He's happier playing comic roles than authority figures


June 30, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The hair is as blindingly white as a snowstorm in the Himalayas. Then there are those piercing blue eyes, the natural body posture of command, the craggy, handsome face, the grave composure, everything that creates an icon of authority.

Then he shows you his fart machine, and you know it's Leslie Nielsen.

"I'm out of the closet at last," says Leslie Nielsen with a grin, giving the device, a single-bellows accordionlike affair, a little squeeze. It emits a tentative rippling burble that sounds just like you know what.

Nielsen has become one of the most recognized men in the world as Lt. Frank Drebin, the dead-serious moron police officer whose attempts to solve crime usually take place in a self-created swath of slapstick catastrophe as he bumblingly disassembles the world around him in "The Naked Gun," and now in "The Naked Gun 2 1/2 : The Smell of Fear." In the former he managed to ride Queen Elizabeth down a banquet table, as if she were a skateboard; in the new one, he knocks Barbara Bush off a balcony, where she hangs in her underwear.

The "closet" that Nielsen mentions is of course the closet of the authoritarian personality, wherein he made his living for over 30 years, beginning in 1950. On cheap-jack television shows and series and in B movies, his was ever the visage of authority and rationality. He was the captain or the commanding officer or the district attorney or even the homicidal maniac -- the leader, the boss.

The credits include "The Poseidon Adventure," "The Sheepman," Beau Geste," "Project Kill." He landed on "The Forbidden Planet," way back in the distant past of 1956. As recently as 1985, he bullied Barbra Streisand in "Nuts." It was enough to keep him fed, but not enough to get him listed in "The Encyclopedia of Film, the Most Up-To-Date Reference Book Available," which does find room for Asta Nielsen, who starred in 1932's "Unmogliche Liebe." Distant and aloof but slightly intimidating with that frost of dignity atop his skull, he stood for WASP seriousness of purpose and lack of personality.

"I always looked like I knew what I was doing," he recalls.

As blurred as the parts were and as banal as they were, some people were paying attention. Among them were Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, who were secretly trying to subvert the comedy forms of America after a minor breakthrough with "Kentucky Fried Movie," an independently produced and quite amateurish collection of parodies.

The three put together "Airplane" in a whole new vernacular of comedy. It was the complete density of humor, not only at the center of the frame but in all its nooks and crannies. It was their idea to do to comedy what Ridley Scott had done for space monsters in "Alien": instead of jaws within jaws within jaws, they wanted laughs within laughs within laughs. The comedy was never sophisticated, either: It went straight for the pre-adolescent medulla oblongata, much of it lubricated with caa-caa and weewee and weenie and boobie jokes. Noel Coward would not have been amused, but millions of people were.

In their wicked send-up of "Airport" movies, the two Zuckers and Abrahams hired a quartet of authoritarian types, including Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack to play against their personas.

"When I saw the script to 'Airplane,' " recalls Nielsen, "I said one thing to my agent: 'Don't negotiate. Whatever they offer, take it!' I knew I always wanted to do comedy. I kept telling myself, 'They came to me. It's not a mistake.' "

As if to underscore the point, Nielsen in person is expansive and humorous, ever the clown. The flatulence-generator is ready, much like Clarabelle's horn, if anyone in the reading public can remember either Clarabelle or his horn. Sitting in a hotel suite, he's dressed in golfer's blue slacks and polo shirt, with a golf jacket on. Just a bit of potbelly expands under the Lycra of the shirt.

"It happens," he says, "that their humor was my humor. What they wanted to do was to take my appearance of competence and make it ridiculous."

"Airplane," of course, was a big hit. The Zuckers-Abrahams team, smitten with success, tried to import the humor to television, inventing for Nielsen, whom they'd liked the best of their straight white male authoritarian types, the television character of Lt. Frank Drebin of "Police Squad." The series was quickly sold to ABC-TV.

"They told me that they had a number of funny ideas to send up the police show genre, but that they weren't substantial enough to sustain a full hour and a half. But that it would work as series television, where the flimsiness of the plot wouldn't be held against it."

Maybe so, but as Nielsen remembers, "When everyone is telling me how great it was, and how it would be a big hit, I had a little thing going off in my head saying, 'Mayday,' 'Mayday.' "

The series was canceled after four weeks.

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