If you were a very young American male in the early 1990s, there’s a good chance that, for a brief time, no actor in the world seemed quite as talented as Leslie Nielsen. To those of us who discovered his work in the lower grades, Nielsen wasn’t just the star of Airplane! and The Naked Gun —movies that now appear, in their contrapuntal slapstick and entry-level verbal humor, expertly keyed to the attentions of an 8-year-old on Friday night. He was a comic aesthetic unto himself, the clown with the evening-news purr and Great Society hair who seemed to stand for every measure of adult sophistication within reach (until he didn’t). Nielsen’s death this past weekend, at the frail age of 84, came as a shock. In many of our minds, he was frozen in time, still dangling acrobatically over the void by the grace of a large, concrete member .
What’s most surprising today is not how many gags from Nielsen’s Zucker-brothers era hold up (answer: more than one might think!). It’s how incredibly short-lived his great run of success was. Nielsen acted constantly and prolifically on-screen for 60 years; yet he is known and eulogized today almost exclusively for work he did from 1980, when Airplane! came out, to 1991 and the release of The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear . His rise during this period coincided with a shift in the aesthetics of the American screen: a moment when popular entertainment began to be popularly ironized. His brilliance in the ‘80s was to channel the self-serious era of TV in which he’d formed his style—and then to step far enough away to use it as a comic tool.
This was not his ambition. Nielsen’s on-screen presence seems so soaked-through with deadpan parody today that it is almost impossible to imagine him playing for dramatic gravitas. Yet for roughly three decades, he did precisely that. Nielsen, a Canadian, came to the United States to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse and Actors Studio during the heady heyday of both institutions. He finagled his way into TV near the start of the form—his first credited appearance was in 1950—and, soon after, into movies. Then he failed at both: By the mid-’60s, his career was undergoing what appeared to be an anguished and protracted death, drawing him into bit parts for TV shows like Wagon Train and Hawaii Five-O and films such as Project Kill and Day of the Animals (slogan: “Something Is Out There … something so evil it paralyzes the soul”). It was from this purgatory of schlock drama—a slow grind toward the Murder, She Wrote role that awaits all mortal flesh—that the Zucker brothers rescued him to play Dr. Rumack: the overconfident, confused physician in Airplane!
The Zuckers trafficked in a relatively new brand of madcap comedy, one that, instead of merely falling back on slapstick, channeled and lampooned the clichés of popular entertainment. They weren’t alone in this approach. The Zuckers’ golden era was the era of Saturday Night Live , a TV show that sought to strip away the smooth veneer of TV shows, to make comedy by taking up the form of mainstream TV and movies—the newscast, the sitcom, the zeitgeist flick—and inserting weirder, rawer, more unpredictable content into it. A movie like Airplane! works because it caricatures the predictability of action-adventure movies ( and other things ), but it is also fresh and funny because it shatters the fourth wall, drawing us past the tired burnish of the big screen. This is the ethos eloquently captured in the moment when Robert Hays’ lovelorn character, chasing his lost inamorata through the airport, suddenly stops and turns toward the camera to deliver one of the greatest apostrophes in modern cinema : “What a pisser.”
Nielsen, by then a veteran of the very genre films the Zuckers were lampooning, was an ideal conduit for this sort of parody. Retaining a ‘60s-TV-style polish and white-bread masculinity, he was both what the directors once called “oblivious to the comedy” and a key part of its aesthetic. And unlike many B actors who tried to leap the chasm from bad drama to good comedy, Nielsen nailed the landing. If the success of Airplane! redounds mostly to the movie’s writing and directing, the humor in The Naked Gun, its first sequel, and Police Squad (the early-’80s TV show that served as a testing ground for this material) rested largely on Nielsen’s shoulders. The films’ extended parody of noir procedurals depended on his wizened, faux-debonair polish and inveterate lack of self-awareness—in short, his ability to channel a screen ethos from the time of Cary Grant and Cavett.
By the mid-’90s, this earlier cultural world had largely fallen off the radar screen of popular entertainment, and ironic parody had become mainstream. (Think The Simpsons ; think Seinfeld .) 1994 brought the release of Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult , a parody without an object of ridicule and, perhaps more to the point, a movie that seemed a flaming wreckage even to a 10-year-old. It also seemed a waste of Nielsen’s talents. At his best, he was a comic master who could take a vaguely amusing lick of dialogue (“I’m a very lucky woman.” “So am I”) and, with an introspective pause and earnest stare, make it uproariously funny . He meant it, we knew—even as we realized that, from then on, no movie would be able to mean it quite so unselfconsciously again.