The triumph of Leslie Nielsen's reinvention as a comedy star was also something of a tragedy. The minute Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker cast him as an oblivious doctor in their disaster-movie parody Airplane!, it became almost impossible to take any of his prior work seriously.
The Regina-born Nielsen, who died yesterday in Ft. Lauderdale of complications from pneumonia at the age of 84, is being eulogized across Canada as a favourite son who carved out a remarkable second act in Hollywood. All of this is true, but whenever any of the news reports runs a clip from that first act, you can't help but snicker.
Matt Zoller Seitz offers an insightful appraisal of Nielsen's particular genius over at Salon.com, arguing that he spent the first half of his career being typecast as the wrong type.
Sure, that sober baritone of a voice (and his rather generic matinee-idol look) made Nielsen ideal for conventional authoritarian roles - like the captain of United Planets Cruiser C-57D in Forbidden Planet and the doomed skipper in The Poseidon Adventure - but Nielsen was always trying to play to what he believed were his strengths. He was funny on the inside; it just didn't get to come out that often.
Nielsen wasn't the only middle-aged character actor Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker cast in Airplane! - Robert Stack, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges similarly sent up their bodies of work in the film - but he was the only one who really ran with it, embracing the disconnect between his stuffy character and the ridiculous things the ZAZ boys were asking him to say. The "Don't call me Shirley" running gag shouldn't be funny; it should leave us thinking Dr. Rumack is an imbecile. But somehow Nielsen makes it fresh every time.
The ZAZ boys rewarded him with the role of hard-boiled idiot detective Frank Drebin in Police Squad!, a six-episode parody of Dragnet-style cop shows that let Nielsen demonstrate that he not only knew what he was doing, but that he was the best man for the job. Bluntly rejecting a compliment for risking his life in the pursuit of a suspect, Drebin is all clueless modesty: "You take a chance getting up in the morning, or crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan."
It's a line so perfectly suited to Nielsen's deadpan delivery that they had him repeat it in The Naked Gun!, the first of three spinoff movies that finally made him a box-office draw - which led other, less capable filmmakers to hire him to beef up their threadbare scripts with his presence.
Venturing away from the protective embrace of the ZAZ machine led to Nielsen popping up in one-joke parodies like Repossessed, Spy Hard, Wrongfully Accused, Dracula: Dead And Loving It and 2001: A Space Travesty; he turned up as the President in the two Scary Movie movies directed by David Zucker and even took the title role in a pointless live-action remake of Mr. Magoo. You couldn't blame the guy for working, but you could regret the squandering of his talent.
I prefer to remember him as Paul Gross's judgmental father in Men With Brooms. It could have been a thankless role in an unremarkable movie, but for a touching graveside scene where Nielsen and Gross unexpectedly bring out the best in one another as dramatic actors.
For those who only know Nielsen as a post-Airplane! goofball, the depth he shows here is startling; he never got the chance to play that kind of role. He had to reinvent himself as an absurdist before he could get even the slightest bit real.