It was summer 1979, a full three weeks before the start of shooting for Airplane! and our casting director had finally had enough. Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves and now Leslie … who?
At least audiences had heard of the first three, but this guy — it was true, when it came time to select an actor to play Dr. Rumack, my brother Jerry, Jim Abrahams and I remembered: “This one guy, he’s been in hundreds of television shows, and I think he played the captain of the Poseidon. What’s his name … ?” Our research revealed that the actor’s name was Leslie Nielsen. Jim, Jerry and I were thrilled when he agreed to meet, not because he was “funny” but because of his long résumé of serious films and TV. To us, he was hysterical. The long list of straight dramatic acting roles demonstrated to us that he would be perfect. When we watched those movies, we laughed.
At our first meeting, he mentioned proudly that he had done an episode of M*A*S*H*.
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.
In all the movies we did together, we hardly had to shower him with any verbal praise. He always knew he was doing OK because “I could hear David laughing during the take,” he would say. And I was! Tough to just sit there silently during “Nice beaver!”
Offscreen, he wasn’t so much of a joke or storyteller but a chronic prankster. The stories are legion about the fart machine, which he kept hidden and sprang on any hapless stranger who approached him. He used it on set, on talk shows, anywhere he could find a victim. One time, at a press junket in Charlotte, I remember watching Leslie let loose with the device on a crowded elevator, the other occupants squirming up against the walls in an effort to distance themselves. And just like the scenes we put him in, he never broke character, never let on that he knew he was being funny.
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.
As the years went on, I always tried to find a place for him in whatever movie I was doing. And he was always delighted to accept. And when each movie came out, he always turned out to be the funniest thing in it. A director couldn’t ask for a better track record.
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.
David Zucker, along with brother Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, cast Leslie Nielsen, then known for his dramatic work, as a deadpan doctor in Airplane! (1980), launching Nielsen’s “second career” in such classic comedies as the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker Naked Gun films.