Gilbey on Film: what Leslie Nielsen told me

The late actor revealed he would have made one last "Naked Gun" movie.

This post was all set to look at the question of actors playing against type, in the light of George Clooney trading charisma for cruelty as a hired gun in The American, which I reviewed last week. There's a thin line between audacity and miscasting, and Clooney, to my mind, strayed on the wrong side of it.

We get a hint of what he was going for during one scene in the film, where the TV in a café is showing Once Upon a Time in the West. That masterful Western, you will remember, transformed the avuncular Henry Fonda into a cold-eyed psychopath. The actor's former trustworthiness only intensified his menace; the thought that so much unimpeachable goodness could turn rancid was chilling. Our rational selves know that whatever Fonda did on screen, whether it's The Wrong Man or On Golden Pond, was only a put-on. But who watches movies with the rational part of their brain? Not me.

I was going to talk about such jarring switcheroos as the three-stage campaign by Robin Williams (in Death to Smoochy, Insomnia and One-Hour Photo) to remake himself as monstrous, something which required surprisingly little effort. Or Meryl Streep being crushingly unfunny in She-Devil and Death Becomes Her (though she had finessed the art of the light touch by the time she made Adaptation).

Then I heard about the death of Leslie Nielsen, the journeyman actor transformed into a poker-faced comic giant midway through his career. Talk about a performer leaving his comfort zone forever. Neilsen's reborn career offers perhaps the most obvious example of how a director's intuition (and an actor's enthusiasm) in going against the grain can pay dividends. Why doesn't it happen more often? The actor Martin Donovan, a former Hal Hartley regular, has a few ideas, and is quoted in an excellent piece on Nielsen over at Salon . He thinks film industry decisions are motivated entirely by people not wanting to lose their jobs:

That's why you see a certain actor playing cops over and over again, or a certain actress playing the funny best friend that the heroine tells her problems to. The casting agent says, 'I could give this part to somebody I think might be able to do it but hasn't done it before and get fired if I'm wrong. Or I can give it to somebody I know for a fact can do it because he's already done it three times, and keep my job.'

I spoke last year to David Zucker, one of three co-writer/directors on the 1980 disaster-movie spoof Airplane! (Zucker's brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams, were the others.) ZAZ, as the team was known, set out to make a comedy with a cast that was not conventionally funny. "Mel Brooks's films used comedians to get laughs," he said. "Airplane! was different because we didn't have those middlemen. The studio wanted Chevy Chase or Bill Murray, but we resisted that. It would've broken the spell. We did the jokes through straight actors like Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack instead. We wanted the audience to feel they were watching a serious movie that we had redubbed, the way Woody Allen did with What's Up, Tiger Lily?"

ZAZ had already used Nielsen in a small part in The Kentucky Fried Movie, but it was Airplane! that remade him. "We knew Leslie was great," said Zucker, "but we didn't know he was such a movie star. He was the last one we cast. When we'd cast Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, the casting director had got annoyed with us. But he exploded when we said we wanted to cast Leslie. He said, 'Leslie Nielsen is the guy you only cast the night before, as a last resort. If you can't get anyone else, then you get Leslie Nielsen!' We wanted to hear none of that. We were just so happy we could get him. We knew from his body of work that he was hilarious. Unintentionally hilarious, I mean. Look at that stuff now in the light of what he went on to be. It's kind of unprecedented that any actor has had a career like that."

Nielsen told me in an e-mail: "There are people today who have no idea I ever played romantic or character roles. I did quite well for many years in those roles -- travelled the world, drove nice cars -- but when the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams put their faith in me, it made me a star, which I'd never been until then."

Zucker was right to feel that it was in his own work -- not just Airplane! but the spoof TV cop series Police Squad! and the resulting Naked Gun spin-off trilogy -- that Nielsen was at his best. "Leslie became a kind of shorthand," he said. "A lot of people cast him, including Mel [Brooks]. I don't know. It's been less effective, I think. But Leslie loves to play golf and he also likes to work. He doesn't mean any harm by it, he's a great guy. He deserves it."

And Nielsen told me was always ready should ZAZ call again and ask him to bring Lt Frank Drebin out of retirement for one last Naked Gun. "I'd just love it," he wrote. "I've dusted off his suit a few times in the recent past when rumours were floating about, but I've heard nothing substantial. When Jerry, David and Jim want Drebin back, a little more addled, a little more bowlegged, I'd be there. And surely as confused as ever."

He put an asterisk by that word "surely", and wrote at the end of the email: "*I just couldn't help myself. Had to put it in there."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times