Leslie Nielsen is, to most of us, best remembered for his roles in Airplane, Naked Gun, Police Squad and the cottage industry of spoofs that followed. But dig further back into his CV, and you’ll find a huge back catalogue of movies, including classics such as Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure.
Having just finished shooting his latest film, Superhero!, for writer/director Craig Maizin, and spared us time for a quick chat just before Christmas. Hence our final question…
Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure are two iconic films in their own right, and must have stretched you in different ways?
Stretched? No, not at all. I measured myself regularly, and was 6″ 2″ both before and after each film, or would have been, if my legs weren’t bowed and I could get my knees together.
How do you look back on films like that now? Did you have any idea how revered they’d become?
Nope. If I’d had any idea they’d become iconic, I would have asked for a great deal more money
How did you feel about The Poseidon Adventure remake?
They did a remake? I had no idea! Was I in it? Was I really, really good?Is it true that you auditioned for Ben Hur? Was there anything else you tried for, and/or turned down?
Actually, in those days I auditioned for everything MGM made while I was under contract. Not for the roles Elizabeth Taylor eventually got, of course. But Mickey Rooney and I were neck and neck for most of the musicals he made.You spent a lot of time playing the bad guy in your career, and then a lot of time playing comedy. Do you have a preference for one or the other?
Well, to be honest, I really enjoy comedy much more. I was always trying for laughs between takes. You see, it wasn’t easy being born a snowbilly up in Canada, and playing all those roles with me intent on doing in the hero. Actually, for many years of my youth, being raised so near the Arctic, our only intention was to keep from freezing to death.Airplane is an incredible film, and along with The Naked Gun, you were involved with two of the flat-out funniest films of the last 20 years. That’s got to be a good feeling?Surely – or would you rather be called Simon? I’ve never been more delighted with the roles I play and the offers I get. The boys, the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams, spotted my silliness, and channeled it into a whole new career. It’s been a great feeling.
How did you feel when Police Squad came to an end after six episodes? Would you have been happy to leave Frank Drebin there? And did you ever expect to get an Emmy nomination for the role?
Certainly I missed Police Squad when it was cancelled. We were having a great time doing the show, which I loved, but it seems not enough of the public cared that much for it. Though my sister and my brothers told me it was really swell.
It was a great surprise when the failed series became a string of successful movies — and who knows, if Police… had run for several years, the films might never have been made.
As for honours, I’ve had a few along the way, and to be honest, I never expected any of them. I made a good living for decades, and that was enough; that, and maybe a good residual cheque from time to time. And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, maybe.
Is there a chance we’ll ever see more adventures of Frank Drebin?
There has been some talk from time to time, but there’s no immediate plan. but, never say never – unless someone asks “When would you like to be slapped in the face with a cold flounder?”
Was there always an element of frustrated comedian in you, looking for the right role?
No, to be honest, I never ever thought I’d ever do comedy. I was so frequently cast early on as a high-born young man with…”problems,” and later as a heavy, from black-hatted western villains to the corporate raider to bad cops. In fact, the very last serious role I ever played was as the heavy, opposite Barbra Striesand, portraying the vicious john she killed in Nuts.
I never ever thought I could be funny anywhere but off-camera. The second career, for it has been just that, came as a total surprise.Were you approached about working on Top Secret?
No, that was one of the roles Elizabeth Taylor got. Wait a minute…Top Secret? No that wasn’t it…hmmmmm, I could answer that question, but then I’d have to kill you. After all, top secret…How much of an influence do you have behind the camera? You’ve hinted in interviews before that you’d like to have done some directing?
I’ve produced, but as for directing, that’s a dream that’ll have to go unfulfilled. Along with such lost dreams as starring in the remake of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly films, making my debut at La Scala – and fitting again into the pants I wore when I was thirty-five.
Scorsese has De Niro. Burton has Johnny Depp. David Zucker has Leslie Nielsen. The two of you obviously are a good fit?
Certainly a better fit than those pants.
Can you tell us a bit about Superhero?
It’s a spoof on all the Spiderman, Batman and other comic hero movies. David Zucker’s involved, so you know it’ll be hilarious.And you’re back for Scary Movie 5?
I’ve not seen a script, and no one’s asked me yet – so I guess it’s safe to say, I dunno.
If you could recommend three films to our readers, what would they be?
My last two films and my next one. Hey, I never said I was Roger Ebert.
And finally, will you come to our house for Christmas?
Sorry, I only make one holiday committment each season, and this year I’ll be spinning a dreidle and lighting the Hanukah candles at the Ft. Lauderdale Post of the Veterans of the Scottish Fusiliers – or will that be cutting the haggis? Hmmm…I’ll have to get back to you.
***Our thanks to Leslie for his time, and David “our best friend” Kramer for arranging the interview for us.