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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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