Leslie Nielsen’s Genius Extended Far Beyond Silly Gags

Leslie William Nielsen

“A parachute not opening… that’s a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine… having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that’s the way I wanna go!”
– Lt. Frank Drebin

Imagine that, on the day you die, the above quote represents the legacy you’ve left behind. You should be so lucky.

On Sunday, November 28th, 2010, the world lost Leslie William Nielsen after 84 hilarious years. Well, it’s hard to say how funny Nielsen was in his formative years growing up in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, but he gave the last 60 years of his life to entertaining generations of fans and their families.

Nielsen, though he appeared in countless television shows and films over those six decades, will be remembered most for his starring turns in the television show Police Squad and the Airplane/Naked Gun films. And anyone who has seen even one of those performances knows exactly why.

The thing about Nielsen’s Airplane/Naked Gun films is that the comedy was as silly as it comes, but not stupid or pointless silly. It was clever and witty with puns galore and some great (and sometimes subtle) physical gags. However, because of the nature of the films, it’s sometimes easy to overlook just how brilliant a comedic actor Nielsen was.

Comedy, for anyone who has ever written or performed it, is NOT easy. Making people laugh is a tall order. Making them laugh consistently for decades is even taller. It isn’t just any actor who could take relatively similar material like the Police Squad/Airplane/Naked Gun films and keep it fresh and engaging with each successive performance.

A younger Nielsen

Whenever I’ve written comedies for the stage, I’ve always searched for actors who could portray my characters as Nielsen did – as if unzipping them, stepping in and wearing each one like a finely-tailored suit. Casting a comedy is every bit as difficult and critical as casting a drama and the actors who do comedy well are not to be forgotten within the lexicon of dramatic legends like Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. Nielsen, however, almost betrayed his own brilliance and legacy by making comedy look too easy.

In truth, as icons such as Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, George Carlin or

Woody Allen, to name a few, did, Nielsen not only perfected his craft but he came to actually define the style of comedy he delivered so flawlessly. Watch Emilio Estevez in Loaded Weapon, Charlie Sheen in Major League, or Armand Assante in Fatal Instinct to name a few Nielsen-esque film impersonators. You’ll see that, while those films range from hilarious to so-so, no one does that style of comedy in every way – verbal, physical and, indeed, dramatic – like Leslie.

Nielsen, typically humble, once attributed his success to the fact that “They’ve been cutting back on real actors for a long time.” Sure, the Airplane/Naked Gun movies aren’t exactly high art, but imagine those films being made today. Who could possibly star in them and create what Nielsen did? Will Ferrell is a perfect example of how difficult it is to establish your comedic forte and maintain it for the duration of a career.

Nielsen began as a dramatic actor, but he devoted the better part of his life to giving us an opportunity to stop and share a laugh. Because of him I’ve always wanted to see a baseball umpire dance when he calls a strike. I’ve always wanted to try and rub the birthmark off of Gorbachev’s head. I’m always tempted to see if I can spear a fish in an aquarium with a pen. I always think of him, not Patrick Swayze, when I see someone molding pottery on that spinning apparatus.

In closing, I’ve posted an assortment of some of my favourite Nielsen film quotes below. And to Leslie, wherever you are, when I heard you’d passed on I thought, “Surely I must have misheard.” But it was true. And I am more saddened than I could have expected over it. I’ve never laughed like when I laughed at you. You, before the Python, before Matt Groening, before Conan and Johnny and Woody and Stewart, taught me what comedy was. I will enjoy your films with my children much as my parents enjoyed them with theirs. And I apologize for calling you Shirley.

Thank you for the laughs, Leslie.

Some of my favourite Leslie Nielsen film quotes from his turns as Dr. Rumack in Airplane and Lt. Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun films. Please feel free to add your own in the comments section:

Dr. Rumack: You’d better tell the captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine: A hospital? What is it?
Dr. Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

Ted Striker: Surely you can’t be serious.
Rumack: I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.

Frank Drebin: It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girls dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Jane: Goodyear?
Frank Drebin: No, the worst.

Ed: A hunch won’t stand up in court, Frank. What we need are hard facts.
Frank: Look, Ed. Ludwig was the only one besides us who knew Nordberg was still alive. Next thing you know, some thug tries to knock him off in the hospital.
Ed: Yeah, but going into Ludwig’s office without a warrant, you’re taking a big chance.
Frank: I know. You take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan.

Frank: Wilma, I promise you; whatever scum did this, not one man on this force will rest one minute until he’s behind bars. Now, let’s grab a bite to eat.

Frank: Nice beaver!
Jane: [producing a stuffed beaver] Thank you. I just had it stuffed.

Frank: You’re excited? You should feel my nipples!

Frank: A good cop – needlessly cut down by some cowardly hoodlums.
Ed: That’s no way for a man to die.
Frank: No… you’re right, Ed. A parachute not opening… that’s a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine… having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that’s the way I wanna go!

Wilma Nordberg: [cries] Oh… Frank. This is terrible!
Ed: Don’t you worry, Wilma. Your husband is going to be alright. Don’t you worry about anything. Just think positive. Never let a doubt enter your mind.
Frank: He’s right, Wilma. But I wouldn’t wait until the last minute to fill out those organ donor cards.
[Wilma cries again]
Ed: What I’m trying to say is that, Wilma, as soon as Nordberg is better, he’s welcome back at Police Squad.
Frank: …Unless he’s a drooling vegetable. But I think that’s only common sense.
[Wilma cries again]

Frank: The truth hurts doesn’t it, Hapsburg? Oh, sure maybe not as much as jumping on a bike with the seat missing, but it hurts!

Person: Who are you and how did you get in here?
Frank: I’m a locksmith. And, I’m a locksmith.

Frank: I’m single! I love being single! I haven’t had this much sex since I was a Boy Scout leader!
–Music Stops. People stare.–
Frank: I mean at the time I was dating a lot.

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4 thoughts on “Leslie Nielsen’s Genius Extended Far Beyond Silly Gags

  1. Chelsea

    “Leslie Nielsens Genius Extended Far Beyond Silly Gags | Bastard Type” really causes myself ponder a tiny bit extra.

    I actually admired every individual part of this blog post.

    Many thanks -Marisa

    Reply
  2. John

    First a house-keeping note … your last paragraph starts off “Enclosing”. Surely you mean “In closing” … and yes, I called you Shirley.

    I still remember the first time (of about a dozen times, at least) when I saw “The Naked Gun”. My room-mates and I were fans of “Police Squad” and were very disappointed when it was cancelled. When we heard about the movie we had to be there on opening night.

    From the get go, we laughed our butts off, as did the packed cinema. The farting during the news conference, the great lines, the subtle things happening in the background … very clever stuff! As you say, not high art, but as funny as hell!

    I was upset to hear of his passing, but at 84, he’s lived a good, long life. Since learning of his passing, I’ve watched all 6 of the “Police Squad” episodes (I’ve had the DVDs for a few years, the VHS tapes before then) as well as the first two “Naked Gun” films. 33 1/3 is on the agenda for tonight. What a great legacy he has left with us!

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Don’t call me Shirley RIP Leslie Nielsen – thanks for the laughs « Erotixx photoblog

  4. Rincewind

    he was just such an amazing actor, so remember him from Forbidden planet where I fell in love with him but to play such dead-pan comedy the way he did is just pure brilliance. Love ya Leslie…

    Reply

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