I can’t think of another career quite like Leslie Nielsen’s. For nearly thirty years he was a “utility” leading man who barely ever cracked a smile. He worked in live television drama, scores of filmed television shows, and movies. Then overnight, with the success of Airplane!, he became everybody’s go-to guy for goofy comedies—to the extent that almost no one in amnesia-ridden Hollywood would cast him in a serious role again. (Airplane! also redirected the careers of such other stoic actors as Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, but not to the same degree.)
Even Swoosie Kurtz, the talented actress who costarred with him in a television production of the famous play Harvey, confessed to me that she wasn’t especially looking forward to working with him until she learned that he had studied with legendary Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, and approached his work with the seriousness of a well-trained actor.
Leslie Nielsen also had good bloodlines: his uncle, whom he remembered with great fondness, was Jean Hersholt, the popular and generous actor who helped establish the Motion Picture Relief Fund, known today as the Motion Picture and Television Fund.
The one pre-Airplane! movie on Nielsen’s résumé that has endured is the landmark 1956 science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet, in which he costarred as Commander J.J. Adams. Nielsen did not participate in the fiftieth anniversary hoopla surrounding that film or its commemorative DVD edition four years ago. But way back in 1991, when I asked him to talk about it for a story I was doing on Entertainment Tonight, he was happy to oblige. He even turned down the offer of a limousine, saying he could drive himself to the Paramount lot. This was the mark of a “working actor” who didn’t expect—
When he arrived, we screened some preliminary footage shot for Forbidden Planet and elicited his spontaneous reaction. Then, discussing the picture, he turned serious, and said, “It’s really amazing to me when you have a film that’s thirty-five years old and is just as entertaining and intriguing today as it was then.
“There’s only one thing in the picture that really dates it,” he went on. “It’s the narration in the front, and I wonder if they shouldn’t change it. It says, ‘By the year 2012, we had put a man on the moon. Fascinating that we were thinking back in 1955 that it would take that long, and just a short number of years after, there was a man on the moon—Neil Armstrong. I met him. He’s my idol.”
On the other hand, Nielsen admired the fact that the picture “had something to say, without it being preachy.”
The actor remembered the awkwardness of working with unseen special effects, and a robot who didn’t yet have a voice attached to it. My only disappointment was that he couldn’t fill me in about the somewhat elusive man who directed the picture, Fred M. Wilcox, whose sporadic career includes some other bona fide classics, Lassie Come Home (1943) and The Secret Garden (1949).
“I don’t know too much about him, either,” he told me,” and yet I think the proof is in the work.”
As for the film’s top-billed star, Nielsen said, “Walter Pidgeon was the golden gentleman, and he was without a doubt the most charming man I have ever met. I used to play checkers with him; he was a very fine checker player, so he always used to whip me, but we had witty exchange, hopefully. We were sarcastic with each other, but playing always on words. At a certain point, when we were moving, I made reference to the size of his feet. Now in making reference to his feet I had stepped over the line; it was no longer wit, it was becoming crude. He said, ‘That’s uncalled for, Leslie.’ And I said ‘Oh, you’re quite right, Walter. I apologize.’ He said, ‘Accepted.’ Just like that. He was very easy to take; you wanted to be in his company.”
As for assessing his own work in Forbidden Planet, Nielsen referred to it as “his Donald Duck period.” When I asked him to elaborate, he explained it was “because I was so panicked at arriving at MGM and that they were in fact going to discover at any moment that I had no talent and were not only going to throw me out of the studio but have me packed and shipped back to Canada! So I was very tight and tense, and it affected my way of speaking.” At this, he imitated his own tight-lipped delivery of the line, “All right men, get your blasters.” It was very funny, but he confessed, “That’s how I felt I talked in it. You know, Picasso had his blue period? Well, this ain’t no Picasso, but I had my Donald Duck period there.”
He also recalled attending a sneak preview of the picture and chatting afterwards with producer Nicholas Nayfack, who was going through the audience reaction cards. “He says, ‘Well, Leslie, it looks like you’re in.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘I think you’ve made it, Leslie; you’re a star in this film, and the cards indicate that everybody loves you.’ And that scared the hell out of me. I said, ‘No, no, I don’t want to be a movie star.’ ”
He laughed at the memory of the conversation. “What a dumb thing to say! Here I am, I’m acting at MGM and I’m telling him I don’t want to be a movie star, because I’m too frightened. It’s the last thing in the world you should say to a producer.”
“But anyway, comedy came along, thank God.”
I didn’t want to take up any of our remaining time talking about his “new” career in comedy, but in discussing the straight-faced approach to Forbidden Planet, and making the fantastic seem real, he said it wasn’t all that different from performing comedy. Here, in a nutshell, he summarized exactly why he was so good in Airplane!, Naked Gun, and all the rest. It was because he knew what he was doing.
“You must be serious about doing your spoof, and you must always go for credibility. If the audience for one second starts to feel that you are in on the joke, that’s the end of it and it’s over.”
Leslie Nielsen understood that, and so did audiences, even if they couldn’t articulate it. His career may have taken an unexpected turn, but it was his long experience as an actor that enabled him to give those wonderfully funny performances. And if that’s how he’s best remembered, it’s a testament to his great talent.
And if you’re wondering: yes, he did bring his famous whoopee cushion to the interview. So much for seriousness!
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