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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen: a dramatic appreciation

I've been reading a bunch of obits for Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen.  Notice that I wrote "actor" and not "comic actor" or "funnyman".  

I say that because almost nobody is really looking at this guy here:

Namely, the first 30 years of Nielsen's acting career as a dramatic leading man and character actor. Fair enough. The man's real fame came with Airplane! and, perhaps even more so, the hit Naked Gun movies. However, Nielsen pulled off a pretty incredible dramatic acting career before everyone kept calling him Shirley. 

I feel that it bears some scrutiny.

Nielsen studied with legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner. I trained intensively for a couple of years in the Meisner technique with an acting teacher who was trained by Meisner himself.  That's ain't no easy shit, I can tell ya.

The original studio plan for Nielsen was to make him a leading man. Most notably, in the sci-fi classic seen here:

That plan continued when Nielsen went, incredibly,  up against Chuck Heston for the title role in Ben Hur.

This his is screen test:


However for the 50's, 60's and 70's TV and character parts in movies were Nielsen's destiny. 

The guy guest starred on almost every show in TV history: Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Defenders, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, MASH, Wild Wild West, Columbo, Cannon, The Man From UNCLE, Barnaby Jones, Kojak, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Ironside and even the abysmal Canadian series The Littlest Hobo. Whenever I watched TV with my parents when I was a kid, there was always a rousing round of "What? Him again?" every time Nielsen would turn up on yet another show. When I showed my parents Airplane! on VHS years later, they, more than any other audience I've ever seen, really got the joke behind casting Nielsen.

 The best dramatic acting I've ever seen Nielsen do was an episode of Hawaii Five-0. For the record, I wanted to back up that claim with a clip. However, the Computer Gods were against me on that one today.

One of his most memorable character roles was as the captain of the ill fated ocean liner the S.S. Poseidon in the 70's disaster classic, The Poseidon Adventure. Take a look at this short clip.


Even in the comedies, Nielsen was always cast as the in the non-comedic parts. Like in this Don Knotts vehicle:

Notice that the DVD makes it look like Nielsen is Don Knott's wacky sidekick. Understandable. He's probably a bigger draw than Knotts these days. In the movie, though, he's the very much the heavy against Knott's funny man.

The Minister of Defense's brother also ended up in his fair share of B-movies. Like this buff role in Day of the Animals:


The ultimate low point of Nielsen's dramatic career had to be:

Yeah, Nielsen is the bad guy in this one. Though he's not slumming it alone as a quick look at the credits on the poster will tell you. BTW, Nielsen's bad guy drug dealer's plot is to kill Knievel in a stunt "accident" in Mexico so that he can smuggle cocaine back in Evel's coffin because who, after all, would search Evel Knieval's coffin? 

Just had to get that out there.

I don't think it's a complement to his acting skills that the writer/directors of Airplane! saw comedy in Nielson's dramatic acting.  Nonetheless, Nielsen was a savvy enough actor to play the deadpan guy who doesn't get the joke with aplomb.

I remember seeing this movie in the late 80's.

In this film starring Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfus, Nielsen plays a crazed john that Streisand's high class prostitute allegedly murdered. He appears in flashbacks and is quite creepy. However whenever Nielsen appeared on screen there were uncomfortable murmurs and giggling all over the theatre. And I remember thinking to myself, "That's it. The man's dramatic career is over".

And I was right.

Nielsen's ever rising stardom into the 90's consisted of more Naked Gun sequels, Mel Brooks films and fare like Wrongfully Accused, Spy Hard and Mr.Magoo. Each one was progressively less deadpan, less subtle and less funny.

Still, Nielsen remains, in my opinion, an actor of great versatility and, even in the worst movies, moments of brilliant delivery.

Probably the my fave of Nielson's dramatic work is his starring role in the 1950's Wonderful World of Disney mini-series, Swamp Fox.  Nielson played General Francis Marion, a real historical figure from the American Revolution (the same guy, in fact, that Mel Gibson played in The Patriot).  A Disney series from the 50's about the American Revolution; it don't get much squarer than that, folks. Even so, Nielson possesses an undeniable charm in the role.

I have a recording of Nielson actually singing the theme the song (which does not appear on any of the DVD's of the show that I've seen).  I wanted to post it but, again, the Computer Gods don't seem to like Mr.Nielson today.

So we'll just have to settle for the rest of cast singing the theme to Nielsen:

Leslie Nielson: dramatic and comedic actor, 1926-2010 RIP.

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