold War era were the ones who often played outsiders—James Dean, Robert Mitchum, William Holden, Kirk Douglas. But these mavericks fought for box office prominence with a breed more in keeping with the professed values of that era. Rock Hudson led the pack, followed by dozens of others, such as Nielsen, most of whose names never got big enough to become Trivial Pursuit answers. The Canadian-born Nielsen’s best-remembered role in the ’50s was in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956, MGM/UA, unrated, $19.98), in which he practically embodies the most philistine virtues of its (actual, not cinematic) time. Nielsen plays Comdr. John J. Adams (talk about your all- American names), who leads a mission to planet Altair 4, where he and his crew meet Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and the doctor’s robot, Robby, and exceptionally va-va-va-voomish and equally naive daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis). The stolid Nielsen plays Adams as an interplanetary corporate man — everything by the book, no imagination permitted — and is primarily concerned with making sure that Altaira dresses modestly so as not to distract his men, all the while scheming to nail her himself. It’s quintessential ’50s male chauvinism, and Nielsen plays it with a man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do stiffness.
Subsequent ’50s roles offered more of the same for Nielsen, albeit in less exotic settings. Tammy and the Bachelor (1957, MCA/Universal, unrated, $14.98) featured Nielsen as the second half of the title, a pilot nursed back to health after a crash by spunky hick Debbie Reynolds. He’s no hick himself; he’s the scion of Dixie aristocrats who raise their eyebrows at Reynolds’ declasse perkiness. Of course li’l Debbie wins everyone over by the end, but not before giving Nielsen plenty of opportunities to look stolidly uncomfortable.
As the vogue for his type was swept away by the counterculture, Nielsen got to try on some new personae, none of them fleshed out enough to make much of a dent in his public image. ”Dayton’s Devils” (1968, unrated, for rental only) has him masterminding a heist at an Air Force base. Of course, Nielsen’s character didn’t start off as a criminal—he was once a USAF colonel. And from this another career door opened as Nielsen went on to play the straight guy fallen from grace in any number of NBC Mystery Movie episodes and such. By the ’70s, the best film work he could get was in ensembles-of-the-ridiculous cheapies like Day of the Animals (1977, Media, PG, priced for rental), in which he, Christopher George, Richard Jaeckel, and other not-quite-luminaries fear they will end up as hors d’oeuvres for a bunch of forest creatures who are apparently a bit cheesed off about the depletion of the earth’s ozone layer (hey, I didn’t write the thing).
You name an hour-long TV drama from the ’70s and you can bet he had a guest shot on it. It was that sort of recognition that David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, the madcaps behind Airplane! (1980, Paramount, PG, $14.95), were trading on when they cast him as the doctor who gives completely useless moral support to the stewardess and civilian trying to land a plane after the crew has been struck down by food poisoning. The spectacle of him delivering lines like ”And stop calling me Shirley” with exactly the same affectless delivery with which he used to mouth Quinn Martin cliches was a kick, and the moviemakers wisely recruited a boatload of take-me-seriously ’50s hunks (Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack) to utter similar inanities. The combination of these personalities with nonstop comic invention made ”Airplane!” one of the funniest — if least consequential — comedies of our time.
Not incidentally, it gave Nielsen a second career as a comedic actor. (Anyone who wanted to cast him in a serious role after Airplane! had to be nuts — in fact, somebody did cast him in 1987’s Nuts, as the violent john Barbra Streisand kills, and audiences across the nation tittered.) He even tried his hand at producing an Airplane!-style parody: Repossessed (1990, LIVE, PG-13, priced for rental), an Exorcist takeoff starring Linda Blair herself, with Nielsen in the Father Merrin role. For a movie seemingly written and directed by sophomore-year film students, ”Repossessed” offers a number of laughs. Five. But it mainly demonstrates that Nielsen is at his best when leaving production duties to professionals.
Unfortunately, Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994, Paramount, PG-13, priced for rental) shows that the professionals are getting a little tired themselves. With the element of surprise that lifted Airplane! long gone, the creative team has to content itself with being as up-to-the-minute with its pop-culture references as it can—when the movie opened in theaters, you didn’t laugh at the ”Beavis and Butt-head” and ”Jurassic Park” jokes so much as marvel at how the writers managed to get them into the movie so quickly. And while Robert Stack acting goofy may be one thing, ”Weird” Al Yankovic and Vanna White doing the same is something wholly other. It’s laughable Leslie who gives this movie its biggest yuks, but the effect is no longer as giddily audacious as it once was. Perhaps it’s best for us that this insult is final. But it’s definitely bad news for Nielsen, who may have nowhere else to go. Forbidden Planet: A-; Tammy and the Bachelor: C; Dayton’s Devils: C-; ”Day of the Animals”: D-; Airplane!: A; ”Repossessed”: C-; Naked Gun 33 1/3: B-