After watching Forbidden Planet, Airplane, an episode of “Police Squad!” and Dracula Dead and Loving It with friends yesterday, I still felt the need to carry on with the Leslie Nielsen memorial.
Airplane was a work of comedy genius in that it took a the dramatic genre of the airport disaster films of the ‘70s, and the storyline of a ‘50s B-grade thriller, Zero Hour, and filled it with silly early Woody Allenesque sight gags and sophomoric jokes and had them delivered completely straight by veteran actors of the rank of Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves, none of whom where known for comedy. Leslie Nielsen, whose role in the film is actually much smaller and starts much later than many people probably remember, became an unexpected overnight sensation and his line “I am serious and don’t call me Shirley” nicely sums up the roles he would take over the next 30 years. The rebirth of his career is all the more remarkable as it came in the early ‘80s, when films with younger and younger stars were being marketed more and more to teenagers, and an actor in his 50s, 60s, and even into his 80s, became a comedy legend.
“Police Squad! (In color)”, a TV spoof of shows like “Dagnet” was quickly rolled out to take advantage of Nielsen’s unexpected popularity. It was canceled after a handful of episodes, reportedly because “audiences have to watch it to understand it,” it had an instant cult following, and the movie spin-off cemented Nielsen status as the king of parodies. The movie is of course very silly, and many of the topical references not only date the film, but make it a bit hard to decode today. But Nielsen and his fans were enjoying him being silly, and it would just get sillier and sillier.