Out to Lunch with Leslie Nielsen

Fans of Airplane, Naked Gun and good old slapstick were saddened today by the death of Leslie Nielsen. In 1995, I had lunch with the great man. It was a disaster.
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Fans of Airplane, Naked Gun and good old slapstick were saddened today by the death of Leslie Nielsen. In 1995, I had lunch with the great man. It was a disaster.

When I interviewed Leslie Nielsen in 1995, we spent the first 10 minutes talking about the dangers of excessive masturbation. Or rather I did.

In a clumsy attempt to break the ice at the start of my allotted 30 minutes with the great man – and with a photographer busily trying to capture the perfect Nielsen portrait at the same time – I recounted the scene in Naked Gun 33-1/3: The Final Insult, when Lt. Frank Drebin returns home from a day of intensive undercover work at a fertility clinic with his right wrist, thumb and forefinger heavily bandaged.

I told Nielsen this echoed the true life story of a “friend” of mine who had gone to see his GP with a red, stinging foreskin and been told it had been caused by friction burns due to too much wanking. This was, after all, an interview for Loaded, not The Economist.

Nielsen, to his credit, didn’t call his PR minder to have me thrown out. Instead he summoned up all his charm and world experience – he was a sprightly 68-year-old at the time – and said: "Friction burns eh? Well that's understandable, it can happen, I imagine. Of course, some of them could be FICTION burns, too!"

I then reached for the cigarettes in my pocket and offered him one: "Leslie, cigarette?"

His reply was instant: "Yes, I know."

It was probably about the millionth time someone had played that gag on him, but his expression was as deadpan and timing as flawless as if Jerry Zucker had just shouted "Action!"

I’d tried to cop off with Barry Norman’s daughter, Samantha, who'd already interviewed Nielsen earlier that morning.

In my defence, I'd arrived for my audience with the great man in a state of mild inebriation and great emotional turmoil. In the course of a Guinness-sodden lunch at a posh Dublin restaurant just around the corner from where the press junket was taking place, I’d tried to cop off with Barry Norman’s daughter, Samantha, who'd already interviewed Nielsen earlier that morning.

She consistently refused my advances, despite the fact I claimed to be one of her dad’s biggest fans. Having my girlfriend sat next to me probably didn’t help.

However, Samantha was gracious enough to tell me that she had been relieved that Nielsen hadn’t flirted with her, and that he had “very good skin and lots of gravitas”. She told me this off the record, but that’ll teach her to blow me out.

When I asked Nielsen later why he hadn't flirted with the beautiful Samantha, he replied rather profoundly: "When you meet a beautiful woman like that, you always feel rejection." In the hope of bumping into Samantha again later that day (my girlfriend was already flying back to England), I asked Nielsen what was the secret of Frank Drebin's success with women.

He said it was all down to being a figure of power: "I think of that phrase 'taking candy from a baby'. Having somebody who represents authority and control and realising you can in fact control them totally, that’s a big attraction for a woman."

Before the Zuckers approached him to appear as the doctor - "Don't call me Shirley" - in Airplane, Nielsen had only ever appeared in straight roles.

Airplane

"I was always a closet comedian. I always had a great deal of fun behind the camera, but I would never stand up and proclaim to anybody that I could do comedy. I didn't have the courage. But the Zuckers thought I would be perfect for the part of the doctor. They were really fixed in their ideas of casting, and it really didn't make any difference whether you could do comedy or not in 'Airplane!' because there's no physical comedy in it, it's all situations and dialogue.

“They knew that if we did their situations and dialogue with the same gravity and seriousness with which we did police action drama, it would be funny. When I read it, it was very apparent to me what they were doing, and I lusted after that script, and I just couldn't wait to get to those speeches and have that fun.

"How did they know I could do comedy? Well of course, they didn't. It didn't make any difference, because all I had to do was be serious. If, for any reason, I would be different in doing Naked Gun from the way I did police action drama, then there would be something wrong. It all has to be serious. You cannot try to be funny. The essence of the humour is that no-one's trying to tell the audience what is funny."

Unfortunately, this philosophy proved too subtle for US audiences when the TV series Police Squad hit the screens in 1982. The series was pulled after only a handful of episodes because Americans WANTED to be told what was funny. They missed their canned laughter.

"How do you put a laugh track to 'Police Squad'? What are you laughing at: what's going on in the background, what's going on in the foreground, or what's being said in the foreground? You might just as well put a laugh track on and have it laughing all the time. Americans just don't pay attention like the British do."

Police Squad

His autobiography - "The Naked Truth - Uncensored, Uninhibited, and Totally Made Up!" - claims he was groomed by Columbia Pictures to be a rebel.  He told me with his trademark straight face:

"That would mean I would turn down pictures. And in turning down pictures they would select really good ones. For example, I was never in the chariot race of Ben Hur. And one of the finest and most prestigious movies I was never in was 'The Caine Mutiny'.

“Some of the really exceptional actors I didn't work with were Humphrey Bogart and Jose Ferrer. People to this very day will tell me that had I been in that picture, I would have won an Academy Award. But the point is, I don't have the Academy Award, so you can see how right they are."

I remember leaving the interview with a mixture of feelings. First, I wondered whether my clothes would still be in one piece when I flew back home.  Secondly, I was disappointed that Leslie Nielsen the actor hadn’t been as belly-achingly funny as Frank Drebin the character.

But Samantha Norman had been right – he had “loads of gravitas”. I’d been in the presence of a true “star”, an old-school Hollywood idol full of charm and style.

Just a shame he probably thought I was a prodigious wanker.

Naked Gun

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