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The Leading Leslie

August 2018

Maybe it was his first name, Leslie, that presented problems for this actor as he eventually became stymied for strong male leads in films. For a very long time, Leslie Nielsen played a “heavy” in Hollywood films and in countless bit parts on television.

I particularly liked him in the role of the captain of the doomed ship in The Poseidon Adventure. As was typical of the storyline of the 1970s, the Authority Figure was gotten rid of early! Down the hatch! And Leslie Nielsen looked so darned good in that uniform! I guess the Suits put him in that get-up because he was so decisively tall.

By 1980, this gifted thespian veered into the Airplane role, a spectacular success that was followed by the Naked Gun pranks and horseplay.

What happened?

Nielsen was a tremendous comedic actor, even acteur, but we all know that comedy was horribly ignored for serious acclaim by the Real Hollywood. I recently began to understand the frustrations this actor must have experienced landing meaty film roles. I watched him in a perfectly awful episode of The Big Valley, “Town with No Exit”. The title alone triggered the claustrophobic side of me, but my curiosity prevailed. For a brief while.

I looked at this Season 4-stinker in bits and pieces, 10 minutes at the start, 5 minutes in the middle, and 10 minutes of the hideous ending.

Viewing this episode in multiples of fast-forwarded 5 minutes didn’t help the abysmal writing and directing of this “dramatic” effort. The look on the face of “Heath” (Lee Majors) as the Wench attempts to seduce him through a healing salve on his rope burn said it all:

“Who do I sleep with to get off of this show? Fine, I’ll take Leslie over this girl!”

Nielsen out-acted everyone on that set. His acting was sleepy-eyed farcical with a lilting accent and a dash of the demon that he effected so well in his dramatic roles in Hollywood films such as Forbidden Planet (precursor to Captain Kirk) and Harlow. Drama, western, romance:

Nielsen performed in each genre with instinctive ease — in every plot that he handled; the plot did not handle him. His was a commanding presence, and I think that commanding aspect became problematic as the 1970s drearily dawned upon the Hollywood horizon.

The need for strong leading males dimmed and dimmed, to the point where Mr. Nielsen shunted himself, against type, into the spoofs that made him very famous. (I don’t even want to get into the enormous insult of Ricardo Montalban playing Mr. Roark.)

It was a crying (or laughing) shame, so much marvelous theatrical talent devoted to deadpan humor. The only reason that Leslie Nielsen got away with it was the rich power of his earlier work. The potent look in his eyes, the deep but fluid voice, the skills honed at the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, those elements all went into ripe characterizations that played upon his earlier roles.

At comedy, he was a natural. At drama, he was a trained natural. Tailor-made for the TV-guest star role, Nielsen was a consummate professional whose solid image worked almost effortlessly into any plot line. Just put him in a uniform, and the audience was sold!

In the spoof flicks, he once again played The Authority Figure, but with a rather big tongue-in-cheek. Not quite over the top, his acting swimmingly rose to a level that the younger players would never realize. Part of the appeal was his tall, strong physique, with the sloped muscular shoulders of an acrobat; masculine good looks; and the masterful tone of his voice.

Leslie Nielsen was reminiscent of Gary Cooper, but he was much too polished for pure cowboy fare. On the other hand, he was less refined than Cary Grant, although he could depict “sophisticated” in a nonchalant way that stopped short of the silent swaggering insolence of Robert Mitchum. His resonant voice was not God-like with a Heston intonation, but that timbre was distinctive and daring. It was a rare gift, underused by an aging Hollywood.

Hollywood had an embarrassment of leading male riches in the 1950s. The acting world was full up with Cooper and Grant, Glenn Ford and Jimmy Stewart, Heston, Peck, Wayne, Mitchum, Douglas, Lancaster, even the aging Gable. For this dexterous dramatic actor from the prairies and forests of western Canada, the film field in Hollywood was quite crowded in terms of dramatic leading men. By 1970, that field was parched, dry as a desert!

Nielsen probably didn’t care about the spoof roles, as long as the paychecks kept coming to him. This handsome, suave-ish brute from Regina, Saskatchewan possessed superb comedic timing, but he didn’t have the best of timing where the Strong Male Lead was concerned. His face fit the big screen very well, but the big screen shrunk, even more than the extent to which Norma Desmond histrionically griped.

The 1970s was a time of dismal drama: short men posing as heroes, stronger women parading as heroines, with violence, blood, guts, drugs, and gore, all splayed on the screen with nudity in between. And then a bit more grotesque nakedness added in, just in case you’d missed it!

Maybe Leslie Nielsen chose to accept the Naked Gun role as a practical-joke payback to the industry that had slid into such vulgar decline. A spoof within a spoof! Parody woven into parody!

He once spoke of how naive he was during his tender youth, of the ease with which women took advantage of him, and he didn’t realize he’d been a pawn until much later. Oh, Mr. Nielsen, you were not alone in that situational comedy!

More compelling was his honesty, a type of self-deprecation that must have come from the Welsh in him. He stated:

“ . . . I must say when you come from the land of the snow goose, the moose, and wool to New York, you're bringing every ton of hayseed and country bumpkin that you packed. As long as I didn't open my mouth, I felt a certain security. But I always thought I was going to be unmasked: 'OK, pack your stuff.' 'Well, what's the matter?' 'We've discovered you have no talent; we're shipping you back to Canada.’”

Nowadays, The Movies in America could use a few more hayseed and country bumpkins from Canada. Casting calls in Saskatchewan!