"go for the laughs"
It's hard imagine that up until 1980, Leslie Nielsen was known as one of Hollywood's
more serious, humourless actors. Then along came Flying High, and Nielsen's
self-deprecating performance won him a new career. These days, it's the clutsy Drebin in
the Naked Gun films for which today's audiences know and love the Canadian, rather than,
say, the doomed captain of the S.S Poseidon a decade earlier. But the 73-year old is still
enjoying his stint as an expressive clown, though he admits that finding something to
challenge his perennially creative juices isn't easy.
"I guess it's always wonderful if you can come up with something that you consider
brand new, but the old expression, there's nothing new under the sun is probably more than
accurate," contemplates the actor from his Los Angeles home. "The only criterion
I think is important is that you can start off writing any kind of parody or spoof, so one
way or the other, you're writing things that are FUNNY, and if it stays in the area of
parody, fine, if it doesn't, then forget about it. The main name of the game here is to go
for the laughs."
"a closet comedian."
His latest parody, Wrongfully Accused, meshes together the premises of The Fugitive and
Patriot Games, casting Nielsen as Ryan Harrison, a master violinist drawn into an affair
with a married temptress (Kelly Le Brock). She, however, sets Harrison up to take the rap
for the murder of her husband (Michael York) -- a crime actually committed by a one-armed,
one-legged, one-eyed man (Aaron Pearl). Harrison is arrested, found guilty and sentenced
to death, but escapes from a prison bus, of course, and then is pursued by a determined
U.S. marshal named Fergus Falls (Richard Crenna). There's also a mystery brunette (Melinda
McGraw) and an assassination subplot involving the UN Secretary General. "The
difference between this and the others is it's far more of a parody of old movies. Here,
we've taken a lot of dialogue from actual pictures, and so in many cases there are lines
taken from one movie, then from another one, and so on, and finally all put together in
one paragraph in a new movie. It was very demanding to try to find a thread that would go
through all of it to make it work."
Asked what it was in him that prompted the Zucker-Abrahams team to cast Nielsen in that
initial popular parody, Flying High, Nielsen has no idea. "I don't think they saw
anything. I think what they saw was the character I had played so stoically beforehand,
which is also how they saw Robert Stack and Peter Graves. They knew it would be funny if
we said THEIR dialogue the way we used to say it in the action dramas we were famous for.
We didn't even have to have a sense of humour; all we had to do was do whatever they
wanted us to do, and it was going to be funny." As for Nielsen's own sense of humour
"it was always on the same wavelength as theirs." The once serious actor was in
reality, "a closet comedian."
"There were no winners" on OJ Simpson
Nielsen became a virtual industry franchise with the character of bumbling police
lieutenant Frank Drebin, first featured in the next Abrahams-Zucker genre parody, the
short-lived TV series "Police Squad!" (1982), and its big screen outings,
"The Naked Gun-From the Files of Police Squad!" (1988) and its sequels,
"The Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear" (1991) and "Naked Gun 33-1/3: The
Final Insult" (1994).
That series seems to have run its course (partly due to the trials and tribulations of
Co-star O J Simpson, whose career remains in limbo), but Nielsen is hopeful that Drebin
will fight another day in Naked Gun 4 - with or without O.J. Ironically, Nielsen parodies
the O.J case in Wrongfully Accused. Talking frankly about the ex-footballer, Nielsen is
candid on his former co-star's guilt or innocence. "The whole thing's so terribly
sad. There were no winners and two real heavy losers. I was shooting Spy Hard at the time
when the verdict came in. People here were talking about reasonable doubt, but the
reasonable doubt that I had, was that there's no one else who could have done it, but O.J,
and that's how I feel. It must be a very strange life that he must be living now,"
Nielsen quietly adds.
"it's a fascination that the learning process is
The laughs may be coming thick and fast, but Nielsen continues to take seriously the
craft of acting, refusing to even consider retiring. "The older you get, the more
relaxed you become and the more you don't have the intrusions that seem to step into the
way of getting things done. Your concentration is more focused and so it becomes more
gratifying. To me, it's a fascination that the learning process is ongoing and carries
with it its own satisfaction, so why, when you have something like that happening to you,
would you ever want to quit it?"