Monday, 29 November 2010

Wild scenes as man of his lifetime dies

Leslie Neilsen has died. He was 84. It was pneumonia. In Florida.

Amidst all the weepingly funny moments provided by the man of no mirth I haven't yet seen a fully appropriate tribute to the comic career made from unflinchingly inappropriate reactions to disaster.

The son of welsh-danish immigrants to Sasketchawan who later in life fulfilled his all-Canadian dream of becoming a Mountie (at least on-screen in Due North), he came from an unlikely family, but one which was destined for bigger things.

While his elder brother, Erik, became deputy PM in Canada during the 1980s, his uncle, Jean Hersholt, became the president of burgeoning Academy of Motion Pictures during its post-WW2 propagandist heyday (1945-49), and it was this which undoubtedly spurred his course into the acting firmament.

While studying at a radio college in Toronto he recieved a scholarship to New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse where he gained a foothold in aspiring acting circles, studying alongside names like Charlton Heston.

This was the world of serious dramaticians where new media forms of television and reporting were taking their first baby steps. Henry Miller and Marlon Brando etched a scar into every word they composed or delivered, but the reading populace was hooked on sci-fi comics and true crime, each in their own way reflecting the political threats of the looming cold war and the baby-boomer generation.

It was a world epitomised by Alexander MacKendrick's 'Sweet Smell of Success', where the unethical and unscrupulous compete in a demi-monde of tyrrants just to survive. Such a backdrop of self-interest and self-promotion inevitably descends into the corruption of ideals, but grows more vital for all that.

But stage-work held less appeal for his rugged middle-class Scandinavian good-looks. In 1950 alone Leslie Nielsen appeared in over 50 live TV dramas. He made it as the pulp actor.

Nielsen then went from live action television to 'B' movie respectability with notable performances such as in 'Forbidden Planet' (which is attributed as the inspiration for Star Trek, perhaps directly enabled by Hersholt's cultivation of Gene Roddenberry as a writer). He continued to ply his trade until he failed to brace himself for the tidal wave which would hit him after accepting the role as captain of the doomed ship in 'The Poseidon Adventure'.

This mid-70s establishment schlockbuster was a staple of church homilies for decades (until it was replaced by Dan Brown's epic credulity-stretcher), but Nielsen's ability to play a serious character equally oblivious and complicit in his fate caught the attention of tentative spoof-artists and paved the way for his latter comedic triumph.

In between, Nielsen was regularly on the fringes of mainstream success with try-outs for everything from Ben-Hur to Hawaii Five-O... parodies which would have written themselves, how different our popular consciousness could have been!


News announcers have attempted to pin him as a master of the dead-pan one-liner, but if anything their narrow focus and short memory is their loss.

Leslie Nielsen was the master at maintaining a running accumulation of absurdity.

Quelle d'hommage

Outside his screen persona the ability to deliver classic links unbeknownst by simply 'acting natural' just began to fall into his lap, and he developed this character art into a dedicated brand as unique and profound as other comedy greats.

Homme de l'age

It wasn't so much that he could carry-off the ridiculous with equanimity, rather it was how his stock character highlighted the ridiculousness of any given situation and our attitudes towards it.

In his transition from doomed commander of space ships and cruise ships to the hapless huckster who somehow wins out through incompetent toil Leslie Nielsen mirrored the change in public appreciation of high-level politics from one of deference to one of scepticism.

And it all happened in one inoccuous line delivered as the supporting lead half-way through a derivative rehash.

He was serious, and luckily for us we saw the moment he turned!

But for a final word I'll leave you with some suitable words from suitable people, the Kings of the Ring, with whom he gave Frank Drebin one last drubbing and closed the case of 'The Undertaker'.

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