Friday, December 3, 2010

Remembering My Godfather of Slapstick

I think as people grow up we are introduced to the different genres of movies by the actors who frequent them. For many people they will always equate any action movie to the work of Arnold Schwarzenegger. For others, there will never be a leading lady in a romantic comedy that will top Julia Roberts. These actors define these types of movies and when you think of that variety of movie, you think of that person who portrayed those characters so adeptly.

One of the actors who defined a genre for me growing up sadly passed away this week. Leslie Nielsen was 84 when he died on Sunday night and to me he will always be the face of slapstick comedy. The first time I saw “The Naked Gun” I thought how I had never seen a movie like this before, and didn’t know they made movies like that. Up until that point, my comedy taste focused mostly on Scooby Doo and the Mupper Babies, so this was a major part of the puberty for my comedic tastes. The jokes were so ridiculous but Nielsen spoke them all with such uncanny delivery. Even though I probably understood about 25% of what was said, I still laughed until I could hardly breathe.

As I grew older and I rewatched “TNG”, I picked on even more of the subtler jokes I had missed. I also picked up on the ones that were too mature for me to get, specifically one regarding a stuffed beaver, and the genius of Nielsen continued to grow for me. When I saw “Airplane” for the first time I immediately got excited when I saw him step on screen (this was before imdb, so if you weren’t paying attention to the credits you wouldn’t know who was in the movie until they appeared). His performance didn’t disappoint and it could be argued it’s even better than “TNG”. Nielsen’s presence didn’t always translate to laughs though. I remember being disappointed in him as The Captain in “The Poseidon Adventure”, and being frightened throughout that whole movie. Still, I never gave up hope on Nielsen’s presence in a movie delivering the goods and I followed his work throughout my teens.

There was another reason I followed Nielsen’s work so closely and it’s also why I’ll never forget him. As a kid I remember always wanting to make my father laugh and I loved watching him find something hilarious. The first person I remember my father laughing at was Leslie Nielsen. My father is by no means a stern man, and laughs quite frequently, but there was still something special for me to see him smile so broadly whenever Nielsen told someone not to call him Shirley. I continued to watch Nielsen’s movies not just as a fan, but also knowing each one was something new my father and I could share. We watched both “Naked Gun” sequels as they came out, and then made sure we rented “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”, “Spy Hard”, “Mr. Magoo” and “Wrongfully Accused”. Now none of those movies came near the level of the original “Naked Gun” or “Airplane” but they still made us laugh for 90 minutes each. Laughing at Nielsen’s antics together was one of the first bonds my father and I shared and while there have been plenty more since then; this one will always be close to my heart.

I didn’t follow Nielsen’s career very closely over the past few years. I knew he was in a few of the “(Blank) Movie”s, but I never checked them out. Nielsen’s passing is sad in it of itself, but what makes it even sadder for me is the state slapstick comedy is in right now. Those “(Blank) Movies”s seem to come out every six months, which makes me highly doubt their quality. Still, this was supposed to be something celebrating Nielsen and celebrating the joy his work brought to so many people like me and my father. So with that, I’d like to pass along a final thank you to Leslie Nielsen. For bringing me countless hours of enjoyment, for eliciting some of the biggest belly laughs I have ever shared with my father, and for being my Godfather of Slapstick Comedy. You will be missed.

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