When the Naked Gun movies came out in the late ’80s and early ’90s, friends would not sit next to me in the theatres–I laughed that much. So, when I was invited to have lunch with and interview Leslie Nielsen in the mid-’90s, when he was in Toronto promoting his mostly made up autobiography, The Naked Truth, I jumped at the chance. Kinda the way O.J. Simpson, who played Nordberg in the films, jumped over people at the airport in those rent-a-car commercials.
Nielsen died Sunday from complications from pneumonia. He was 84.
Pneumonia was no way for Nielsen to die. As his alter ego Sgt. detective lieutenant Frank Drebin would say, “a parachute not opening… that’s a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine… having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that’s the way I wanna go.”
He was old enough to collect a pension when I sat across from him at the Sutton Place in Toronto but he was in the middle of the hottest phase of his career. Airplane (1980) really changed everything for Nielsen, giving him a chance to goof on all the straight roles he had played up until that time. In 1982, he starred for the first time as Frank Drebin in six episodes of what is surely the funniest short lived series ever, Police Squad. (It is, and stop calling me Shirley.) Watch it for five minutes and try not to laugh, I dare you. Nielsen played the bumbling character through those three Naked Gun films.
He was very modest and matter-of-fact when I interviewed him on that day, giving all the credit to the Zucker brothers, filmmakers David and Jerry, who along with Jim Abrahams revived his career. He was charming towards Betty Michalyshyn, the late, great T.O. publicist who had arranged the lunch/interview.
Which may have been why he wasn’t busting out his trademark whoopee cushion. Nielsen was famous for his fart machine, always ready to let it rip for a laugh.
We talked a bit about his former Naked Gun co-star, O.J. Simpson. “You tell him he can’t be in any more sequels,” said Nielsen.
I spoke with him again years later in 2002 at the launch of Paul Gross’ feature film version of Men with Brooms. (Gross had worked with Nielsen a few years before on Due South.) Nielsen was very playful on that day, eyes lighting up as we got into a bit of word play.
The subject was curling, the basis for the Men with Brooms film. Although he grew up in the Northwest Territories, Nielsen readily admitted he was a curling novice.
“I’m into synchronized sleeping,” Nielsen deadpanned. Really? Has he ever medalled? “Well, I’ve meddled in a lot of things and I’ve been asked to leave, too, but I don’t mind …”
Nielsen says he studied how the women’s teams curled at the Olympics to get into his role. “The women keep the rock in closer to them and they sit down more on their legs. I thought if I ever get in another curling picture, I’m going to sit down. That’s my advice to actors. They say, ‘Give me a tip. How do you go about acting?’ I say, ‘Always sit down. Whenever you can.’ ”
With so little practice, how did he make his curling scenes look so real, I asked. “It’s called the magic of the camera,” said Nielsen. “I use that a lot in honeymoons also. Magical moments. I don’t want to give away trade secrets.”
I had interviewed Nielsen twice now, and still no whoopee cushion. I was beginning to feel self conscious. One of his Broom co-stars, Polly Shannon, told me he worked it constantly during the shoot, blasting extras during lulls at the Brampton curling rink where production took place.
“What whoopee cushion?” Nielsen said when I finally came right out and asked him about it. That’s when I finally came face-to-face with Frank Drebin. “I’m a lonely man,” he said. “I travel alone all the time (piiifffttt-braaack). You gotta sell it (QUAAAAAAAK).”