Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Essential Films of Leslie Nielsen

The world lost a comedy icon on November 28, 2010: Leslie Nielsen. This man starred in some of my favorite movies as a kid, and while he started his career as a dramatic actor, he will forever be known as one of the most quotable comedic actors from the most quotable comedies ever made. Here are three films you should watch to honor the man.

Airplane! (1980)

I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley. 

Airplane! was one of the first parodies I’ve ever seen. A movie that mocks other famous films and has a ludicrous story with lots of sight gags and one-liners. The difference is that while some are good, and most are freaking terrible, Airplane! stands above all of them. It’s the Citizen Kane of goofball comedies. The story doesn’t even revolve around Nielsen, who plays Dr. Rumack, a passenger on the doomed airplane. But he’s certainly the scene stealer (with Robert Stack getting an honorable mention.) What made this performance so awesome, and really what made MOST of his work so hilarious, is that he’s not even trying to be funny. He’s delivering the dialog completely straight, but it’s in that delivery that his genius lies. He is the ultimate “straight man.” Think about it… the famous “don’t call me Shirley” line has to be one of the DUMBEST jokes ever in a movie, but you can’t tell me you don’t laugh it. I STILL laugh at that stupid joke.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)

Jane, since I’ve met you, I’ve noticed things that I never knew were there before… birds singing, dew glistening on a newly formed leaf, stoplights. 

Nielsen then brought his dead pan style of comedy to the Naked Gun series, which was based off a very goofball show called “Police Squad!” “Police Squad!” was so wacky that it only lasted 6 episodes, but somewhere someone thought it would be a good idea to make a movie out of a FAILED TV show. And thank God they did, because it created an incredibly successful film series and kept Leslie Nielsen employed and rich for years. The first one is clearly the best, but the two sequels are still pretty freaking hilarious.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

I'm in command of 18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days. It would have served you right if I hadn't... and he... oh go on, get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard - and then I'll put more guards on the guards! 

At first glance, this is a cheesy 50s Science Fiction B-Movie. In many ways it is, of course. But its influence can not be understated.  Gene Roddenberry has been quoted as saying this film was a major influence in creating the "Star Trek" series.  Neilsen plays a straight man, the commander of a starship marooned with his crew on a strange planet.  It might be odd for many viewers more familiar with Nielsen's comedic work to see him playing a dramatic role, but all the more reason to watch it.  Nielsen had a dramatic as well as a comedic range. His comedic roles were the most financially successful, but one should seek out films like Forbidden Planet to fully appreciate all he contributed to cinema.

Rest in peace, sir. The world will be a little less funny now.

…thank God your movies are on TV all the time.

Other Notable Films:

RANSOM! (1956)
HARVEY (1996)

Leslie Nielsen Passes Away

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Leslie Nielsen yesterday.  Nielsen was one of the great comic actors of all time, and don't let anyone tell you differently.

Nielsen started off his career as a television actor and made his motion picture debut in 1956's Ransom.  He went to star in films as varied as Forbidden Planet, Beau Geste and The Poseidon Adventure, but he spent most of his early career in television and supporting roles.  

Then came Airplane! in 1980 and everything changed.  His performance was so brilliant that from that point forward he became known primarily as a comedic actor... and not just that, but a comedic leading man.  He took his newfound comedic success to a strange little television show called "Police Squad!"  While that show didn't last more than 6 episodes, it somehow managed to spawn an incredibly successful and equally hilarious film series in The Naked Gun.  From that point on, he cemented himself as a comedy legend and delivered memorable performances in movies like Repossessed, Spy Hard and the Scary Movie series.

What made his performances so incredibly funny was that he wasn't trying to be funny.  His best comedic work, if you really study it, he's completely dead pan.  He doesn't mug.  He doesn't say the lines in a "funny way."  He just delivers the dialog in a very straight-forward, very serious way.  You don't know why it's funny, it just is.  There in lies the man's genius.  Rest in peace, sir.

...and don't call me Shirley.