This morning I was devastated to learn that Leslie Nielsen -- one of my favorite actors of all time -- passed away. Nielsen started off doing drama, then became famous for comedy. But what made him so great was an acting style that intentionally blurred the distinction between the two.
While it was "Airplane" that first publicly cast Nielsen into a comedic light, he did his finest work in the 3rd best movie of all-time, "The Naked Gun: Files From The Police Squad!" (The only two movies better are "Back To The Future" and "The Princess Bride.")
Playing the iconic police detective Frank Drebin, Nielsen employed every shred of dramatic acting technique he had acquired over the years to make Drebin as believably inept as he possibly could. Frank Drebin was never "in" on the joke -- and that's what made him so likable. Sure, other gifted actors could play the straight-man convincingly. But Nielsen's natural straight-faced-ness was a gift that no other comedic actor could ever compete with. Even Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau -- as brilliant as he was -- paled in comparison, because with Clouseau there was a blatant over-the-top-ness to the portrayal that could often take you out of the story being told. He was speaking with a fake French accent for crying out loud!
But there was nothing fake or artificial about Nielsen's Drebin. He approached every situation as any cop on the force would. For proof, look at this comparison between "Dirty" Harry Callahan and Frank Drebin:
This moment, like so many others of Nielsen's career, is brilliant not just because it wittily references a popular archetype, but also because it shows us just how silly some of those archetypes are. It's as if Frank Drebin was the main character of a classic hard-boiled cop story, where someone erased certain sections and replaced them with absurd substitutions. Instead of a gun, Drebin gets foiled by a pillow. Instead of commandeering a pedestrian's vehicle, Drebin ends up commandeering a "teen driving school" car:
Now a lot of this credit should also go to Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker -- the creative team who made this movie and who, in one combination or another, maintained the spoof genre until it was spoiled in recent years.
But if there's any doubt that Nielsen was their best muse, just look at the efforts from other 'serious' actors they employed like Charlie Sheen and Lloyd Bridges in "Hot Shots!" Solid yes, but no doubt inferior to Nielsen's inimitable Drebin. Even Clouseau could be recast twice after Sellers (yes twice -- Steve Martin in recent years and Alan Arkin in 1968 after the first two Pink Panther movies), because Clouseau was at its essence an idea. An idea of a bumbling foreigner best inhabited by Peter Sellers but one that could be inhabited by other gifted actors as well.
Frank Drebin on the other hand is Leslie Nielsen. There is no other actor who could ever inhabit that role, and so let's hope no one ever makes the monumental mistake of doing a remake of "The Naked Gun." Instead, let's hope someone decides to rerelease it. That way, a whole new generation can revisit a wonderful movie and the genius of Leslie Nielsen.