Over his six-decade career, Leslie Nielsen has proved to be a man of many dimensions. He’s a kid from Canada’s backwoods, an Actors Studio alum, an established dramatic stage actor and a master of spoof comedy…just don’t call him Shirley.
By Joe Bosso
Reviving a moribund career can take some major defibrillation, and for actor Leslie Nielsen, that jolt occurred the moment he mouthed, in his deep, stentorian voice, the now immortal line: “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.” That’s all it took. With those eight words, the enshrinement of Leslie Nielsen in the annals of comedy film history was manifest. (The American Film Institute’s “100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time” currently ranks the line at No. 79.)
For Nielsen (who would have gloriously debunked F. Scott Fitzgerald’s theory about there being “no second acts in American lives” were he not Canadian), the part of the Rushmore-faced Dr. Rumack in 1980’s “Airplane!” was the role he had been waiting for all his life. “Only I didn’t know I was waiting for it,” he laughs. “Things were going along OK for me—not amazing, but decent. I was a working actor, which was more than I could say for a lot of people I had come up with. I had no illusions about being a ‘star’ anymore—I gave up that dream long ago. So to wake up one day and be the hottest thing in Hollywood was quite a thrill, surreal even. Especially when you consider that it had taken me 30-odd years to get there.”
Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Nielsen had distinguished himself as a dependable, stately presence in well over 1,000 film and TV appearances. “You name the show, if it aired more than twice, chances are I did it,” he says. But with “Airplane!” he pulled off that rarest of star-turns: the supporting player who effortlessly steals the picture. “Airplane!” raised Nielsen’s Hollywood stock to vertiginous heights, and he capitalized on his newfound comedy appeal by portraying the hapless, bumbling police detective Lieutenant Frank Drebin in the three hugely popular “Naked Gun” movies.
Nielsen attempted a variety of similar roles in comedies such as “Repossessed,” “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” and “Mr. Magoo” with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. However, he rebounded nicely as the Frank Drebin-esque President Harris in “Scary Movie 3” and its inventively titled sequel, “Scary Movie 4.” “I’ve had such a ball doing those movies,” he says. “This whole second career in comedies has been one enormous hoot. I’m thrilled to know that audiences have gotten so many laughs from my work, but sometimes I feel as if I’m being overpaid for how much fun I have doing it.”
Speaking from his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (he also maintains a residence in Phoenix), the redoubtable actor held forth on a variety of topics: growing up in Canada, coming to the States and discovering his career path, famous friends Brando and Dean, his serendipitous transition from serious actor to comedy genius, and his love of a cold beer on a hot day.
(DRAFT) It’s 10 a.m., Leslie, which begs the musical question: Are you having a beer yet?
(Nielsen) I’m afraid not. [laughs] If I were drinking at 10 a.m., I think I’d have some issues to deal with. Perhaps later in the day I’ll have a beer, maybe before dinner. It’s funny—at the young age of 80, I’m just now acquiring a strong taste for beer. Not that I haven’t been a beer drinker during my life, but what I’m finding now is that I appreciate it more. Contrary to popular belief, the taste buds don’t always dull as one gets older.
What beer do you prefer?
Well, I’ve traveled a great deal, and I’ve found that the beers in other countries have a little more flavor and zip. I remember once having an Amstel in Hamburg, Germany and it had a distinctly different flavor to it—more character. And I recall, years ago, being in Pittsburgh and let me tell you, that’s a beer town. People drank beer from sun up to…sun up! I can’t remember the name of the beer I was drinking there, but it was quite good.
I bet it was Iron City Beer.
Could be! You know, I think you’re right. Iron City Beer, that was darned good stuff. You know, I had a Budweiser the other day and I thought it was a beautiful beer. You don’t always have to go for the exotic microbrews. Sometimes the best beer is waiting for you at the corner store.
Let’s talk about your career, which is pretty remarkable, from your earliest film roles in the ‘50s right up to today.
I’ve been quite fortunate to have fooled so many people for so many years.
What do you think about Roger Ebert’s assessment of you as ‘the Olivier of spoofs?’
How about them apples? Isn’t that marvelous? There was another one like that from one of the ‘Naked Gun’ movies. A critic in England described my work as ‘consummate obliviousness.’ When I saw that, I thought that could sum up my entire life as well.
You began your career as a serious film actor, but beginning with “Airplane!,” you became an instant comedy star. Could you ever have envisioned such a career for yourself? If somebody would have told you back in the ‘50s that you’d be best known for bumbling comedy roles…
People say that to me all the time: ‘Boy, it was great when you switched to comedy.’ And I always say, ‘Hey, I didn’t change anything.’ I’ve always gone for the laugh in my personal life. But yes, professionally, I was typecast as a serious actor—and I made a decent living at it. “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” movies changed everything for me, and it’s been terrific because I’ve always been a fan of deadpan humor. I think the key to why I’ve worked so well in comedy roles is a direct result of my dramatic acting. There’s nothing funnier than listening to a guy talk about something, and he’s very serious, very informed even; he comes across as intellectual and vitally interested in what he’s saying; and then there’s that moment when it dawns on you, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve been listening to a complete idiot!’
Did you ever find it ironic that your part of your famous line is ‘…and don’t call me Shirley,’ and yet your name is Leslie?[laughs] Irony should be my middle name, my friend. I’ll tell you, meeting the Zucker brothers was the luckiest break for me. But we clicked because we shared the same sense of absurd humor. They spotted me for what I was: a closet comedian. It’s lovely to do something and to know that it is funny, but you have to do it in a way that nobody will suspect that you’re aware that you’re being funny.
Thus, ‘consummate obliviousness.’ So, in other words, your job is one of dissimulation?
Sure, but you could say that about all acting. Again, to do the kind of comedy I do and make it work, you can’t let the audience know that you’re in on the joke. If they see that crack of a smile on your face, even the slightest smirk, then the joke will be lost. You have to detach yourself from the process.
I imagine you’re a fan of Peter Sellers. Your style of comedy bears some traces of his influence.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve seen everything Peter Sellers has ever done. I’m not putting myself on his level, but my God, he was a brilliantly talented actor who could go from drama to comedy in the blink of an eye. The great thing about him was his utter unpredictability. To go from the ‘Pink Panther’ movies to ‘Being There’—at the end of ‘Being There,’ I was convinced he was walking on water. That’s the mark of a marvelous actor.
Tell me about growing up in Canada.
I come from the backwoods, from a very small town called Regina, part of Saskatchewan. And when I say small, I mean the entire population was about 75 people.
That’s not a town; that’s a Starbucks.
You said it! I went to a three-room school that taught all 12 grades. But the big thing I remember about growing up was the importance of laughter. When the temperature gets to 64 degrees below zero, you’d better learn how to laugh—and how to move around a lot. And the last thing you say to somebody is, ‘Boy, it’s cold today!’ ’cause somebody’ll hit you over the head with a shovel.
What kind of acting training did you have?
None, really. However, I do remember getting a part in a school play, which was kind of a big deal for me. So I ran home to tell my parents, thinking they’d be really proud of me. Well, my father looked at me and said, ‘Just remember: don’t say “that is,” say “that’s.”’ In other words, he was teaching me how to be natural, to be credible. What an amazing thing. Some of the best acting advice I ever received came from my old man.
When you moved to the States, was it your intention to become an actor?
I don’t think so. After [World War II], I went into radio in Calgary. Then I enrolled at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto. Lorne was my announcing instructor, and eventually he became something of a mentor to me. Later on, we were very good friends.
Did you get to visit the Ponderosa? Ever meet Hoss and Little Joe?
Yes, I did. [laughs] The Ponderosa—I haven’t thought about that in years. Sure, I went to the set. What a great cast that show had. And Lorne…such a kind and caring individual; a great friend.
He was really into dogs, wasn’t he? I remember he did dog food commercials after ‘Bonanza’ ended.
You know, I do recall that he had some dogs. Yes, he was a dog lover. That would be awfully strange if they hired somebody who hated dogs to sell dog food, don’t you think? Although stranger things have happened in Hollywood.
So, what finally led you to pursue acting in the States?
Through my association with Lorne, I got a scholarship to study acting in New York, which led to an audition at the Actors Studio—and I got accepted! If that never happened, honestly, I don’t know what I would be doing now. Once I got to the Actors Studio, this metamorphosis seemed to take place. Suddenly, I knew I was home, and everything started to make sense; that I was an actor; and I was going to devote my life to the craft of acting. From then on, everything seemed to fall into place for me, almost as if by accident.
Who were some of your contemporaries at the Actors Studio?
Oh…Paul Newman, Tony Fransciosa, Karl Malden…and, of course, Brando.
Did you get to know Brando?
We were friends. He was one of the more prominent members at that point. He was very approachable, very down-to-earth. He was the kind of guy that if he liked you, he liked you—no two ways about it. Of course, he could be very unpredictable; that was part of his method, both as an actor and a human being. He didn’t always make it to the classes, and there were days when he seemed to be in his own world. He had a style all his own, but we could all tell he was extraordinarily gifted. He was like a thoroughbred racehorse, and if he wanted to run around the ring and perform, well, by God, you’d better just let him. Boy, he was something special… When I went out to Hollywood, he was already established. Jimmy Dean, too. I was good friends with Jimmy. Actually, I knew Jimmy better than I knew Marlon. He gave me a ride in his car one time.
Wait a second…do you mean the car? The Porsche Spyder?
Oh, yes. The car that he died in. I think he drove me three blocks at about 75 mph. [laughs] I got out of that car and I said, ‘Jimmy, I don’t mind going fast, but that was fast!’ He didn’t seem to think so. It was such a shame when he died. He was well on his way to an incredible career—bigger than Brando’s, if you ask me. He had talent and range that we never had a chance to see.
Going through your filmography and TV roles is fairly mind-boggling, however, a few things stand out. For instance, you were in the 1956 science fiction classic “Forbidden Planet.”
The granddaddy of them all, that’s right. Did you know that’s the first science fiction film to ever leave the Earth? The space crew travels to a planet called Altair IV; all of the previous science fiction films took place on Earth. We had some cast: Anne Francis, Earl Holliman and the great Walter Pidgeon—he was known as the “Golden Gentleman,” and he was, without a doubt, one of the most charming men I have ever met.
A year later you were Debbie Reynolds’ love interest in “Tammy and the Bachelor.”
I was the original bachelor in what turned into a “Tammy” franchise—there were several other bachelors after me. At the time we were filming, Debbie was pregnant with her first child—she had just married Eddie Fischer—but she wasn’t showing yet. I enjoyed every minute of working with her. A multi-talented girl. Her recording of “Tammy’s In Love” was a big hit on the pop charts, which helped the movie quite a bit.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, you were a ubiquitous presence on TV.
I think the only show I wasn’t on was “Twilight Zone”—they didn’t like me for some reason.
On one hand, you had achieved every actor’s dream: you were working steadily. But you were also anonymous—people knew your face but not your name. Were you happy at the time with that level of fame?
The thing was, I was reasonably insensitive. To last in this business, you have to develop a thick hide. And, as you say, I was working steadily. That, in itself, means you’ve beaten the odds in Hollywood.
You played the captain of the ship in “The Poseidon Adventure.” What was it like to be part of the first “disaster picture”?
I love those kinds of movies. Grand themes, life-and-death struggles, special effects—except to laugh, why else do people go to the movies? It’s escapism. The only unfortunate thing for me in “The Poseidon Adventure” was that I lasted only 20 minutes into the picture—my character died when the ship capsized. So I never got to go up against Gene Hackman, nor did I get to swim in my underwear with Shelley Winters.
That would have been a special gift to the world. Now that we’re talking about disaster flicks, how did you happen to be cast in “Airplane!”?
The Zuckers and Jim Abrahams had remarkable intuition in casting. They knew that the part of the doctor was crucial to the film—he was the one supplying all the information about what was happening. He wasn’t just some adjunct character. For some reason that I’m still not entirely sure of, they picked me.
Did you have any idea at the time that it was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment?
No. No idea at all. I knew it was funny, and I relished being on the set and playing the part. It was such a change of pace, not only for me but some of the other actors as well. Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges—none of us had done such nutty comedy before.
Now, the “Naked Gun” pictures were an outgrowth of the “Police Squad” TV series you had done with the Zucker Brothers.
That’s right. The Zuckers thought the premise wouldn’t work as a movie, so we did it on TV. It lasted only six episodes, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s a good one down the tubes.’ Needless to say, I was quite surprised when they called me up years later and said, ‘We’re going to do “Police Squad” as a movie, only we’re calling it “The Naked Gun.” Are you interested?’ I thought about it for two seconds and said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course I’m interested! When do we shoot?’ I loved playing Frank Drebin! What a role. He’s right up there with Inspector Clouseau. The important thing, though, is that there was nothing mean-spirited in the ‘Naked Gun’ humor; it’s silly, sophomoric, dumb, idiotic, childish and utterly ridiculous—but not cruel.
You haven’t forsaken drama, however. For the past decade you’ve been doing a one-man show in which you portray the famous attorney Clarence Darrow.
That’s right. I’ve always admired Clarence Darrow. He had an incredible way of communicating, and he was filled with such humanity. Oftentimes, when he was finished with his summations, the people in the courtroom would be in tears. He defended 104 men who were originally sentenced to die in the gallows, and not one of them was hanged. Of course, Henry Fonda originated the role on Broadway—talk about some mighty big shoes to fill. I will admit, at first I was a little nervous about the role, because this was after I had established a second career for myself in the comedies. Would the audience accept me in straight drama? But I wanted to do it. I felt a real connection to the role, so much so, in fact, that I bought the play. I own the rights to it.
What’s it like when you walk out on the stage as Clarence Darrow? Is there a titter in the audience, like, ‘Look! It’s the guy from “Naked Gun!”’
It was difficult when I opened the play in Nova Scotia. I would walk out onstage to complete silence, and for the first minute or two I don’t say anything—I just open a book. Well, the audience started to laugh—in their minds, they were seeing Frank Drebin up there. But five minutes into the play, it was like a veil had been lifted and they were transported, as was I, and we all were able to experience the genius of Clarence Darrow. It’s been that way ever since.
What do you like to do in your leisure time? I know you play golf.
Yes, and I think I’ve finally figured out my mantra: I don’t play golf to feel bad; I play bad golf to feel good. [laughs] Aside from golf, I’m kind of a handyman. I like working around the house; I’ve done a lot of remodeling. I try to stay active, but I’ll be honest, I ain’t movin’ as fast as I used to. But you know, living here in Ft. Lauderdale, it gets pretty hot, and as everybody knows, there’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot day.
Are you strictly a beer man?
I do like wine. Back in the day I enjoyed my scotch, but I’ve pretty much cut back on the hard liquor. A vodka every now and then is fine, but when it comes to unwinding, lately my drink of choice is a nice cold glass of beer. You can’t beat it. •[Photo: Brian Smith]