There is a lot of sadness on Twitter, Facebook and everywhere else in North America over the recent death of actor Leslie Nielsen. I had two immediate thoughts about this. One was O.J. did it. I don’t know how, but if he got away with two (allegedy) he can get away with another. The second was that Nielsen was 84! That’s over a decade past the average male life expectancy. So please do not cry for Detective Frank Drebin.
And there is fantastic news about Mr. Nielsen’s death: He never had to be in a Jason Friedberg/Aaron Seltzer movie. Fred Willard and Dave Foley can’t say that, unfortunately.
There are perhaps still a few of us who are unaware that the Canadian-born Nielsen was in many, many films and television shows prior to the Abrahams/Zucker spoof Airplane!, including Forbidden Planet, The Poseidon Adventure, and 50 other films you would never sit through, films with names like …And Millions Die! and Viva Knievel! So Airplane! was far from Nielsen’s first exclamation point movie.
But it was the 1977 Jim Abrahams/Zucker Brothers comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie that changed Nielsen’s career. He had an uncredited cameo in that film, but the producers kept Nielsen in the back of their minds. He had to spend the next two years doing films like Little Mo, The Albertans, and City on Fire, the disaster B-movie made immortal by Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but finally greatness came in 1980: Nielsen’s first real comedy role. Sure he had starred in comedies with the likes of Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Don Knotts, and he’d have to share the spotlight here with Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Airplane! belonged to Nielsen.
The following eight years were almost as ridiculous for Leslie as the previous ones. You had Prom Night and Creepshow; the extraterrestrial spoof The Creature Wasn’t Nice; Soul Man, of course; Nuts, which would be his last non-comedy role, starring with Barbra Streisand and Richard Dreyfuss; and Dangerous Curves, the wonderful Tate Donovan vehicle. But Nielsen also got to star in six episodes of a show called Police Squad! (There’s that exclamation point again), a television crime spoof created by, you guessed it, Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers.
This lead to the 1988 comedy classic The Naked Gun, Nielsen’s first starring role in a film people would actually see. It had all the greats – George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban, and, of course, O.J. Simpson – but, even more so than Airplaine!, this was Leslie Nielsen’s film.
There were two more Naked Gun movies, then O.J. murdered Nicole and her friend (Allegedly!), and Nielsen was typecast in spoof films, each one worse than the last. There was Repossessed (Exorcist spoof), Spy Hard (James Bond spoof), Wrongfully Accused (Fugitive spoof), Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It (Duh), 2001: A Space Travesty (Really?), Scary Movie 3 and 4, Superhero Movie, and Stan Helsing. That’s right. STAN F-ing Helsing. Nielsen was the “Weird Al” Yankovic of film.
He also starred in about a dozen family films, and I would rather make my two-year-old sit through Gladiator and Natural Born Killers than any of them.
And that was the career of Leslie Nielsen. He may have invented television’s Nielsen ratings, but I’m far too lazy to confirm that.
So, yes, the death of the great Leslie William Nielsen, OC is a sad thing for everyone. But if anything good can come out of it, it could mean the final nail in the coffin of the spoof film, a genre than began with Abbott and Costello and continued with Mel Brooks and Monty Python, and has recently given us MacGruber, Dance Flick, and Vampires Suck. So perhaps the Wayans Brothers and the Friedberg/ Seltzer team have already hammered that last nail.