Leslie Nielsen died 6 1/2 years ago at the age of 84, a respectable degree of longevity after a working life as an actor that stretched over 60 years. I started thinking about him today for no particular reason: I was paddling around the Internet, reading one thing and then another and then happened upon Leslie Nielsen. For what it’s worth, my browsing history shows a series of searches and pages tied to the firing of Reince Priebus followed by stuff about Leslie Nielsen. How I got from one to the other I do not know.
Today I poked a bit deeper into something I’ve thought about here and there many times. Nielsen began his career in 1950 during the so-called ‘Television Golden Age’. According to his Wikipedia page he appeared in 46 live TV episodes in 1950 alone. His first big success was in the 1956 sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet. From 1950 to 1980 he worked more or less in this vein as a successful TV and movie actor. But if his career had ended in 1980 he would be indistinguishable from and largely immemorable as one of hundreds or thousands of mid-grade actors and actresses who populated film and television over many years but who few of us today would remember or have any need to remember.
But in 1980 Nielsen appeared as Dr. Rumack, his first ever comedic role, in Airplane!, a wildly successful spoof of the then popular transportation disaster movie genre. (Nielsen had also appeared in one of the classics of the genre, 1972’s Poseidon Adventure.) The Dr. Rumack character was an early iteration of the deadpan/ridiculous Det. Frank Drebin character Nielsen went on to play in the Police Squad!/Naked Gun franchise, the character he is now known for.
If you’re my age or older you’re old enough to have some memory of the pre-Airplane! Nielsen, which I think is at least marginally necessary to fully get the magic of the characters he played for the next 30 years of his life. It wasn’t just that Nielsen wasn’t a comedy actor. Nielsen specialized in a genre of mid-20th century American male screen roles from which all traces of comedy or irony were systematically removed through some chemical process in pre-production or earlier. He was the straightest of straight men. That’s what made his comedic roles – playing against that type or rather playing the same type in a world suddenly revealed as absurd – just magic.
There’s a great life lesson here about hope and the unknown, I’ve always thought, for those willing to see it, whatever our age. When Airplane! premiered, Nielsen was 54 years old, well into mid-life and at a stage when most of us are thinking more about what we have accomplished than what we will. It is certainly not like Nielsen had been any sort of professional failure in life. Far from it. He’d worked successfully as an actor for three decades. And yet not only was the story not over; it was really only beginning.
Years later, after his true calling as a comedic actor was widely recognized, he told an interviewer that rather than playing against type, comedy is what he’d always wanted to do. He just hadn’t had a chance. This makes me think of a gay man who only lets himself come out in the middle or late in life and yet still has a chance – enough time – to live as himself. Hopefully, happily, this seems likely to be less of a type in the future than it was in the past. But it applies as much to anyone who finds their true selves or calling with enough time left in the race.
Two years after Airplane! in 1982, the same team which created Airplane! cast Nielsen as Det. Frank Drebin in Police Squad! This is the ur-Nielsen comedic character, the straight ahead and no-nonsense character walking through and oblivious to a world that is only nonsense. I watched this show at the time and absolutely loved it. It was in 1982 and I was 13, lonely and deeply damaged without really knowing it, having lost my mother in a car wreck a year earlier. I needed comedy and I found it. I could scarcely believe when I was reading up on Police Squad! earlier this afternoon that not only did the show not make it past one season, it aired only 6 episodes! Six episodes! I remember looking forward to each new episode every week. It’s hard for me to believe it went on for such a short period of time. But memory plays tricks on us.
Let me quote at length from Police Squad’s wikipedia entry on the failure of the show (which of course wasn’t really a failure since it spawned the Naked Gun movies) with particular reference to Matt Groening on how the show was actually far ahead of its time …
ABC announced the cancellation of Police Squad! after four of its six episodes had aired in March 1982. The final two episodes were aired that summer. According to the DVD Commentary of “A Substantial Gift” (episode 1), then-ABC entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos said “Police Squad! was cancelled because “the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” What Thomopoulos meant was that the viewer had to pay very close attention to the show in order to get much of the humor, while most other TV shows did not demand as much effort from the viewer. In its annual “Cheers and Jeers” issue, TV Guide magazine called the explanation for the cancellation “the most stupid reason a network ever gave for ending a series.”
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, has said, “If Police Squad! had been made twenty years later, it would have been a smash. It was before its time. In 1982 your average viewer was unable to cope with its pace, its quick-fire jokes. But these days they’d have no problems keeping up, I think we’ve proved that.”
This wasn’t the only way that Nielsen was and remained ahead of his time, even as the Drebin character and various permutations of that ur-Nielsen character became something on the level of pop cultural touchstones. Whoever wrote the lede of Nielsen’s wikipedia entry described his comedic oeuvre like this: “In his comedy roles, Nielsen specialized in portraying characters oblivious to and complicit in their absurd surroundings.”
I can scarcely think of a more concise description. That is also what makes Nielsen the great comedic interpreter of the Trump Era, even though he didn’t live to see it.
Can there be any description of our time, the last two years and especially the last six months, better than “characters oblivious to and complicit in their absurd surroundings.” I do not think so. It captures so much of the comedy, horror, absurdity and moral rot of our times. It is unquestionably why this “nothing to see here” gif of Nielsen as Det. Frank Drebin has become so ubiquitous a signifier during the Trump presidency.
While there’s life, there’s hope, as the aphorism has it. And humor, which Nielsen gave us so much of, is one of the things that makes life both joy (at the high moments) and endurable (at the low). You will never know till your life is over entirely what it meant or fully who you were. And sometimes not even then. There is always possibility.