The Capsizing of Leslie Nielsen

Prior to 1980 no one would ever have dreamt that Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010) might some day be a touchstone for a rumination about the nature of comedy, but then that’s the entire point of Leslie Nielsen.

I have been a fan of Nielsen’s almost my entire life — he starred in the very first movie I ever saw in a cinema, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), still one of my favorite films. His role as the doomed ship’s captain is High Nielsen, the quintessence of what he was: blessed with good looks, strong physique, and an unforgettable voice…but as stiff and lacking in nuance as the steel in the Poseidon’s hull. He is of that generation of emotionless men which produced a crop of emotionless actors. Nielsen is steady-as-she-goes throughout the film. I think his eyes widen slightly when he sees the 100 ft. tall rogue wave that will kill him in about ten seconds. That’s about it.

I was startled to learn this morning that he’d taken classes at the Actors Studio. The fact that he was also legally deaf might explain how little he seems to have taken away from those classes. (That’s meaner than I mean to be. Like George Washington Plunkitt, “I Seen My Opportunities and I Took ‘Em.” ) But I also want to stress that I don’t mean to be mean because (as I’ve written many times) I vastly prefer the old melodrama style of acting to the Method. (Nielsen was a nephew by the way of silent screen and radio actor Jean Hersholt. So he comes by this quality honestly.) I am a FAN of Nielsen’s work. But I must hasten to clarify: I am NOT a fan of the work that everyone ELSE is a fan of. This will put me at odds with many comedy fans, I imagine but it won’t be for the first time.

The way I see it, there are four phases to Nielsen’s career. In the initial phase, starting around 1950, he was tried as a legit leading man in films like Forbidden Planet (1956), The Vagabond King (1956), and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). In his early years, Nielsen hadn’t found himself yet. When I first saw Forbidden Planet, I didn’t even recognize him. His hair was dark, his face has not yet acquired character-lines. He was just like all the other anonymous dudes in ’50s movies. Macho, wooden, a dab of Bryl Creem in his hair. His starring role in Disney’s The Swamp Fox (1959-1961) is probably the pinnacle of this period.

High Nielsen is Nielsen in the ’70s, when he is middle-aged, a throwback. His acting style hasn’t grown or changed with experience but only ossified. He is like a circus horse who has learned his tricks and keeps doing them. He is a “professional”, which is not to say a hack. He hits his marks, he utters the words in the script with intensity but little nuance. He “performs”. But somehow he is no longer dull, as he was in the ’50s, nor however is he “true”. “Truth” is not the value that is sought or delivered in these performances, no matter how much lip service is paid to that virtue. It is something else. It is entertainment. This is the Leslie Nielson on TV, on shows like Columbo and Night Gallery, and in movies like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Day of the Animals (1977), Creepshow (1982), and two Irwin Allen films made in 1979 but not released until 1983, The Night the Bridge Fell Down and Cave-In. It is Nielsen in the Garden of Eden before the apple, as it were. He does not know he is naked. And that is essential to camp, or my preferred term post-camp, for I do not judge it as “bad”, merely as something I enjoy rather obscenely.

The best of parody ought to be visually indistinguishable from its target

The third phase, and the summit, I think, is when the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams used that quality and managed to transplant it without harm to their spoofs Airplane! (1980) and Police Squad! (1982). Here he strictly adheres to his patented deadpan, and plays these absurd parodies completely straight, as though they were his usual melodramas, and it is comedy gold. Thus far I am in accord with the prevailing feeling.

It is in the fourth phase, starting with The Naked Gun (1988), that I appear to part ways with the pack. In this movie and the three dozen or so comedies that followed, Nielsen is self-aware. He knows (or thinks he does) that he is “funny”. He engages in slapstick. He crosses his eyes. He falls down. He plays it straight but only momentarily, reverting every few seconds to boorish, cliched comedy business broadcast to the audience from a million watt tower. Clearly somebody liked this stuff. In fact it was all he was hired to do for his last two decades, things like Repossessed (1990), The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991), Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995),  Spy Hard (1996), Mr. Magoo (1997), Scary Movie 3 (2003), and Scary Movie 4 (2004). In principle I ought to like these movies — in practice most of them just make me grind my teeth. I’m all about parodies and a barrage of jokes, just not lame ones. I tried to watch some of Naked Gun 33 1/3 the other day to prep for this post (I saw it when it first came out) and could only last a few minutes. Found it unwatchable. Ironically, Nielsen was at funniest when he wasn’t “funny”.

Only in 2010, when he died, did Nielsen regain a glimmer of that quality his fans loved so much in the early years. Death is the ultimate in histrionic minimalism — nothing extraneous, nothing that oversells, or begs. The dead actor makes the audience come to HIM. And yet, I learned this morning that Nielsen managed to spoil even that. This morning I learned the distressing fact that there is literally a fart joke on his tombstone:

For more on classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,