I first saw actor and comic genius Leslie Nielsen on screen in ‘The Naked Gun‘ (1988)- one of that short list of movies that my father introduced me to, not having seen it himself, but somehow knowing it would become an instant classic. That first viewing on VHS- I can’t recall if it was before we owned or own VCR, or when we had to rent those bulky suitcased units from the local convenience store- spurred many, many more viewings of the Naked Gun series over the years. Naked Gun 2 1/2, my favorite of the trilogy, is still one of my favorite comedies of all time. It gave me a huge respect for some of the least respected, but most-loved, types of movie comedies.
Nielsen’s best known role, that of Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, is another classic comedy from a different list: It was one of the movies my Dad screened for me, knowing its genuis and its place in the pantheon of classic movie comedies. My first viewing was definitely before my time though: I remember sitting in the dark alternating between bemused and confused as the gags unfurled furiously. The multiple sight gags and wordplay barely registered for me (I remember my Dad even having to explain who Kareem Abdul-Jabar was), but I remembered thinking it must be something if my Dad liked it so much, and I knew at the time it was different than almost any other comedy I had seen.
Nielsen had the unique ability to be in on the joke and take it seriously at the same time, and he set the tone for the entire ensemble in his movies to join in without ruining the mood. He was the perfect match for the Abrahams’ and Zucker brand of lightning-fast writing, silly outlook, and sharp humor; nobody besides Val Kilmer (in the hugely underrated ‘Top Secret’) has come as close to nailing it as Leslie Nielsen.
I most recently watched Leslie Nielsen in a decidedly different role than the ones that made him famous. In the classic 1971 Columbo episode “Lady in Waiting”, Nielsen plays the smooth but honest boyfriend to the meek heiress who murdered her brother. In that much earlier role, you can see the same easy charm that made the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies work so well, and it cements Nielsen’s stature as a great actor besides his legendary wit and timing as a comedian. He’ll be missed, and his work lives on.
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