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Leslie Nielsen:

From Gravitas To Goofball

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Images by Andrés Alvarez Iglesias and used under a Creative Commons License.
Often Actors Become Typecast Or Simply Do Not Have The Range To Cross From Drama To Comedy, But For One Of The Most Late-Blooming Comic Actors In History, Being Funny Was Something That Came Naturally


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 24, 2014 — As a formidable authority figure, Leslie Nielsen (who died this week in 2010 at the age of 84 and would have been 88 this year) spent the better part of his career as a kind of Rock of Gibraltar around which the real action flowed. But all the while, during his early creative years, a comedian was itching to break out of that prim exterior. It took pivotal roles in Airplane! And the Naked Gun franchise of comedies to introduce the world to the new Leslie Nielsen: consummate goofball.

It was a role he played to the hilt on and off the screen as any cursory look around his Hollywood Hills home confirmed. For us, who visited with Nielsen in 1998, it wasn’t the three-way view of sun-bleached white buildings stretching across the Los Angeles basin that commanded the eye, but rather the funny bric-a-brac that populated his living room and had a habit of sneaking up on the casual observer like tripwires in a wartime North Vietnamese jungle.

A Naked Gun beach towel hung like some ersatz tapestry from one wall next to a framed superimposed photo of Nielsen sitting on the Forrest Gump bench next to Tom Hanks. If that’s not enough, how about another photo of a “ripped” Nielsen with abs bulging astride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle a la “Ah-nuld” in The Terminator? Nielsen’s home was a funhouse without mirrors.

As a go-for-broke slapstick heir to the great silent comedians, it was odd to hear Nielsen confide a little secret he harbored for years – he rode out the 1950s and ‘60s as an insecure actor with a confidence problem.

“I think I’ve been rehearsing for these funny movies all my life,” he told us, “because I did all my comedy behind the camera years ago, and there you’re playing the percentages; if it worked, great! If it didn’t, you moved on. Comedy is elusive and strange. I guess I was always a closet comedian, but being a crack-up on the set was always hit and miss. In the early days, I used to have a drink or two or three to try to crawl out of that inhibition.”

To hear him tell it, Nielsen’s transformation took much more than just being a glib cut-up between camera set-ups; it went to the central question of why he became an actor in the first place.

“The essence of acting is self-revelation,” he said. “But it’s very tough to reveal yourself because it’s fraught with danger. You approach your work with a slight touch of panic … and that panic has diminished tremendously for me over the years.”

The panic, Nielsen said, which was omnipresent in the early days, really started to ebb with his deadpan portrayal of loopy Dr. Rumack in Airplane! in 1980, for directors/writers Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker – the “ZAZ team.”

“The ZAZ boys never tried to tell the audience what was funny,” Nielsen said. “That’s why they succeeded so tremendously. They told us not to help the jokes along, just do them and if the audience catches them, fine. The audience had that feeling of being left alone to choose for themselves, which is the ultimate respect that we could have paid them. They found the laughs for themselves.”

Nielsen’s comedies and later Spyhard spoof, play so fast and loose, sometimes they seem ad-libbed. Not so, said Nielsen.

“In Airplane! there was virtually no improvisation. I think the only thing I improvised were little takes I did to Julie Hagerty when I saw her groping the inflatable dummy pilot ‘Otto.’ Comedy doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be finely tuned, down to the most inordinate precision. Electric pieces of business that just happen out of the moment are extremely rare,” he said.

Nielsen, mused about the kinetic spark that separates surefire from near-miss comedy and said that most often, good comedy seemed to be done to the count of three.

“It’s a rhythm. Funny lines seem to happen on the count of three. It’s almost primordial and seems to cut across languages and nationalities,” Nielsen said.

In Nielsen’s view, all a comedian can do is fight for what he or she thinks is funny.

“But that fight can never be, in my opinion, etched in stone,” he said. “There are too many times when I have felt that bits weren’t funny and you see them later in the theater and the audience is falling on the floor laughing.”

A case in point is the, “sh__ hitting the fan” sight gag from Airplane!

“I told Jerry I thought it was gross,” Nielsen remembered, “but he said: ‘Leslie, the gag takes 1/1000th of a second on the screen. Come to the matinee on Saturday and see for yourself if it works.’ He was right. The kids were on the floor.”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at
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