Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Forbidden Planet, Leslie, Anne Francis, &
Robby the Robot

In some western with Martin Landau

The Poseidon Adventure

Airplane, Julie Hagerty, Leslie, Peter Graves
& a subdued Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad

A Chilean Newspaper front page

"Another great loss in Entertainment today...Leslie Nielsen died today, Airplane and the Naked Gun movies were the funniest....RIP Leslie and Thank you for some great laughs....."

And for everything else.
The above quotation was written yesterday morning by my lovely sister, Cheryl, on Facebook, and she doesn't usually offer condolences lightly. Only for those who have touched her life in some impressive and unique way, and Leslie Nielsen certainly did that for her, for me, and for millions of other fans around the world.
Mr. Nielsen was a Canadian, which I only discovered Sunday night after leaning of his death from complications arising from pneumonia. He later became a naturalized American citizen.
He was 84 years old when he died. A good, long life. But not long enough.
He died in his sleep, which is a good way to go if you ask me. Going to sleep each night is a little like dying each and every day. We give ourselves over to it completely, crave it even, many of us too much. It is one of the few ways I can make sense of the inevitability of dying (as far as current knowledge goes. I read just yesterday of scientists at Harvard being able to reverse the aging process in mice, so who knows? http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews/article/367227/scientists_successfully_reverse_aging_process_in_mice/#paragraph3 ), by comparing it to that little death we experince daily. Death is just a longer, final form of sleep. As Carl Sagan put it, "an endless, dreamless sleep."
The Jehovah Witnesses also believe death is a form of sleep.
And I assume Leslie was aware he was near death as it was said he was surrounded by his family and friends. He had the excellent chance to finalize his life, a process of closure if you will. For so many of us death comes to us in an instant, as in an automobile accident, one moment your there and the next you are no more. Or our lives end in a brief, agonizing pain filled realization that something is terribly wrong, as in a heart attack. I am grateful Leslie was sparred those alternatives.
Leslie William Nielsen was born on February 11th, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan, which of course is just east of Moose Jaw, and 138 miles north of Medicine Lake, Montana, and 1328 miles northeast of where I'm writing this. His mother, Maybelle, was a Welsh immigrant from London, his dad, Ingvard was Danish born, who moved to Canada and joined the Mounties. It is reported that Ingvard was also abusive to his wife, Leslie, and his two brothers (one of which, Erik, later became a Deputy Prime Minister of Canada). This prompted young Leslie to wish to get away as soon as was possible.
His father was posted in what used to be known as Fort Norman, in the Northwest Territories, just south of the freaking Artic Circle. He brought his family with him and Leslie spent several years of his youth in the this bleak, frozen region, populated at that time with about 50 people (population last year a whopping 566). Later in his teens he attended and graduated from Victoria Composite High School (now known as the Victoria School of the Arts) in Edmonton, Alberta. At 17 1/2 years old he enlisted for a year in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, and was trained as an aerial gunner, but was not sent overseas. Afterwards he moved to Calgary and got a job as a disk jockey, and enrolled in the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts, in Toronto. From there he received a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, and so Leslie had arrived in the United States.
While studying at the Neighborhood he performed in summer stock theater, and in 1948 got his first television role in a Studio One episode along side Charlton Heston (also an aerial gunner in WW II).
From there, and armed with his handsome good looks and baritone voice Leslie's career took off. In 1950 he appeared in 50 live television programs alone. He narrated several documentaries and commercials. He was cast in mostly dramatic roles, for which he would later claim he was miscast, as he actually was a comedic actor, or wanted to be. He didn't gain a whole heck of a lot of attention though as he was just one of hundreds of handsome dramatic leads.
Then in 1956, when I was just a wee tot, in his second motion picture for MGM, he was cast as Capt. J.J. Adams in Forbidden Planet. It also starred Walter Pidgeon, Earl Holliman, and the lovely Anne Francis in several mini skirts. Robby the Robot also made his film debut in Forbidden Planet, which has often been referred to as a science fiction version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and one of the three classic Sci Fi films of the 1950's (the others being War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still).
Robby's nephew of course is Robot from Lost in Space.
And he's no relation to Gort.
The film was a huge success, and Leslie continued making films as a dramatic and romantic lead in movies such as The Opposite Sex, Tammy and the Bachelor, and Hot Summer Night. He also worked in television in like everything. He appeared for 30 years in TV roles on series such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Wagon Train, The Fugitive, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Peyton Place, Ben Casey, The Wild Wild West, Bonanza, It Takes a Thief, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Braken's World, Night Gallery, Medical Center, The Mod Squad, M.A.S.H., Kung Fu, The Streets of San Francisco, Hawaii Five-O (he starred in the pilot, but was cut from the cast when the show entered production), Ironside, Kojak,The Rookies, Cannon, Run for your Life, Columbo, S.W.A.T., and The Love Boat. And many, many others. You couldn't turn on the freaking TV without seeing Nielson's face plastered all over it, playing dramatic roles and usually as the episodes antagonist (bad guy). He said he liked to play those types of roles, and said this about them:
"The best part is always the heavy. And the meaner and crueler and the worse you are, the more vicious you are as the heavy, the better the hero looks when he whips you. So, the heavy is liable to be a very dramatic, fine acting part. I told my agent at that time, "I want to play heavies who are really vicious and cruel and terrible. I want them to know that they're terrible and I want them to enjoy it."
And that's where I first became aware of Mr. Nielson. In all of those guest appearances in TV westerns and dramas. He was one of many other actors who wandered from one show to the next and quite frankly I didn't think all that much about him other than he was a familiar, reliable, and dependable actor who I could count on to deliver a certain type of performance.
He continued in movies as well, and has been lauded for his portrayal of The Captain in The Poseidon Adventure, although his part was rather abbreviated, him getting killed rather early on when the ship was hit by a rouge wave and flipped over.
Okay, Leslie could very well have continued his career in this way and most likely would have faded slowly away into obscurity as did many of his colleagues.
But in 1980 Airplane happened, and Leslie Nielsen's career and life changed for the next 30 years... for the rest of his life.
We've all seen Airplane, a spoof of airplane disaster movies popular from the 50s through the, well, you still see them being produced now. Air Force One, for instance. Among the other lead dramatic actors parodying themselves, or the roles they often were cast in, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges, Leslie stole the show, famous for his dead pan delivery of hilarious, slap stick lines, the most recognized being: When asked, "Surely you can't be serious?", he responds with a curt, "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." This line is listed as #73 on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 Movie Quotes.
The public had never seen this side of these actors, and for Leslie, it allowed his real talent for comedy to open up at last and finally be utilized.
The film cost 3.5 million to make and made almost 83.5 million in the U.S. alone. It is listed in AFI's Top Ten Comedy Films of All Time.
And my Aussie fiance, Janine Cory, thought it was the funniest film she had ever seen (we saw in a dive in in the valley somewhere).
The movie's three directors Jim Abrahams, and David and Jerry Zucker, attempted to bring Airplane's style of comedy to television, using Leslie as the show's lead, Detective Frank Drebin in Police Squad.
That show failed, being canceled after only 6 episodes. But six years later they took that idea to the big screen with The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and a franchise was born with two other films produced, and Leslie's reputation and talent for slapstick comedy was enhanced and solidified (I have a favorite quote from this movie as well, which makes it's way to the Stephanie Miller Radio Show and News Cast quite frequently for some reason. Drebin is talking to Jane Spencer, the character Priscilla Presley is playing. She enters her office and steps up a utility ladder with Frank looking up at her from behind as he says, "Oh, nice beaver!" "Thanks. I just had it stuffed," she replies, as she steps back off the ladder into the camera frame holding a beaver that had been to the taxidermist recently).
He would become, as Roger Ebert put it, the Laurence Olivier of spoof, making parodies of The Exorcist, 2001, A Space Odyssey, spy movies, vampire movies, fugitive movies, and most of them not doing very well.
What did do well and has been well received was his contribution to the Scary Movie franchise, in the third and fourth films (a short... revealing clip from Scary Movie 4 is below).
I just saw The Super Hero Movie which they've been showing lately on cable, one of the last films he made when he was 81 or 82 years old. And he was great, although the movie wasn't. He continued working almost until the very end.
The AMC channel has recently been celebrating the 30th anniversary of Airplane! which I've seen a couple of times. I showed it to Paul and Erin at Movie Day a while back as they had never seen it (for some reason unknown to me they were both particularly fond of the Disco flashback scene, which I find a little disturbing). If they're showing Airplane! on AMC you know they're going to show Airplane II: The Sequel, which I've also seen a few times (I say I've watched these films. Actually they rather serve as a background distraction while I'm working, which accounts for the quality of this web-site). And I've seen a few Police Squad movies recently as well (my favorite being the first with the excellent straight man and villain, Ricardo Montalbán), because they appear all of the time on cable. And they're always good. I always laugh at the same stupid lines over and over again. I laughed last night as I wrote this while watching Keith Olbermann pay a tribute to Leslie on Countdown showing clips.
That's a tribute to Leslie Nielsen's talent, humor, and humanity. A little light has gone off in this world with his passing, and I am sad for that, and like my dear sister wish that he rest in peace.
And again, thanks for all the laughs...

Scary Movie 4 clip:

And last but not least, a picture of my lovely case manager Erin, who sadly will be transferring to another hotel within the SRHT community soon, being abducted by Robby the Robot.
I don't know why.

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