Leslie Nielsen, who died yesterday at the age of 84, was the undisputed king of deadpan. Airplane! and the Naked Gun spoofs – which turned him into a household name in the second half of his career – were made in the 1980s, the era of histrionic performers like John Belushi, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
American screen comedy had had its stony faces before, but before Nielsen came along, understatement wasn't ever Hollywood's stock-in-trade.
This was a quality you'd be far more likely to find in British films.
Dennis Price as Louis Mazzini in Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1948), was the epitome of British screen understatement. Price's Louis blithely murdered off his relatives without appearing in the least emotional or worked up about it. His dialogue was loaded, witty and cruel.
Nielsen's understatement was in a very different register. The reason we all loved him was that he was so wonderfully calm and benign. You could give him the most goofy or salacious lines and he'd put them over in that familiar way which reminded you of a favourite, slightly mischievous uncle.
In every scene, he seemed to be winking at the audience, encouraging us to relish the absurdity of situations spoofmeisters Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker dreamed up for him as much as he did. One reason that Nielsen was so effective in action spoofs in particular was that he looked like the real deal. He had been in proper disaster movies (for example as the Captain in The Poseidon Adventure) long before he started sending them up. Frank Drebin, his cop in Police Squad! and The Naked Gun didn't seem that different (at least at first glance) from, say, Karl Malden in The Streets Of San Francisco. However, whereas Malden and his ilk were crumpled, downbeaten figures, Nielsen was almost insanely cheerful. He also knew that the secret of a successful spoof is to play it very nearly straight.
Take lines like these: "This is Frank Drebin, Police Squad. Throw down your guns and come on out with your hands up. Or come on out, then throw down your guns, whichever way you wanna do it. Just remember the two key elements here: one, guns to be thrown down; two, come on out!"
Other actors would have mugged them up. Nielsen adopted a mock sobriety that made him all the funnier.
His age was to his advantage too. See him as Commander Adams in The Forbidden Planet (1956) and he looks like any other clean-cut Hollywood lead. He was well into his 50s by the time he became a cult comedy figure.
Silver-haired by then – but boyish – he was a senior citizen with the mindset of an inane adolescent. The double entendres flowed, especially when he was confronted with buxom women.
However, there was nothing leering or sinister about him. He retained a childlike innocence.
In truth, Nielsen went on to make a lot of very patchy movies. Soon, the spoofs began to outnumber the films they were ostensibly lampooning.
The same jokes and situations were recycled again and again in increasingly inane fashion. That didn't necessarily make them any the less funny, at least in moments.
His style of comedy worked through attrition. If a goofy gag doesn't work first time, repeat it again. Then repeat it again. Then repeat it again. Eventually, however reluctantly, audiences will give in to laughter. In fact, by the end of his career, simply appearing on screen was enough. Audiences had such a backlog of memories of him doing funny things in the past that they'd begin to chuckle in anticipation of gags that never came. His global reach was underlined recently when the Spanish recruited him to star in their comedy-horror pic Spanish Movie (2009). It was very noticeable that when the film's trailer was being shown by the Spaniards to potential foreign buyers, Nielsen's cameo was foregrounded. Even in his 80s, he could sell a movie.
The Nielsen effect defies too much analysis. He wasn't especially skilled at slapstick. He wasn't a great dramatic lead. His range was limited.
However, by whatever strange alchemy, he made even scenes that might seem half-cocked in a provincial pantomime seem funny. What's more, you couldn't help but feel affection for him.
DEADPAN DELIVERY: NIELSEN'S BEST
* Dr Rumack (Nielsen): Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can't be serious.
Dr Rumack: I am serious... and don't call me Shirley. (Airplane!)
* [Jane Spencer climbs a ladder]
Lt Frank Drebin (Nielsen): Nice beaver!
Jane: [producing a stuffed beaver] Thank you. I just had it stuffed.
(The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!))
* Dr Rumack: You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?
Dr Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now. (Airplane!)
* Drebin: It's the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.
Drebin: No, the worst.
(The Naked Gun)
* Drebin: Now, Jane, what can you tell us about the man you saw last night?
Jane: He's Caucasian. Ed: Caucasian?
Jane: Yeah, you know, a white guy. A moustache. About six foot three.
Drebin: Awfully big moustache.
(The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear)
* Dutch Gunderson: Who are you and how did you get in here?
Frank Drebin: I'm a locksmith. And I'm a locksmith. (Police Squad!)
Susie Rushton: The joy of the deadpan joke
Notebook, Viewspaper, page 24
Obituary, Viewspaper, page 8Reuse content