Airplane!'s David Zucker Remembers Leslie Nielson
11.30.10 by Ryan
Since actor Leslie Nielsen passed away on Sunday from complications from pneumonia, there has been an outpouring of messages on Twitter and Facebook from actors and directors that knew or were inspired by Nielsen. Most fitting was the tribute written by David Zucker, who, along with brother Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, co-wrote and co-directed Airplane!, the movie that took Nielsen from being a serious actor and turned him into a go-to comedic one. Zucker said that the trio of directors remembered the actor from his role in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, where his dramatic work as the captain seemingly made him perfect for the role of Dr. Rumack.
We assured him we wouldn't count this brief comedy experience against him. But when he read the Airplane! script, he "got" its unconventional nature and offbeat style. We heard later that he told his agent, "Take whatever they offer; I'd pay them to do this."
Arguably the best role was that of Dr. Rumack, played by the guy no one wanted or ever suspected would be funny, much less go on to have a second career starring in feature films as a goofball comic. Leslie was great in the role because he never "winked" — let on that he knew he was in a comedy. This was essential to the style, and Leslie had a natural instinct for it.
Zucker, who later gave Nielsen his next iconic role as Lt. Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun movies, said he never had to praise Nielsen's performances since he could also hear Zucker snickering off-camera. "Tough to just sit there silently during 'Nice beaver!'" admitted Zucker.
Zucker said that Nielsen was "a chronic prankster" especially with his "fart machine" which Nielsen used "on set, on talk shows, anywhere he could find a victim." Zucker said Nielsen most enjoyed his prank of becoming such an iconic comedic actor.
Leslie got the biggest kick out of his newfound status as an international comedy icon — almost as though that, too, was some kind of prank he had pulled. But mostly, he just really loved to laugh. Doing goofy things on and off the set made him happy, which was almost always his demeanor. And in turn, he made all of us happy. I think we all got along so well because we were all anarchists at heart — grown-up kids who still got the giggles from poking fun at authority figures.
It was this attitude that Zucker says endeared him to the actor, whom he used in the majority of the movies he directed.
In the movie business, friendships tend to be intense — and brief. You live with someone every day for three months, and then, despite promises of keeping in touch, getting together, calling, you go back to your separate and individual lives. Looking back on it, I think I wanted Leslie to know that we valued him beyond that — and how much we all appreciated him, as a talented performer and a friend.
We invariably would get to discussing our history together, reminiscing a bit and renewing our good-natured debate about who the hell was luckier to have met the other, Leslie Nielsen or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team. The truth was, all of us knew how grateful we were to have each other in our lives, both professionally and personally, and we expressed it to each other often.
Leslie was grateful for everything in his life (most especially his wife Barbaree), almost as though he didn't feel he deserved any of it. Maybe that's why he was so happy.
And maybe that's why he was so good at making everyone else happy.