Filmmaker Zucker pays tribute to Leslie Nielsen

Tue Nov 30, 2010 11:56am EST
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By David Zucker

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It was summer 1979, a full three weeks before the start of shooting for Airplane! and our casting director had finally had enough. Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves and now Leslie ... who?

At least audiences had heard of the first three, but this guy -- it was true, when it came time to select an actor to play Dr. Rumack, my brother Jerry, Jim Abrahams and I remembered: "This one guy, he's been in hundreds of television shows, and I think he played the captain of the Poseidon. What's his name ...?"

Our research revealed that the actor's name was Leslie Nielsen. Jim, Jerry and I were thrilled when he agreed to meet, not because he was "funny" but because of his long resume of serious films and TV. To us, he was hysterical. The long list of straight dramatic acting roles demonstrated to us that he would be perfect. When we watched those movies, we laughed.

At our first meeting, he mentioned proudly that he had done an episode of M*A*S*H*.

We assured him we wouldn't count this brief comedy experience against him. But when he read the Airplane! script, he "got" its unconventional nature and offbeat style. We heard later that he told his agent, "Take whatever they offer; I'd pay them to do this."

Arguably the best role was that of Dr. Rumack, played by the guy no one wanted or ever suspected would be funny, much less go on to have a second career starring in feature films as a goofball comic. Leslie was great in the role because he never "winked" -- let on that he knew he was in a comedy. This was essential to the style, and Leslie had a natural instinct for it.

In all the movies we did together, we hardly had to shower him with any verbal praise. He always knew he was doing OK because "I could hear David laughing during the take," he would say. And I was! Tough to just sit there silently during "Nice beaver!"

Offscreen, he wasn't so much of a joke or storyteller but a chronic prankster. The stories are legion about the fart machine, which he kept hidden and sprang on any hapless stranger who approached him. He used it on set, on talk shows, anywhere he could find a victim. One time, at a press junket in Charlotte, I remember watching Leslie let loose with the device on a crowded elevator, the other occupants squirming up against the walls in an effort to distance themselves. And just like the scenes we put him in, he never broke character, never let on that he knew he was being funny.   Continued...

<p>Actor Leslie Nielsen, one of the stars of the new comedy film "Wrongfully Accused" arrives for the film's premiere August 19 in Los Angeles. The film, which also stars Kelly Le Brock and Richard Crenna is built on sight gags, word plays and parodies of famous films. FSP/RC</p>