Monday, November 29, 2010

Gone but not forgotten: Leslie Nielsen and Irvin Kershner

If it’s true, as many claim, that showbiz deaths usually come in threes, then we should fear the worst for some living legends during the next day or so. Why? Within the past 48 hours, we have lost two conspicuously accomplished octogenarians: Leslie Nielsen, the journeyman character actor who deftly reinvented himself as a splendidly straight-faced farceur, and Irvin Kershner, the veteran filmmaker credited by many fans as auteur of the very best Star Wars movie ever made.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Nielsen found steady employment as heroic lead or reliable guest star in a variety of TV series, often finding himself persuasively cast as a steely-eyed cop (The New Breed, The Bold Ones) or a cold-hearted villain. On the big screen, he made his biggest impact – fleetingly, but unforgettably – as the ship’s captain whose shocked response to an oncoming tidal wave (“Oh my God!”) set the shamelessly melodramatic tone for The Poseidon Adventure.

It wasn’t until 1980, however, that Nielsen got his shot at being a true pop-culture icon, when he was perfectly cast in Airplane! – the free-wheeling laugh riot that spawned an entire genre of movie-lampooning movies – as a tightly buttoned-down doctor who retains his cool during a crisis, but repeatedly warns everyone not to address him as Shirley. It was the sort of straight-arrow role that Nielsen had previously played perfectly straight in dozens and dozens of feature films, TV-movies and series episodes. And that, of course, is what made his deadpan zaniness all the more hilarious – much like co-stars Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, he subtly satirized sobersided shtick for which he was best known, and got his biggest laughs while behaving as though he hadn’t been let in on the joke.

Nielsen reprised that formula in the classic but criminally short-lived Police Squad! TV series – which spawned the considerably more popular Naked Gun movie trilogy – and then more or less repeated himself, with varying degrees of success, for the next three decades. He was so good at self-mockery, even in comedies unworthy of his best efforts – did somebody say Repossessed? – that I’m sure many moviegoers under the age of 30 might be totally unaware that there ever was a time that Nielsen was regarded as a no-joke, dead-serious dramatic actor.

Indeed, Nielsen became so firmly established as a comic actor that, as early as 1987, it was hard to take him seriously as the tough customer who parades around in his underpants while slapping around a high-priced hooker (Barbara Streisand) in Nuts. (Of course, it was even harder to take Streisand seriously as the high-priced hooker, but never mind.) Which may explain why Nielsen accepted his reconstitution and stuck to the funny stuff more or less exclusively in the years following the first Naked Gun flick. If he had any regrets, well, I can’t say I ever read anything about them, and I suspect he was too grateful for his mid-career turnabout to complain very much.

When I caught up with him with in 1995, during a New York junket for Dracula: Dead and Loving It, he was gleefully pranking each journalist who ventured into his hotel suite with a hand-held device that emitted a loud burst of… well, what sounded an awful lot like an industrial-strength fart. Yes, you guessed it: He caught me completely unawares as soon as I sat down. And can’t remember who laughed louder or longer, me or Leslie Nielsen.

As for Irvin Kershner: I would agree with the fans that he fully deserves his place of honor in film history as director of The Empire Strikes Back. And since it’s impolite to speak ill of the recently departed, I’ll refrain from mentioning his filmed-in-Houston RoboCop 2 – except to say I’m grateful that, shortly before that film’s H-Town premiere, I had the welcome opportunity to chat with Kershner about two of his finest non-Star Wars films: The Flim-Flam Man, an unjustly forgotten 1967 dramedy with George C. Scott in fine form as a conniving con artist; and Loving, a quietly devastating 1970 drama with George Segal giving a career-highlight performance as an advertising illustrator in the early stages of a mid-life crisis.

Kershner seemed amused when I told him that, when I first saw Loving back when I was in college, I really didn’t care much for it because I couldn’t relate to its melancholy story about a guy who was beginning to suspect that he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere in his career – and, worse, in his life – and worried whether it was already too late to turn back. But when I watched the movie again 15 years later -- and this is the part that Kershner really enjoyed hearing -- it was much, much easier for me to relate to the lead character, and to appreciate the spot-on accuracy of the movie's insightful observations.

I probably should take another look at Loving – if only to salute Kershner – but, frankly, I’m afraid I now might find it even more relevant.

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