It’s not exactly uncommon for a funnyman to transition into dramatic roles once enough orphanages have been saved or, uh, late-life high school diplomas have been obtained. The list of comedians-turned-tragedians is practically endless. It includes Adam Sandler, Peter Sellers, Bill Murray, and even the great one himself, Jackie Gleason. However, for a myriad of possible reasons, the opposite is rarely true.
The exception to the rule is a genial, white-haired man who for several decades was considered to be one of the funniest guys alive. Leslie Nielsen sure didn’t start out that way, though. Nielsen had an astoundingly long career in Hollywood before he ever slipped on a banana peel or confused the word “surely” with the name “Shirley.” His days as a stone-faced heavy came to an abrupt end when he appeared in a little comedy called “Airplane!”
Before his legendary tenure as Lt. Frank Drebin in “Police Squad!” on TV and the “Naked Gun” film series, Nielsen was cast as Dr. Rumack in the immensely popular takedown of the 1970s disaster movie. Created by the sultans of spoof—David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams—“Airplane!” virtually created the joke-a-second format that has come to typify the genre.
The Zuckers and Abrahams insisted on using actors who had never done comedy before, noting that serious people taking stupid stuff at face value was much funnier than comedians hamming it up. This accounts for a cast that included dour-faced legends such as Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges (although Bridges would go on to do more comedy later in his career). It also accounts for Leslie Nielsen putting the kibosh on more than three decades of playing parts that did not require acting opposite a blow-up sex doll.
This was no small feat as Nielsen was not a bit player during his, up to that point, 30-year career. He was the leading man in several blockbusters, including the 1956 smash “Forbidden Planet.” Funnily enough, he also had a large role in “The Poseidon Adventure,” a serious disaster movie that bears more than a striking resemblance to “Airplane!”
The secret to Nielsen’s comedic success here is his perfectly deadpan delivery. Throughout the entire film, and his later work, he acts as if every absurd thing going on around him is completely normal. Of course, in typical Inspector Clouseau fashion, he often adds to the absurdity through ridiculous dialogue and actions. It’s almost as if his characters, deep down, still think they are roving around one of his earlier dramatic films. The juxtaposition works, turning simple wordplay into laugh-out-loud moments.
On paper, the term “just play it straight” seems easy enough, as that was the direction given to the actors from the creative team. However, only someone like Nielsen, who freely admitted to never being comfortable as a dramatic leading man, could transform the script’s words into something truly iconic. His “best of” list from this film reads like a “best of” list of comedy scenes from the era itself. Whether patiently explaining what a hospital was to a bewildered Julie Hagerty or verbally sparring with Peter Graves, each time Nielsen appears in the film it is truly unforgettable. There is a reason, after all, he managed to parlay this into a major late-stage career resurgence.
Oh, and in case you were wondering which era of his career Nielsen may have preferred, his gravestone includes a fart joke. Bravo, good sir. Bravo.
Lawrence Bonk is a writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Huffington Post, and a bunch of weird websites that make pop-up filters work overtime.