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Article © 1993 Darlene Arden. First published in Carlson Voyageur, February / March / April 1993.


Leslie Feels Lucky
Leslie Nielsen takes risks without taking himself too seriously.



Leslie Nielsen, shown here as Lieutenant Frank Drebin,
is one celebrity whom Darlene interviewed (without his gun, of course).


Leslie Nielsen, a.k.a. the dashing, heroic Swamp Fox and overachiever Frank Drebin of the Naked Gun police force, recalls the precise moment when he activated his whoopee cushion.

He was at a charity golf tournament in Monaco, chatting with Prince Ranier, when a third man approached, commenting on the lovely day for golf. Nielsen responded rhapsodically. "It's so beautiful here--the green of the fairway, the mountains," he wound up. "It's so beautiful it actually does something to my insides." Cue the cushion.

The prince has "a wonderful sense of humor," Nielsen says. "His eyes widened and he sat up in the seat and started to laugh." A security man said later, "Leslie, I've not seen the prince laugh so hard in 25 years."

"I don't know what it is about that device and about the sound, but if you catch people just right they laugh until their sides hurt," says the perpetrator. "It's also a great leveler. I mean, from the moment I did that the prince knew that I had no ulterior motives in anything I had to do in his presence. I was not looking for anything from him."

Monaco itself is "exquisite," he adds. "The city itself is spotless, with beautiful parks. It's a fairy tale city."

Nor is that the naive reaction of an inexperienced traveler. "We just got back from Morocco and before that, Monaco, and before that, Thailand," he says, describing an itinerary that was part work and part pleasure. "I'm here in Toronto en route to London on Tuesday, and then a few days in London and on to Milan, and then back to Los Angeles. If you went from last June to the previous June, we has been out of the country 18 times and away from Los Angeles itself 31 times."

Though a self-proclaimed snowbird, Nielsen says, "I'm really very partial to the tropics, places like Hawaii. I love the Hawaiian people, and I love the South Pacific and going in that direction. I also love the Latin people à la Mexico; Manzanillo was a great spot to go to. When I head somewhere, I'm going toward the tropics. I want to get to the Caribbean, to St. Croix and St. Maarten, and see all of the things in that area, too."

The silver-haired actor's career longevity is a tribute to his talent. Today's audiences know him as that ever-so-serious but decidedly obtuse Det. Frank Drebin in the hilarious Naked Gun movies, but he has also been highly regarded as a dramatic actor and romantic figure, and still makes forays back into those modes.

He played the handsome Swamp Fox, Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, in Disney's 1950s television series, one that still figures in many people's memories. "It's amazing how the Swamp Fox has become part of the chronology of so many people's lives. That's what happened to me with Tarzan, for example," he adds with a laugh.

Also well-remembered is his romantic co-starring role with Debbie Reynolds in 1957's Tammy and the Bachelor. "It plays every year," he says. "I'm so happy with things that I have done in the past--like Forbidden Planet, for example, that also endures."

Brought to Hollywood in 1954 by Paramount, Nielsen has been in more that 60 films, made more than 1,000 television appearances and starred in seven television series. He has toured with his one-man show Darrow, and in 1990 starred opposite Carol Burnett in the Los Angeles production of Love Letters. Whether it's a serious performance or something off the wall, Nielsen's work is always just right.

He loves comedic roles, although he insists he never had the courage to seek them out. He credits the writer/directors of Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker) for recognizing the comedian in him: "I'll be forever grateful to them."

Born a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman's son in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, Nielsen spent his youth near the Arctic Circle, going south to Edmunton, Alberta, to attend school with his brothers, Gordon and Erik. An aerial gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he broke into entertainment at a Calgary radio station where he was an engineer, disc jockey and announcer--employing a voice still wonderfully resonant even in casual conversation.

Nielsen studied acting at Lorne Greene's Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, where he received a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.

The curriculum there included Martha Graham's dance class. "I'm really a farm boy at heart, and I bring all of that naiveté with me. I didn't even know who Martha Graham was!" he admits. "I wasn't aware, until much later, of the extraordinary privilege that I had been given to study with her.

"The whole first year I just kind of goofed off. . . . I had a pair of Capezio ballet slippers, and I thought, Boy oh boy, where's my moccasins and my hockey puck? The second year I really buckled down. . . . But dancing was never high on my agenda. I somehow don't think a dancer looks too good running around onstage pirouetting and so on if he has bowlegs. Which I do have. I got them up north when I was just learning to walk as a baby. We didn't have enough fresh food, and my legs got bowed at the ankles. So that saved me from Shakespeare. . . .

"I've always been aware of my limitations."

Nielsen also acted at the esteemed Actors' Studio: "That was the stamping ground. And what a bevy of people we had at the Studio in those days--Paul Newman, Ben Gazzara, Marlon Brando, Tony Franciosa, Shelley Winters, Karl Malden, Jo Van Fleet, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson--the list is endless of talented people who were attending at that time.

"My philosophy, even at The Actors' Studio, was that anything I couldn't understand, I didn't let it bother me. I forgot it. Whatever I could understand and use, that's what I did. I was never faced with any kind of frustration. It was a very insensitive thing to do, but that's a great saving grace, to be insensitive about that kind of thing.

"I find in doing comedy that the key word is credibility," Nielsen continues. "Of course, when you say credibility, certainly that applies to drama, too. . . . It's only natural that it should be the same whether you're doing comedy or drama. To take the insanity that we have in Airplane or Naked Gun and to behave in a way that you bring credibility to it, then the insanity becomes terribly funny. Acting is sometimes defined as behaving really under imaginary circumstances, and so it's behaving really under insane imaginary circumstances in comedy."

Insanity isn't everything, though. "As an actor, I want to do every kind of role--and, as a matter of fact, I am." He's playing a sleazy heavy in a new children's movie, Surf Ninjas of the South China Seas, and co-starring with Olympia Dukakis in Digger, "a sensitive story about ordinary kinds of people."

On a personal front, Nielsen has just bought a home in Scottsdale, Arizona. "I look upon it as a sanctuary," he says. "We have such a wonderful time there, just lying back and doing nothing."

On the other hand, "I love returning to my native country. I'm very fond of my peers and my fellow Canadians. One of the outstanding Canadian characteristics I find is a madcap sense of humor, generally speaking, and that's really for sure out in the Northwest. I always have had a tendency to be really off the wall with my humor, and there's nothing I do when I get back home that goes over anybody's heads. They catch me right away, and they're ready and able to start to play the games."

Traveling home or not, Nielsen's busy. His so-called biography, The Naked Truth, written with David Fisher, is being published soon by Simon & Schuster. (Nielsen wanted to add, after the title, "Vol. 32 1/2 ounces.") "I will defy you to find those things in it that are truthful whatsoever," he challenges. "It's a spoof on a motion-picture celebrity, and so it's just absolutely jam packed with wonderful lies." He'll do an audiotape of the book. There are more commercials for Coors to do. And there's talk of an animated cartoon and a movie take-off on Rambo.

Nielsen enjoys golf and celebrity charity tournaments, but claims his real hobbies are people and information. "I'm an information seeker," he says. And he enjoys making new friends when he travels: "The beauty of a place is always compelling, but the most compelling thing to me is the people themselves."

He supports many charities, among them The Hearing Institute--he says he's "hard of hearing" himself. But "the main thing for me is cancer research, and I also do an annual show for the Humane Society [in Canada]. We do about a one-hour presentation, and it's played all over the country and apparently in the States, too. Somewhere along the line we have to think about life and living things themselves. It's not just a matter of ourselves as being alive--it's a matter of all life itself. That was Schweitzer's philosophy, to revere life, and that is the truth of it."

He reads a lot, mostly non-fiction. "I'm very partial to one man in particular, Arthur Janov, who was the founder of primal therapy and has written a number of books. It deals with the new frontier, which is the consciousness, the brain." Nielsen travels with Janov's books. "I feel like I would recommend to anybody any of the books that he has written. His last book was called Imprints and the first one was Primal Scream. If I had a soapbox of any kind, that's the soapbox I would stand on."

He seems surprised for a moment to have grown so serious. "In my profession we do have a tendency to take ourselves awfully seriously," he says. "The biggest break I ever had in my life was the day I woke up and found out I had stopped taking myself seriously. It's amazing, the moment you do that, how you stop blaming anybody else for things that have happened to you," he chuckles.

"Doing the insane comedy has been so wonderful for me as a person because it ended up making me freer as a human being, freer in my life. I have a license now to be a nut; before I was nuts but I had to do it with trepidation because I didn't have that appearance--I looked like I should be a banker, a doctor or a professional man. I looked like I had a background, like I had all of those things that were never a part of me, so people automatically had expectations from me just because of the way I appear.

"But now they don't point at me with a form of disgust and say, 'Look at that idiot over there, look at how he looks, how he's dressed and how he is behaving, what a fool.' Now they look over and say, 'Hey, look, there's Frank Drebin!'

"I would never have thought to tell anybody that I could do comedy because I wasn't sure I could," he admits. "I'd never looked upon myself as a comedian. Now I've finally come to the conclusion I am," he laughs.

"It's interesting. Of all the professions where you could go and play it safe and go ahead and be part of them, I picked the one profession that offers no safety, and that is acting in front of people. Acting is self-revelation within a discipline. The key is 'self-revealing,' to reveal yourself when you do it in front of other people and they're making judgments about you and looking and deciding whether you're any good or not. It offers no security because it's not nine-to-five and you can't be sure that you're going to be able to pay the rent. The bottom line was that it seemed like I was always going toward something that presented me with danger."

If danger is his business, he's certainly learned to live with it. "My life today, the way I look on it, is like a vacation," he says. "I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world."

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Leslie Nielsen's first travel tip? "Make sure other people are paying for your ticket," he says facetiously. "And also make sure they're paying for your food," he adds for good measure.

But seriously, folks, "One of the things that I make sure I do now is carry smaller bills, change, with me--American money seems to work anywhere in the world--so that when you arrive you don't have to rush in or do something about changing into the currency. You're going to be able to take care of getting in with the doorman and with bellhops and other people who are involved in getting yourself into your accommodations."

This frequent traveler responds enthusiastically at the mention of Radisson Hotels and well aware of the Carlson family connection. "I have stayed at the hotels, and I really have found them to be terrific," he says.

His tropical proclivities lead him to locations that Carlson serves, such as Hawaii and Manzanillo, Mexico. No fewer than 10 Colony Hotels & Resorts properties consort with the spectacular views and benign clime of the Islands, adding golf, gardens or other indulgences: the Kanaloa at Kona; Kona Bali Kai; Mauna Loa Village (Kona); Lae nani and Poipu Kai on Kauai; Napili Shores on Maui; Kaluakoi Hotel and Golf Club on Molokai; and Diamond Head Beach Hotel, the Driftwood Hotel and the Pacific Monarch in Honolulu. As for Manzanillo, a picturesque beach cove there, overlooking the Audiencia Bay and the Pacific, just happens to be overlooked in turn by Radisson Sierra Plaza Hotel Manzanillo.

Wherever he's headed, Nielsen usually forgets to pack something. "The things that you can't do without are the things that you forget. I suppose what you should have is a list." He suggests checking off items as they're packed. "Fortunately, today, no matter where you go you can always get whatever you're missing wherever you are."