A Tribute to Leslie Nielsen

One of the painful realizations of my adolescence was that I had my father’s sense of humor. A friend’s parent confirmed it for me when I was about 14, after I made an obvious play on words. I knew from that point on that, down the road, I would be unable to resist easy puns, constant references to hilarious television scenes, and fabricated ancestries for athletes with unusual names.

But if inheriting Dad’s sense of humor was the price for early access to some of his favorite comedies, well, it’s one I’d gladly pay again. Because let me tell you: There weren’t too many other fathers who didn’t balk when their seven-year-old son watched The Simpsons and made sure that by the time he was 11 or 12 had seen Airplane! and The Naked Gun and just about the entire Mel Brooks oeuvre.*

*Commenting during Blazing Saddles that he “probably shouldn’t have shown [me] something that used the n-word so much.”

Dad’s taste for comedy helped form mine, and with it of course came an appreciation for the deadpan of Leslie Nielsen, who passed away on Sunday at the inconceivable age of 84—inconceivable, mainly because Leslie Nielsen has looked almost exactly the same for the duration of his comedic career, which came seemingly as he was riding into the dramatic sunset.

Nielsen earned that second film career because he could deliver absurdities with such straight-laced seriousness. “And don’t call me Shirley” isn’t an intrinsically funny line; it’s the fact that it’s spoken so matter-of-factly by a man in a jacket and tie that renders it so hilarious. And that tone—the serious response to an absurd situation—is, after all, the entire premise of nearly all of Airplane!’s comedy—a style that would influence the cinema for decades.

Nielsen is just another great man of comedy we’ve lost in 2010. Goodyear?

No, the worst.


Airplane! is my favorite comedy–and arguably favorite movie–of all time.  Leslie Nielsen is far and away the best part of it. I am serious. And won’t call him Shirley.


I’ve had a lot of different “favorite funny movies” in my life, but I’m pretty sure my first favorite was The Naked Gun, which I remember watching when I was barely old enough to recognize the archetypes the film was satirizing. And while Airplane! (a later favorite funny movie) is the better film, and while Leslie Nielsen’s deadpan is a highlight of that film, I’ll remember Nielsen more for the stone-faced obliviousness that he wore throughout The Naked Gun series. Airplane! would be a funny movie without Nielsen, but The Naked Gun films were all about Nielsen and his ability to deliver even the most childish jokes with a stern dignity.

John S

[Jane climbs a ladder]

Frank Drebin: Nice beaver!

Jane: [producing a stuffed beaver] Thank you. I just had it stuffed.


Frank Drebin: 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.


Frank Drebin: I’d known her for years. We used to go to all the police functions together. Ah, how I loved her, but she had her music. I think she had her music. She’d hang out with the Chicago Male Chorus and Symphony. I don’t recall her playing an instrument or being able to carry a tune. Yet she was on the road 300 days of the year. In fact, I bought her a harp for Christmas. She asked me what it was.


Frank Drebin: I’m single! I love being single! I haven’t had this much sex since I was a Boy Scout leader!

[Music stops playing. Everyone stops talking and stares at him]

Frank Drebin: I mean at the time I was dating a lot.


Frank Drebin: [describing Jane; voice-over] I couldn’t believe it was her. It was like a dream. But there she was, just as I remembered her. That delicately beautiful face. And a body that could melt a cheese sandwich from across the room. And breasts that seemed to say… “Hey! Look at these!” She was the kind of woman who made you want to drop to your knees and thank God you were a man! She reminded me of my mother, all right. No doubt about it.


Frank Drebin: It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girls dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Jane: Goodyear?

Frank Drebin: No, the worst.

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: A hospital? What is it?

Dr. Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.


Dr. Rumack: Captain, how soon can you land?

Captain Oveur: I can’t tell.

Dr. Rumack: You can tell me. I’m a doctor.

Captain Oveur: No. I mean I’m just not sure.

Dr. Rumack: Well, can’t you take a guess?

Captain Oveur: Well, not for another two hours.

Dr. Rumack: You can’t take a guess for another two hours?


Dr. Rumack: What was it we had for dinner tonight?

Elaine: Well, we had a choice of steak or fish.

Dr. Rumack: Yes, yes, I remember, I had lasagna.

Quentin Hapsburg: Any final requests, Lieutenant?

Frank Drebin: Er, yes… Can I have the gun?


Frank Drebin: Like a midget at a urinal, I was going to have to stay on my toes.


Frank Drebin: 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!


Frank Drebin: Like a blind man at an orgy, I was going to have to feel my way through.


[Frank Drebin is emptying out his files after being kicked off the force]

Frank Drebin: Hey! The missing evidence in the Kelner case! My God, he really was innocent!

Ed: He went to the chair two years ago, Frank.

Frank Drebin: Well, uh…


Frank Drebin: Wilma, I promise you; whatever scum did this, not one man on this force will rest one minute until he’s behind bars. Now, let’s grab a bite to eat.


Commissioner: Ladies and gentlemen, I would now like to introduce a most special American. Tonight, he is being honoured for his 1000th drug-dealer killed.

Frank Drebin: Thank you. But, in all honesty, the last three I backed over with my car. Luckily, they turned out to be drug-dealers.


Frank 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.

Frank Drebin: Awfully big moustache.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker, the writers/producers of Airplane and The Naked Gun movies saw in Leslie Nielson, a straight actor until 1980, something special. But, he was not the only one. They took people who were always serious actors, mostly as leads in TV shows, like Peter Graves (Mission Impossible), Lloyd Bridges (Sea Hunt), Robert Stack (The Untouchables),and Barbara Billingsley (Leave it to Beaver, which sounds like a line from The Naked Gun) and let them show their comedy chops. Part of the hysteria was seeing these actors, who had been a big part of our baby boomer youths, playing against character. Barbara Billingsley talking jive was mind-bending. Interestingly, those GEICO commercials with the guy tilting his head down and looking up at the camera, (“Could switching to Geico really save you 15 percent or more on car insurance”—which he then answers by asking other questions with obvious answers, like “Is Ed ‘Too Tall Jones too tall?”) is a take-off on Robert Stack who is also remembered for “Unsolved Mysteries”, TV show of the 80’s and 90’s. Of course those commercials were deeply influenced by the Airplane humor. One of the great things about those movies, besides Nielson, is that there were often jokes in the background, some visual, some aural (not oral!), that were running at the same time. You can literally just watch the background of those movies the whole time and laugh again. Leslie Nielson was the most enduring of the bunch of reformed TV actors and will surely (or is it Shirley?)be missed.


  2. Posted by Tim on November 29, 2010 at 2:28 PM

    I either haven’t seen it or totally forgot about that lion scene in the “Best Naked Gun Moments.” Even better than the first lion scene in the trilogy.


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