Appreciating Leslie Nielsen

He Could Hold His Breath for a Long Time

by Sean Murphy

2 December 2010

Anyone who can remember the era when Beta briefly held sway over VHS will surely remember seeing Nielsen in Airplane! (Don't call me Shirley). Impossible as it might be to believe, nobody from this generation had any idea who he was, which only made him funnier.

Real Leslie Nielsen fans will immediately understand the title of this tribute. It is as good as any of his iconic quotes, but it resonates for the way it applied to his career: if any actor held his breath, figuratively speaking, Nielsen waited patiently for his big break. He waited until his hair turned white, literally speaking.

Anyone who can remember the era when Beta briefly held sway over VHS will surely remember seeing Nielsen in Airplane! (Don’t call me Shirley). Impossible as it might be to believe, nobody from this generation had any idea who he was, which only made him funnier. As in: who is that old guy and holy shit, he’s hilarious! And he was. I’m sure you’ve already read more than a few career retrospective/obituaries that detail his long, patient struggle to make a mark—meaningful or otherwise—in Hollywood. (If you haven’t, they won’t be hard to find). It was, clearly, as unexpected for him as it was for audiences all around America when he ended up stealing the show in that low-budget 1980 movie.
(It is both ironic and a tad eerie to see Nielsen pass a little more than a month after the other enduring scene-stealer from Airplane!, Barbara Billingsley. In fact, that movie was a vehicle to give America’s mom one last moment that lasted forever, while for Nielsen it served as the springboard that launched his most unlikely late-career ascent to superstardom.)

And aside from Airplane! he’ll be best remembered for his almost too-perfect-to-be-possible role as the bumbling Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun series. (Nobody begrudged Nielsen milking that particular cow long after the udder ran dry, because the brilliance of the first film made up for the increasingly lame follow-ups).

This is material that any competent actor could make amusing; Leslie Nielsen makes it sublime:

It was, however, a role just after Airplane! and before the Naked Gun goldmine that I’d like to celebrate while everyone is busy paying very appropriate respects to America’s silver-haired half-wit. If you are of a certain age, you certainly remember the supremely cheesy early ‘80s horror flick Creepshow. If you succeeded in growing up, literally and figuratively, you quickly forgot about it. But here’s the funny thing: it wasn’t as bad as you remember; in fact, the only parts that remain awful are the parts that were supposed to be scary, which would explain why it kind of sucked when you first saw it as a teenager.

The scary parts are funny, and the funny parts (mostly) funny, and then the unforced parts are wonderfully unsettling. Seriously: the last episode, with the wealthy, Machiavellian scumbag whose only soft spot was a profound fear of insects? How many of today’s Wall Street masters of the universe would you love to see that scene happen to? Or enjoying Hal Holbrook ham it up with the cellar-dwelling stuffed animal who ravages the delectable Adrienne Barbeau (did someone say early ‘80s and “target audience”)? Or Stephen King doing some of the worst acting in film history, yet still managing to put in a better performance than 90% of the movies made from his books? Good stuff abounds, and it might best endure as a film that (gasp) adults can actually enjoy. Now that is horrifying.

Right in the middle, sandwiched between King turning green and Barbeau’s bosom, is the segment that manages to represent the best and worst elements of what made this movie so wonderfully awful. Needless to say, it features Nielsen. He is the cuckolded husband who happens to be jealous, wealthy, and—as his wife and her lover find out—more than a little psychotic. Whether or not this is ultimately worthwhile material (for my money, it is), this is one of those roles that can—and should—function as a cinematic case study: any other actor playing Nielsen’s role could not have risen above the ridiculous dialogue and too-campy-by-half histrionics that ensue. Nielsen, equal parts wise-ass, weasel and, at this point in his career/life, still able to cut an imposing figure (he was not a small man), suffuses fake charm, menace and ill-will. And then he really gets down to business.

He manages to seem somewhat pathetic, and in another bit of brilliant and more than slightly perfect casting, (which seems uncannily prescient in hindsight) the very suave and masculine Ted Danson is his foil. This, mind you, is the then-unknown Ted Danson, pre Sam Malone and Cheers, so it’s hilarious in its own way to see a man who would become one of America’s TV immortals all through the ‘80s sucking seaweed in this B-minus movie.

Watching Nielsen ensnare his prey, then explain what he is about to do, is genuinely disturbing. And he is note perfect: each grimace is undercut with a self-deprecating giggle; every threat is softened by the man’s silliness. You can’t take this guy seriously, until you suddenly find yourself buried up to your neck in sand. (Serious props to Danson: he rocks the house in this rather brief role, and until he is obliged to return from the deep as an undead sea-monster, he rips off a convincingly desperate and very human role. And the only actor that outperforms everyone else is his wig, which manages to defy gravity, and reality, even when it is fully submerged in the ocean.)

That scene is about as good as it gets, and it is arguably the best evidence of what Nielsen was capable of. And the clip above doesn’t even show the two best moments. First, the horrifying, then the hilarious. When he sees the man he is about to murder (from the safety of his house, on remote video) he sips his drink and laughs, heartily. Then, when the man he is about to murder, coughing as the tide rolls in over his chin, looks defiantly at the camera and curses him, he stares at the screen with a look that could freeze fire and says “You better hold your breath.” Later, when the inevitable comeuppance occurs, the extent of his insanity is revealed as, driven over the brink (as any of us would be if we were led back to the ocean by the decomposing—and talking—corpses of the couple we just drowned), he laughs hysterically and promises “I can hold my breath for a long time!” and even then it’s not over: as soon as the words leave his mouth that first wave hits his mouth and he makes a face only Leslie Nielsen could make: it manages to undercut and amplify the campiness, and it elevates the scene—and the role—from merely impressive to inimitable.

In sum and with love: no one could do the things Leslie Nielsen did like Leslie Nielsen did them, and no one will ever do them again.

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