Leslie Nielsen: Bumbling his way to stardom
The veteran actor explains why he waited so long to turn funny
In this March 2009 file photo, actor Leslie Nielsen kicked off DeSales University's student film festival with a question and answer session with university students at the Labuta Center for the Performing Arts on the university's campus. (Emily Robson/The Morning Call)
Nielsen, in short, is the King Lear of spoofs. The 83-year-old actor will review his toweringly wacky career on Friday night during a student film festival at DeSales University in Center Valley. He previewed the Q&A during a recent telephone conversation from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Deftly deadpan and hilariously humble, he explained why he stopped being a closet comedian, why Charlie Chaplin is a soul mate and why he can never, ever play Hamlet.
Q: You've said you were a closet comedian until around 1980, when Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams gave you your true-blue comic breakthrough as a crazily straight-arrow doctor in "Airplane!" What took you so long to be really funny on camera?
A: I was reasonably reluctant to approaching comedy because I have such a respect for it. I worried that if they called upon me to do anything comic, I would screw it up and prove once again this is something I should not be doing. Remember, for a long time the only real comedy I had done was in the "M*A*S*H" episode "The Ringbanger" .
But David and Jerry and Jim kept insisting and who was I to refuse them? They were smart enough to think I was funny, and I was dumb enough to think I was serious.
Q: Was there anything you ad libbed that made the final cut of "Airplane!"?
A: Yes and no. Improvisations with David and Jerry and Jim at the helm were simply not permitted. You had to try something once or twice more and they might put what you did with a juxtaposition, or they might change the dialogue. Usually I lost.
You know, the Zuckers are really very crafty. We would finish a take and David Zucker would say, "Oh, we're just using that for rehearsal." Then I found out he and Jerry weren't using it for rehearsal anything.
Q: They sound like real harsh taskmasters.
A: Yeah, they are, or they were. You know, it's tough because it paves the way to not trust anybody (laughs).
Q: So what is it about Lt. Frank Drebin, the doofy, disaster-prone detective you played in "The Naked Gun" series, that makes him so lovable?
A: The fact that he is a walking excuse for a good reason why good people like Frank Drebin should never be on the police force. There's Frank Drebin and then there's super cop, and you know the right one to choose in a crisis.
Q: So "Naked Gun" is really a series of sneaky police instructional videos?
A: Well, because I'm going to stay in character (as Drebin) here, I'm going to say you're absolutely right.
Q: So here's another burning question: Who did you have to muscle to sing the theme song for the 1959 TV series "The Swamp Fox," where you played Col. Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War hero?
A: Well, I found out I could sing it just by showing up; it was just a case of bad judgment on their part (chuckles). There was a time, actually, when I thought I was a reasonable singer. I've given up on my singing career; now I'm just concentrating on perfecting the national anthem.
Q: Let's get serious for a moment. You've toured all over the world in David Rintel's solo play about Clarence Darrow, the famous human-rights trial lawyer. Why are you so drawn to him?
A: I've always been amazed and moved by the quality of his life. If a man didn't have any money to defend himself, Darrow would take the case. He single-handedly got the working man the eight-hour day back in the days of the coal miners. He saved 104 men from the hangman's noose. I don't think that's been matched by anybody else.
He was literally a leading man-star. People would flock to his trials and hope to get a seat or stand by an open window outside -- just to hear him making his defense. And his summations were incredibly long. It was normal for him to go for eight hours; the coal-miner summation lasted 12 hours! One reason that men and women attended his summations was because they would be moved. In fact, it's impossible for me to read his summations without dissolving into tears.