Leslie Nielsen, the comic actor who never cracked a smile

Geoffrey Macnab mourns the deadpan star of Airplane and Police Squad!

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.

Jane: Goodyear?

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 8

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum