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The Olivier of Parody

Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Was any famously pithy aphorism ever more totally and astoundingly wrong than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “there are no second acts in American lives”? It is far easier to think of creative people who violate Fitzgerald’s rule than it is to think of a single person, aside from Ralph Ellison, for whom it has been true.

The Olivier of Parody

Doctor Rumack in ‘Airplane!’

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

If anything characterizes American life, it is the way in which the country not only permits but actively encourages, and even requires, reinvention. This notion has become axiomatic in rah-rah business writing, which assures would-be entrepreneurs that failure, even catastrophic failure, is a necessary prologue to success. In fact, having a second act is now so central to the American success story that it seems necessary for a successful person in his first act to claim he’s already failed somehow (“I was fired from my first record label when I was 14”) since, if he has already been through his failure spiral, he won’t have to experience the inevitable terrifying trough.

Case in point: James Kaplan’s ridiculous new 700-plus-page biography of the first half of Frank Sinatra’s life offers a mythologized account of the course of Sinatra’s first 13 years as a star. Frank: The Voice elevates Sinatra to an Olympian height the singer did not actually reach so as to portray the three-year downturn in his fortunes as equivalent to Icarus’s fall. Reading Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and the cast of Glee would have every reason to live in fear of the moment when their first-act curtain comes down. The prosaic truth—Sinatra had come to the end of his long public boyhood and the rather brief break in his fortunes gave him time to figure out how to make his way as an adult—is that the United States is the country of chances, first, second, seventh.

Last week, one of the great reinvention stories in pop-culture history came to an end when Leslie Nielsen died at the age of 84. In the 1960s and ’70s, he appeared on countless shows and made-for-small-screen movies as a stiff-jawed authority figure. That was actually his second act. He got the later TV parts not because he was especially good at them but because he had cachet from once having been a leading man in the movies. MGM had put him in some top-line roles in the 1950s, most notably the science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet, which was stolen from him by the far more emotive Robby the Robot.

An ur-White Man, Nielsen was headed for the junk pile by 1980. The kinds of parts he was playing—mayors, judges, police chiefs—were beginning to become the exclusive purview of blacks and women. Then came one of those breaks, such as when Frank Sinatra inadvertently encountered an arranger named Nelson Riddle and began the association that would reinvent the American song. Nielsen was cast in a comedy called Airplane! because its writer-directors (Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams) wanted Nielsen to play exactly one of his usual parts—a humorless, self-serious, monotonous doctor—in his usual manner. Except that everything he would say and do would be beyond preposterous.

They cast a bunch of other TV White Men, too (Peter Graves of Mission Impossible, Lloyd Bridges of Sea Hunt, Robert Stack of The Untouchables). But there was something different dancing in Nielsen’s 54-year-old eyes—a kind of madness informing his character’s pomposity. Nielsen knew he had to play it straight, and it turned out that when it came to playing comedy straight, he wasn’t a has-been-never-quite-was; he was the Olivier of parody.

The Zuckers and Abrahams saw it, too, and after the wild success of Airplane! they created a television series for him called Police Squad! that would fail but would (second act) spawn a monstrous hit called The Naked Gun, which would spawn two sequels starring Nielsen as Frank Drebin, the dumbest, most violent, and most hapless cop on the planet. He went on to play an exorcist in a takeoff (Repossessed), to inhabit Dracula for Mel Brooks, to fill Harrison Ford’s clown shoes in The Fugitive (Wrongfully Accused). None of them was all that good, but Nielsen was never less than a joy to watch.

The lesson of Leslie Nielsen’s life is a classically American one. The Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt said of himself, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” He did what he could with what he had, and when the moment to explode arrived, he was ready for it. “Take whatever they offer,” David Zucker says Nielsen told his agent after he auditioned for Airplane! “I’d pay them to do this.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t count on the fact that, sometimes, all you need for a second act is to stick around for the curtain to rise again, and then work your heart out.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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