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Leslie Nielsen, goofball

By Lewis Beale, Special to CNN
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Leslie Nielsen: 'I'm just having fun'
  • Lewis Beale says Leslie Nielsen pulled on-set pranks during "Naked Gun" shoots
  • Nielsen, who died Sunday, came to goofball roles late in a career of playing stiff characters
  • But he reveled in the new deadpan roles, a master at playing dolts, Beale says
  • Beale: We're lucky Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker cast him in roles for which he was a natural

Editor's note: Lewis Beale writes about film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the New York Daily News and other publications.

(CNN) -- Phhhhht! Blllttt! That's the sound of the whoopee cushion that Leslie Nielsen placed on the chairs of his co-workers while filming the first "Naked Gun" movie. I was on the set one day during the shoot, working on a feature for the L.A. Daily News -- a day punctuated by loud, gassy-sounding eruptions, often followed by Nielsen cackling insanely at his juvenile pranks.

Yep, Leslie Nielsen, who died yesterday at the age of 84, was that kind of guy. A jokester inside a leading man's body. A straight man with comedic instincts. Someone who always knew he was basically Chuckles the Clown, but didn't get to prove it until he'd been a working actor for nearly 30 years.

So while we're chuckling, as we go about our lives today, at the very thought of bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin, and all those other clueless wonders he so effortlessly portrayed, let us give thanks that Nielsen got the chance to show us his comedic chops. We are all the richer, and happier, for it.

Actually, let's thank those ZAZ guys -- Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams -- the co-directors of the 1980 film "Airplane," who cast the Canadian actor against type as a dumber-than-dirt doctor, whose response to the line "Surely you can't be serious" was the classic "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley." The exchange is so famous, it popped up at No. 79 on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 Movie Quotes.

Leslie Nielsen dead at 84

Remembering Leslie Nielsen

From that point on, Nielsen -- who had been making a living as a handsome, but rather stiff, leading man in such films as "Forbidden Planet," "Tammy and the Bachelor" and "The Poseidon Adventure" -- had found his calling. Or, as he put it when people questioned casting him in "Airplane": "I've always been cast against type before."

"Airplane," of course, led to the short-lived but much beloved TV series "Police Squad," with Nielsen as the utterly bewildered Frank Drebin. Despite its failure on the tube, the ZAZ guys, seeing its real potential, restructured it as a feature film, 1988's "The Naked Gun," which was so successful it spawned two sequels.

In all these films, and such later work as "Spy Hard," "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" and "All I want for Christmas," the Nielsen style rapidly became famous: a combination of physical pratfalls, straight-faced delivery, and absurd dialogue aimed straight at 14-year-olds -- and adults who quickly rediscovered the 14-year-old within.

iReport: Share your memories of Leslie Nielsen

"It's true what they say," says Drebin in a typically ridiculous comment from "The Naked Gun." "Cops and women don't mix. It's like eating a spoonful of Drano; sure, it'll clean you out, but it'll leave you hollow inside."

Always a master at double takes and popeyed wonder, Nielsen was a genius when it came to deadpan. No matter what was happening around him, the elegant-looking, silver-haired actor seemed to be in a world of his own, and that was the point. Obliviousness became his metier, a means and end in itself, an eternally funny comedic riff that Nielsen seemed born to play.

He was helped, of course, by the endless non sequiturs in the "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" scripts, all heavily influenced by the anarchic lunacy of MAD Magazine. But Nielsen's gift was that, unlike comic actors who might give a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to lines like "It's fourth and 15 and you're looking at a full court press," he recited them with a gravity that sounded like it came straight from "King Lear." Who could resist?

From drama to comedy, Nielsen made it look easy

Certainly not the critics, who appreciated Nielsen's art, if not always the films he appeared in. Reviewing "The Naked Gun" in The New York Times, Janet Maslin -- who called the ZAZ comedy style "proudly sophomoric" -- added that the film had an aura of "unexpected sophistication," thanks to the "dapper presence of Leslie Nielsen who, as Lt. Frank Drebin, manages to bring something heroic to the role of a perfectly oblivious fall guy."

Nielsen, of course, was never really oblivious; he knew exactly what he was doing every second he was onscreen. But unlike a lot of funny guys, who are actually sober and morose in real life, what you saw with Nielsen was what you got: He really was a goofball.

So when we think about the passing of a man who gave us so much to laugh at, what else is there to say but -- Phhhhttttt!

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lewis Beale.