Shirley He Can't Be This Funny

By Larry Lowry
The Minstrel

Photos by Larry Lowry.
Spend a few minutes listening to Leslie Nielsen, and it’s hard to tell whether the man is a comedic genius, or completely senile. Spend a few more minutes, and it’s pretty apparent he is without doubt, the former and an absolute pleasure to be around.

The 83-year old Hollywood legend visited campus on Friday, March 27 to participate in a question and answer, Inside the Actor’s Studio style forum, hosted by Chuck Gloman, head of the TV/Film department. The interview took place in two forms. One was a special session in the Schubert Theatre, where Gloman spent an hour asking questions submitted by students, and Nielsen put the audience in stitches with his answers. The other was a short, half hour segment before the second showing of the 9th Annual Student Film Festival, and began with a montage of Nielsen in his wide variety of films and roles, from the serious to the hilarious, made by senior TV/Film major and director/producer of the festival, Chris Brockway.

In the question and answer session, Gloman posed the actor a wide variety and range of questions, some of which were answered seriously and provided insight to show business and Hollywood, and some of the other answers, well, they were just downright hysterical.
The event began with Nielsen coming out to a standing ovation, and he kept the crowd laughing right from the start by stating that “tonight’s dialogue will be done completely in Italian. Unfortunately, I don’t know Italian.

That lighthearted and goofy atmosphere continued through the entire interview, and the audience loved it. This was the Leslie Nielsen that everyone was hoping to see, someone who is literally the exact same persona on screen as off.

“I know that a lot of celebrities are different in real life then they are in the movies,” said first-year TV/Film major Sam Kane, “It was nice to see Leslie Nielsen is just like one of those wacky characters he plays in his movies. It was like seeing Lt. Frank Drebin live!”

This was one of the fundamental points that he was trying to express to the crowd. “You have to have a sense of humor. I come from close to the Arctic Circle. It’s hard to survive without laughing. I love comedy, I can’t say why, but you have to have a sense of humor to survive and appreciate the delicate presentation and subtlety.”

Not only was he funny, he was as sharp as a tack too. But that is something he does not want to attract attention to, so he continually played absent-minded and forgetful throughout the entire interview. His comedy was so fast paced and he responded with a joke so quickly that sometimes, you had to do a double take just to make sure you ought to be laughing.

Sophomore Max Naseef described him as “the most charmingly senile man I’ve ever met.”

For example, after hearing a humorous but almost off-topic answer from Nielsen, Gloman said, “I guess I can deal with that,” Nielsen immediately came back with, “I guess you could!”

Or at the end of the interview when Gloman tried to thank him for coming, Nielsen returned fire saying, “I don’t believe you” before he could even finish his sentence.

The quick banter and non-stop jokes kept the audience on their edge of their seats during the entire conversation, and Gloman deserves nothing short of an Emmy award nomination for best supporting actor for both playing the role of set-up man for almost all of Nielsen’s puns and for being able to hold his own against the comedic giant and still get some laughs on his own.

“Once you got to know him, he was very funny and likable,” said Gloman, “He said we worked well as a team, but I guess I shouldn’t quit my day job.”

In addition to relaying his personal philosophies on comedy and acting, he also talked about his staying power in Hollywood through so many films and for so many years. He spent a lengthy amount of time discussing the important relationship between actor and director, specifically David Zucker (director of Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Superhero Movie, among others), whom he has worked with on numerous occasions, who once told him, “Leslie, I’ll never make you do anything not funny.”

On working with Zucker, Nielsen says, “Magic happens, I can’t really describe it, and there’s nothing that can nail it down.”

Nielsen has had tremendous success as an actor, but surprisingly enough, there was a time, long ago, when the characters he portrayed were not funny. Early in his career, he performed in many serious roles and was a very dramatic actor. But even then, Nielsen knew that comedy was his destiny and he leaped at the chance to play a small cameo in the television show M*A*S*H, which was his first comedic role on camera, and from that point on, it was clear where he belonged. Now he is legendary for some of the most unforgettable characters in Hollywood history, like Lt. Drebin from The Naked Gun or Dr. Rumack from Airplane!

Not that he would be the one to tell you that, because all he describes himself is “bow-legged,” and proud of it.

And after of all the jokes, the quips, and one-liners were said and done, Nielsen’s greatest piece of advice for aspiring actors was to “Sit down whenever you can.”

If you ever find that you’re lucky enough to sit down next to Leslie Nielsen, call him Shirley. I dare ya.

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