Obituary: LESLIE NIELSEN

© 1956 MGM Film Studios

I’ve been a sci-fi fan all my life, right from the very moment I learnt to read. Additionally, cinematic sci-fi always held my attention more than any other form of entertainment. The natural fall-out of that is that, as soon as I was aware that there was a greater universe out there beyond the clouds and skies of blue, I became passionately interested in stargazing, the planets of the solar system and astronomy.

So, it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that I only made the connection that Leslie Nielsen, who died aged 84 on Monday, played the spaceship captain in Forbidden Planet AFTER I’d watched the hilarious Airplane!. It’s easy to judge in hindsight, but even then it should have been obvious that he made a much greater impression in comedic roles than he did in straight drama, although that it isn’t to say that Nielsen didn’t have a few successes in serious acting. He appeared on Broadway (Seagulls over Sorrento) and made his film debut in 1955’s The Vagabond King, a musical in which he played a nobleman involved in a plot against King Louis XI.

After his role in that film, he was offered his first (and probably his most notable serious) leading role, in Forbidden Planet, as Commander John J. Adams. By all accounts, the director Fred Wilcox took the whole thing extremely seriously and, according to the obituary in yesterday’s Independent newspaper, told the actors that they should treat it as such. It’s well-known that the premise of the film is a sci-fi riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and that it was clearly an attempt to bring a literacy and critical seriousness to the science fiction genre which was lacking somewhat, the general public of the time coming to see it as being represented by pulp magazines and paperbacks with lurid covers, films with preposterous plots and outlandish alien creatures, and humanoids in tight-fitting spandex with ridiculous sounding names and sporting laser-spouting rayguns.

I must have watched the film sometime in the early seventies, or in my early teens at the very latest – certainly at a period when my critical faculties were nowhere near as sharp or as developed as they are now (if indeed I possessed any at all). That would probably account for the fact that I didn’t actually take much notice of the people playing the parts – I was purely focused on the action. It’s a right old rollicking tale, set on an island in space where the only inhabitants are Dr. Morbius (Walter Pigeon) and his daughter Altaira Morbius (Anne Francis), plus Robbie the Robot.

It was only after watching David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker’s disaster-movie spoof Airplane! in the early 80s that I found out that the actor who played the leading characters in both were one and the same man. It would be very true to say that Nielsen’s aptitude for comedic timing, plus absolute deadpan delivery, made him a natural for the part of Dr. Alan Rumack, the medic on the airplane in question (he was, apparently, well-known as a bit of a prankster on the set of films). Its success went on to spawn the television series Police Squad, which in turn gave us three brilliantly funny film vehicles for Nielsen, the Naked Gun trilogy (The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad, The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult), in which he plays hapless police officer Frank Drebin. These three are, in combination, probably his finest cinematic hour, although he went on to star in further comedy roles in films such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Repossessed (with an appearance from Linda Blair, star of the original Exorcist film), Spy Hard and 2001: A Space Travesty. By all accounts these were not as successful, although I have to say I did enjoy the Dracula spoof immensely, despite what the critics thought of it.

Nielsen’s success is due entirely to his ability to deliver the funniest lines without even a facial twitch and in complete seriousness. The resigned look of bemusement, the willingness to plough on regardless, and the absolutely thorough lack of awareness of the chaos left in his wake while Drebin goes after his man, simultaneously delivering one-liners capable of reducing adults to helpless laughter, is what I’ll remember him most for. Having said that, I think it’s high time that I located a copy of Forbidden Planet and gave it a critical reassessment. Even now, images from that film are playing across the screen of my memory. And then, of course, I’ll follow it very closely with the belly laughs of all three of The Naked Gun series.

Leslie Nielsen was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, of a Danish-born father and a Welsh mother, on February 11 1926. He died on 28th November 2010, aged 84.

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One Response to “Obituary: LESLIE NIELSEN”

  1. None of the media obituaries (which seem to have been lifted straight from Wikipedia) mentioned his recurring role as a crazed gung-ho colonel on the TV series M*A*S*H, which predated his ‘comedy debut’ in Airplane! by several years. He also played the wind-prone mountie, Sgt Buck Frobisher, in several episodes of ‘Due South’.

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