Monday, November 29, 2010

Leslie Nielsen, RIP

I think it's a testament to how thoroughly Leslie Nielsen came to embody the face of comedy for so many that most of of the memorials in the wake of his passing this weekend will likely forget that he started out as a dramatic actor.  Indeed, the deep-voiced, granite-chinned actor was the heroic space captain of the '50s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, and he embodied varying degrees of tough guy machismo on big screen and small for decades before his comedic turn in 1980's Airplane! showed us the smirk under the swagger.  That paved the way for Nielsen's signature role of Lt. Frank Drebin in the short-lived Police Squad TV series (cancelled by ABC in 1982 after a mere six eps), which in turn inspired a successful feature (and franchise) in The Naked Gun a mere six years later.

By the time Nielsen completed the third and final Naked Gun in 1993, he'd cemented his image to the spoof genre interminably.  Some of the movies that emerged in subsequent years were funny (Wrongfully Accused), and some weren't (Dracula: Dead and Loving It), but all benefited from his unerring ability to deliver the most riotous of laugh lines with deadpan precision.  I caught the cable premiere of one of Nielsen's final appearances, Superhero Movie, a few weeks back, in which he played the "Uncle Ben" role to Drake Bell's Peter Parker riff, and while the film itself is pretty mediocre -- better than most recent spoofers, nowhere near the heights of Airplane! -- there's no denying that Nielsen, like the Godfather, blessed the proceeding with his presence.  Like few others, he proved again and again that being funny is some serious business.

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