VINTAGE INTERVIEW: LESLIE NIELSEN
INTERVIEW: LESLIE NIELSEN
By K. R. Danzay
Every so often at Movietimes.com we like to look back at a certain point in an artists career and capture what they were thinking. While a generation of fans recognizes Leslie Nielsen from movie like The Naked Gun, he enjoyed a long and fruitful career before his comedic appearances in the 80’s and 90’s. We thought this interview, taken on the dawn of Leslie’s success in Airplane, is a good way to show the bifurcation of his career.
The Nephew of the late film star Jean Henholt, Leslie Nielsen was born in Rcgina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Nielsen’s father was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and after his reassignment, Leslie Nielsen and his two brothers were educated in Edmonton, Alberta. Following a stint as an aerial gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Nielsen went to California to study cinematography at UCLA. A year later, he returned to Canada to begin his theatrical studies in earnest. While enrolled at Toronto’s Academy of Radio Arts, Nielsen received a scholarship offer from both, the Canadian Broadcasting Company and from Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. Leslie Nielsen chose the Playhouse and followed this training with summer stock and further education at the Actor’s Studio.
After several highly acclaimed television performances, the talented actor was brought to Hollywood by Paramount Pictures in 1954 for a lead in The Vagabond King. A long-term contract at
M-G-M followed where he starred in such films as Forbidden Planet, Ransom!, The Opposite Sex, Hot Summer Night, and The Sheepman. Titles for other studios have included Tammy and the Bachelor, Night Train to Paris, Harlow, and Beau Geste. More recently, Leslie Nielsen gained many new fans among the younger generation with his portrayal of Dr. Rumack in the highly successful comedy Airplane!
Forbidden Planet is undoubtedly Leslie Nielsen’s best known contribution to the fantastic cinema. Since that film, however, Nielsen has appeared in other genre movies such as Dark Intruder, Change of Mind, The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler, Day of the Animals, Prom Night, and Creepshow. Also, he was featured in the successful disaster film The Poseidon Adventure as well as in comedies like The Reluctant Astronaut and The Creature Wasn’t Nice.
In addition to more than fifty motion pictures, Leslie Nielsen has an impressive list of television credits beginning with many TV shows broadcast live during the Golden Age of Television in the early 1950s. TV roles of interest to fantastic film buffs include appearances on Lights Out, Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, Danger, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Moment of Fear, Thriller, Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea The Wild, Wild West, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Night Gallery, Evil Touch, Lucan, Fantasy Island, and Ray Bradbury Theater. Besides numerous television series guest appearances and roles in mini-series and telefeatures, , Mr. Nielsen has been the star of five television series of his own: The New Breed, The Bold Ones, Bracken’s World, Police Squad!, and Shaping Up.
The following interview was conducted between takes on the set of The Creature Wasn’t Nice, a science-fiction comedy co-starring Cindy Williams, Patrick Macnee, and Gerrit Graham. Directed by Bruce Kimmel, the film never received extensive theatrical release, but it is available on video tape under the title Spaceship. The filming of planet exterior scenes was underway on the day of the interview, and the cast was outfitted in unventilated silver space suits as they worked under four immense arc lights. Despite the excessively hot conditions on the set, all of the actors seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. This was especially true of Leslie Nielsen who had an easy laugh that matched his casual style and who displayed a terrific sense of humor as he discussed his extensive career in motion pictures and television. (g.s.).
INTERVIEW: Your first work in the science-fiction genre was the live TV series Tales of Tomorrow, which ran in the very early 1950s. You did several episodes, including a two-part “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” with Thomas Mitchell and Bethel Leslie, and “Appointment to Mars.”
NIELSEN: Yeah, that was with Brian Keith and Billy Redfield.
INTERVIEW: And there was one called “The Black Planet.”
NIELSEN: Now that might have been the… no, no. I can’t recall which one it was. It was either that one or the Brian Keith and Billy Redfield one… yeah, “Black Planet.”
INTERVIEW: And one called “Another Chance.”
NIELSEN: That one I forget.
INTERVIEW: And one called “Ghost Writer,” with Gaby Rodgers. Does that name sound familiar?
NIELSEN: Oh yeah, Gaby Rodgers, right, yeah! But I don’t remember the story.
INTERVIEW: Can you tell us something about those early live TV sci-fi dramas?
NIELSEN: Well, they were, you know, live television productions and in the days when they were just beginning to find out how to try to do some effects.
They had no real electronic effects like we have today, so whatever was in it had to be in the story, Twilight Zone was like a Tales of Tomorrow, weird stuff, but in the story. They couldn’t do the effects.
INTERVIEW: It probably was a lot more hectic in live TV.
NIELSEN: Well, because things would go wrong. And in the one I did with Billy Redfield and Brian Keith we had a thing at the end of the show that went wrong, and they took a look at the kinescope, because they were really very upset. The way we ad-libbed around it and corrected it on the show, they felt they could leave it as it stood. So, that worked out fine.
INTERVIEW: Your next science-fiction role was Commander Adams in Forbidden Planet. How did you get the part?
NIELSEN: I tested for it in late 1954, and then came out and did the role in 1955. I found the script to be very intriguing. I’m delighted that I did it. It’s rurned out to be a classic.
INTERVIEW: Oh, it is! But how did you feel about it then, when you were doing it?
NIELSEN: I always liked it; I liked it then…I have always loved science fiction. One of my favorite shows is Star Trek. I like the trips, where it drops my mind off, because they give you a premise and all of a sudden, you say, “Oh!” and I’m fascinated by it.
INTERVIEW: Well, Forbidden Planet was kind of a precursor to Star Trek. They were very similar concepts.
NIELSEN: Oh, yes, yes! That’s right!
INTERVIEW: What kind of relationship did you have with your Forbidden Planet co-stars?
NIELSEN: We all had a great time. Walter Pidgeon is without a doubt the most charming man that I have ever worked with. We used to play checkers together, and he was always sort of uplifting and on the “up” side, and very good-natured. A very charming, lovely man. He was so charming. He had big feet! We were playing checkers and I made a comment. I said, “So-and-so-and-so-and-so, of course if you wear size 16 shoes, and he said, “That’s uncalled for, Leslie.” And I said, “You’re right, Walter. I apologize.” It’s just that we had played this kind of repartee game, but I had stepped over the line. I had referred to, personally, to the size of his feet! So we just….kept on going!
INTERVIEW: Earl Holliman is widely known to have said that it’s his worst film.
NIELSEN: Well, you know, it just shows you the incredible errors that we can make in judgment, because I enjoyed it very much and I could be wrong! [Laughs] Earl, I thought was very good. He played the cook and [it] was kind of a comedy…and then he went on to more serious things. I love comedy!
INTERVIEW: Great! Well, you were terrific in Airplane!
NIELSEN: Oh, thank you!
NIELSEN: Shirley! Don’t call me Shirley!!! [Laughs]
INTERVIEW: How do you feel about Airplane?
NIELSEN: Oh, I loved it! I love comedy and I hope I never stop doing it.
INTERVIEW: You must have had a tough time keeping a straight face during filming.
NIELSEN: I like that kind of “straight-faced” comedy. I like to be straight[faced and outrageous.
INTERVIEW: The Creature Wasn’t Nice, which is science-fiction comedy, sure is a far cry from Forbidden Planet, isn’t it?
NIELSEN: Well, Forbidden Planet was serious science fiction!
INTERVIEW: But again, you’re playing a commander, which is nice.
NIELSEN: Oh, yeah, but this is strictly comedy.
INTERVIEW: And is there a little of Commander Adams in Commander Jameson?
NIELSEN: Well, I suppose so, yeah. Commander Jameson is funny only if he is played like Commander Adams! [Laughs]
INTERVIEW: How do you feel about tall of the scenes cut from Forbidden Planet? Apparently, your character of Commander Adams was much more human, originally, but became very businesslike due to the cuts.
NIELSEN: Well, I remember when we were doing that, they thought that a lot of the explanatory stuff was a little to heavy to be understood, talking about what might be happening and the philosophy. I enjoyed doing that very much, but at one time somebody came to me and said, “just say it fast, Leslie, because it’s all exposition,” and I said “What!” [Laughs] I mean, if you can understand it or by it at all, it was very important to have it in there.
INTERVIEW: What are your thoughts on Dark Intruder?
NIELSEN: Oh, I loved doing that! That was really a gothic thriller! They called that Something With Claws in the beginning…this scuffling sound across the floor when this thing would materialize and to its number. It was really going to be a kind of “Sherlock Holmes in San Francisco,” but back in that period with the horse and buggy. Brett – I think was his name – a young, well-to-do playboy-around-town who seemed to be a ne’er-do-well but had his lab hidden in his mansion, and he would solve all of these crimes of occult and mystery. I loved doing it!
INTERVIEW: Since it was a TV series pilot, that’s what it would have been like then?
NIELSEN: Oh yes, if we’d gone ahead with it.
INTERVIEW: Do you know why it didn’t go?
NIELSEN: Bad judgment.
INTERVIEW: Do you think it should have gone?
NIELSEN: Well, why not? Oh, sure! It could’ve been a lot of fun.
INTERVIEW: Do you know why the decision was made to release it to theatres instead of TV?
NIELSEN: Well, I guess because it wasn’t going to be done as a series, but on top of that, there aren’t that many films that are made for television that can be released as a theatrical film. It just was well done! Jack Laird is one of the finest producers, I think, in the business.
INTERVIEW: Then you would have done the series if it had gone ahead.
NIELSEN: Oh sure. I was already committed.
INTERVIEW: How close did it get?
NIELSEN: I have no idea, because there’s o rhyme or reason as to why things get on the air and stay on or why things are taken off the air.
INTERVIEW: There’s another film you did, apparently originally for TV, called The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler.
NIELSEN: No, no, that was made strictly for theatres.
INTERVIEW: It was? It looks like it was done on videotape.
NIELSEN: It was all tape. That’s the first movie made all on tape; there’s not one single strip of film in it. They decided to find out if they could shoot a theatrical film on tape, on location, and they did it. But it was made very specifically for theatres.
INTERVIEW: Can you recall acting in any science-fiction, fantasy, or horror films or pilots which were never shown or released?
NIELSEN: Not that I know of. There are some things I have done that, ah…we did a Kraft Theatre that was a war picture, and they wouldn’t release that because of the philosophy.
INTERVIEW: You did an episode of The Bob Hope Chrysler Theatre called “Code name: Heraclitus.”
NIELSEN: That was going to be done as a series, too. Stanley Baker was in it, and he was playing a kind of secret agent who had had almost literally a lobotomy or something and he was a robot. And all he was, then, was a “kill machine.” And I was his boss – just as inhuman as the robot was!
INTERVIEW: Yes! And I thought the show was very inventively directed by James Goldstone. He did some very unusual things in that film!
NIELSEN: He’s a very, very, inventive director! He used to be an editor. I remember I did a, well, he directed Shadow Over Elveron also, and we’d be shooting and I would feel a little funny about the scene that he would say, “Okay, print!” Well, he was already thinking about how he was going to cut it, and he knew it would work. I would feel, Hell that scene didn’t work! It didn’t work from an acting point of view, so it was a little unsatisfactory from an acting point of view, but he knew exactly what he was doing in the editing and it did work very well.
INTERVIEW: Also for TV you did The Aquarians, which was an Ivan Tors film.
NIELSEN: I was supposed to introduce it at the outside. I didn’t realize when Ivan was asking me to do this that he was a character he was having me play. Well, it was just that I was supposed to simply introduce it. I thought I was going to be introducing it as a narrator or as myself, but Ivan had misinformed me, so I didn’t even see it. I don’t know what it’s about.
INTERVIEW: Day of the Animals is a more recent theatrical film that you did.
NIELSEN: Yeah, I worked with William Girdler [the film’s director]. He died in a crash in the Phillipines. I thought that was an interesting film.
INTERVIEW: It was! What was it like taking on a grizzly bear?
NIELSEN: [Laughs] I had to weave and play around with a honey bear, you know, and I could wrestle with him a little bit, but there’s no way you can even wrestle a honey bear, let alone a grizzly bear that’s standing ten feet to eleven feet tall! Can you imagine? But it was fascinating to work that close to that kind of animal.
INTERVIEW: Well, that was a pretty bizarre scene!
NIELSEN: Yeah, well, when the ozone layer goes, you know, a lot of people could snap! [Laughs]
INTERVIEW: Night Slaves was a TV movie in which you played the sheriff in a town that was taken over by aliens.
NIELSEN: That was an intriguing film, and that worked, too! A fascinating premise. I like science fiction! I didn’t realize I’d done so many. [Laughs]
INTERVIEW: You did another TV movie called Hauser’s Memory, where you played a man named “Slaughter”!
NIELSEN: Yeah, the FBI Chief, or CIA Chief.
INTERVIEW: You have a good memory on these things!
NIELSEN: Well, that was another fascination, too. I actually worked in Beau Geste with a guy that was doing part of the lab things where they were experimenting with rats and put them through the maze, and when they complete the maze they get a reward. Then, when the rats died, or they would, I guess, kill them, and then take DNA or whatever it is out of the rat’s brain and inject it into newly-born rats…and they found out that those rats could duplicate the maze in a percentage that was much too high to be coincidence. The idea is, you know, you can go to the drugstore eventually and say “Give me a bottle of Spanish lessons,” and you’d take a pill or two and you might be inclined to learn Spanish easier.
INTERVIEW: Yeah, or “Give me a bottle of Theory of Relativity!”
NIELSEN: Yeah, right! [Laughs]
INTERVIEW: Recently you did a film called Prom Night and apparently when it was shown on TV there were a lot of scenes of you which were not in the theatrical version. Such as you and Antoinette Bower, playing Jamie Curtis’s parents, going to visit the doctor.
NIELSEN: Wasn’t that in the movie?
INTERVIEW: Not in theatres. The doctor doesn’t show up until the police detective asks him to come down.
NIELSEN: Oh, really! I thought that was in the movie!
INTERVIEW: And you chopping wood in the backyard…that was cut out.
NIELSEN: Oh, really! That’s fascinating! So they really had two different films in a sense!
INTERVIEW: Well, they couldn’t put the violence on TV, so they cut it out and replaced it with the previously unused exposition scenes.
NIELSEN: When I was talking with somebody, they said “I saw Prom Night – I don’t know why you did it,” and I said, “well, okay.” Then I saw it on TV and I said, “Well, it’s not bad, no big deal, not bad.” But now I realize what he was talking about! [Laughs] Since you brought it up, it was a different movie in the theatre.
INTERVIEW: In the theatrical version, you and Antoinette Bower were hardly in the film.
NIELSEN: Ahhh! I see what happened! That’s what it was!
INTERVIEW: Although you are known mostly for playing “good guy” roles, you have done some films where you are a mean S.O.B.!
NIELSEN: [Laughs] Well, it really depends. I play any kind of part that appeals to me. Sometimes I play a part the pay the rent! But that is an axiom in the business, because in episodic television you’ll have a good guy who’s on every week and that’s his show! He’s the regular on it, and you’re not going to be “gooder” than he is; I mean, he’s the guy who’s got to solve your problem! So if you’re playing a good guy, you have to have a problem, and he’s going to solve it for you. And the only really strong dramatic part is the heavy, because the meaner and crueler and rottener you are, the better the good guy looks when he whips ya’ at the end because he always is gonna whip ya! So, the best dramatic guest shot is the heavy. Generally speaking. You know, I just said “Let’s go,” because they were putting me in the roles of the sensitive-young-man-with-a-problem, and I said “Hey, let’s play some mean roles!”
INTERVIEW: In a lot of your TV roles in series episodes and telefeatures you play the mean roles. Do you have a favorite?
NIELSEN: Oh, I loved Shadow Over Elveron! He was really a beast, that sheriff, I liked Trial Run very much. He was like a Melvin Belli/F. Lee Bailey/Clarence Darrow all wrapped in one, if that’s possible. An international lawyer. That was like Beauty and the Beast. He had married a beautiful lady, a young lady, for career purposes and because he loved her – and then she was out playing around – so he wants to demean her. I loved that role. I loved the Streets of San Francisco I did – they were all good guys. The one guy was a drunk, a drunken cop; another guy was another cop who had terminal illness and decided to take out a few people who he knew were corrupt and were enemies of the people, so to speak. And he went after them. But they were intriguing people – they were good guys, but they also had their flaws.
INTERVIEW: If really interests me that you like science fiction so much, though, because it seems that a lot of actors don’t like it or won’t do it. It’s nice to know that you are a fan.
NIELSEN: Oh I love science fiction! I would love to see what’s going to happen with science fiction with peoples’ heads, because we still have people running around in the year 2050 or 2100 or 2200 – whatever it is – and they have all of this incredible technology and you see the effects: laser beams and rays and beaming down and beaming up. Incredible technical things happening, but everybody is still running around jealous, fighting, whacking, cheating, you know, and somewhere along the line to reach that point in technology, maybe we don’t have to change in our heads, but there’s got to be something going on! Some kind of change somewhere. I’d like to see something starting to happen in that area, with the psychology of the human being and how that changed. And what happens when you have the throwback? How do you deal with them, without putting them into never-never land like a James Bond movie or that kind of thing?
INTERVIEW: Will we be more civilized as we’re more technological?
NIELSEN: It might be difficult with our backgrounds to really imagine what the hell that difference would be, or how you could fit it into a story. But all I see is “Indians chasing the stagecoach” in Battlestar Galactica. It’s the same thing – it’s just up there in space.
INTERVIEW: There’s not much in the way of thought-provoking science fiction being made today, especially in TV. The public wants more sensationalism!
NIELSEN: That’s true, and that’s the way it goes! And that’s what will happen, because I don’t think anybody can really sit down and decide that their mission in life is to make people think. I think their mission in life is to leave people alone! [Laughs]