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.

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Why the class of '94 still rules British poetry

The message of the 1990s generation - that seeing clearly is not as simple as we think - comes across powerfully in four new collections.

In 1994, the “New Generation” of poets was intent on bringing about one of those shifts that periodically redefine a culture. Twenty-odd years later, we can see that, imperfect though the project may have been, the baby boomers did change the face of British poetry. The class of ’94 still dominates the field, as this quartet of fine books demonstrates.

Of the four poets under review – one each from the remaining big trade poetry publishers – it is Kathleen Jamie who has arguably shifted ground the most over the decades. She is now equally well known for her insightful, evocative prose about the Scottish environment, in Findings and Sightlines. Like her prize-winning previous collection, The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie is alive to every detail of plant and creature. Though they also capture skies, stones and animals, its (mostly short) poems work a little like a herbarium, storing these details for us to examine “a rock-pipit’s seed-small notes”, or “every fairmer’s fenceposts/splashed with gold”.

But the excitement of The Bonniest Companie comes in the concentration of its language and the way that concentration reveals its author’s fierce focus. The inclusion by anglophone Scots of entirely Scots poems in English-language books is a contemporary cliché and can be rebarbative. By contrast, Jamie reinvigorates poetic language, using dialect and loanwords alongside standard English to create vivid, springy textures. Colloquial compressions add to the bouncing, tight rhythms. Stepped lines compress the springs yet further.

None of this is drily technical: this joyous book re-creates the livingness it observes. A poem such as “Migratory III” feels tossed and slung between the line ends:

Those swans out there at the centre

of the loch

a dozen or thirteen

moored close together, none adrift –

they’ve only just arrived

an arrow-true, close-flocked,

ocean-crossing skein . . .

If Jamie has broken through to a new and distinct form of northern lyric, her compatriot Don Paterson deepens a long-term project in his 40 Sonnets. In recent books, he has variously translated, written about and anthologised the form. He is a master of strict formal verse, and his virtuoso touch has always embraced both humour and moving metaphysical reflection, as it does again here. The collection includes comic monologue, an onomatopoeic record of white noise, homage, love poetry and elegy.

Most of the 40 poems are in iambic pentameter. This is no longer the automatic choice for the sonnet form, as Paterson knows better than most. Elsewhere, beyond the sonnet, pentameter seems a natural fit for the diction of certain contemporary poets (such as Tony Harrison or Sean O’Brien) who have a particular kind of lapidary authority. For Paterson’s quicksilver intelligence, iambic pentameter provides a less “natural”, more audible music: the form adds to and changes the poem, not only as it is being written but for the reader. We hear and rehear its effects and the well-known sonnets of history echo in Paterson’s poems:

The body is at home in time and space

and loves things, how they come and go,

and such

distances as it might cross or place

between the things it loves and its

own touch.

Characteristically criss-crossed with a metaphysical thought that is also a spatial metaphor, this is an extract from “Souls”, one of several sonnets here that will surely soon enter the anthologies.

Sarah Maguire’s Almost the Equinox is itself an anthology. This generous volume, at almost 150 pages long, interleaves work from her four collections, eschewing the conventional chronological treatment. In its new and satisfying whole, we trace recurring themes. Each of three consecutive poems called “Psoriasis” is taken from a different collection. Connections are often tonal and emotional: a Tunisian migrant’s story juxtaposed with a Warsaw childhood juxtaposed with Ramallah create what Maguire calls “the soft cry of crossed songs”.

She observes the physical world and the definitive failure of human choices with equal clarity. Her tone can be wry: “Your abandoned bottle of Russkaya vodka lies in my icebox,/Cold as a gun . . .” After a while, though, it becomes apparent that wryness is a veil. These are love poems to the world. The “you” that they repeatedly address is not necessarily a lover but the poet’s self; even, perhaps, us. Maguire’s world knits together even when it seems not to: the Middle East and London, the lost birth mother with the adoptive one, absent lover and speaker. As she writes in her title poem, “The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,/drowning everything it will reveal again.”

If Maguire’s poetic world is densely furnished, Neil Rollinson’s seems to have had everything unnecessary removed. ­Talking Dead, his fourth collection, is as lucid and direct as anything being written today. Partly that is because he has moved beyond contrivance. Every word is subordinated to its purpose: not the display but a mastery of the writing self.

Rollinson was not part of the “New Generation” promotion but made his debut two years later. Though his poems read with the ease of apparent artlessness, they are absolutely wrought. This book’s title sequence turns the “little death” convention about orgasm inside out: the recently dead speak of the rapture of violent demise. That could be appalling in both taste and tone. But these lyrics are perfectly judged, as when “Talking Dead – The Bed” turns drowning into a dream sequence:

I opened my mouth to breathe,

like I do in dreams,

and the water flowed into me.

The point is not reportage but the resolving logic of a beauty that is found in unexpected places: death, the smell of urine, a child kicking a toadstool.

Rollinson has an impeccable ear. His eye is impeccable, too. And possibly that is the lesson of the 1990s generation: seeing clearly is not so simple as we once thought. 

Fiona Sampson’s collection “The Catch” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador (62pp, £9.99)

Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems by Sarah Maguire is published by Chatto & Windus (149pp, £15.99)

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber (44pp, £14.99)

Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson is published by Jonathan Cape (51pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war