Leslie Nielsen has died.
His performances in the ZAZ movies meant the world to me as a kid, and it was a true honor to work with him. Ever the professional, there was nothing he wouldn’t do. Didn’t matter how old he was, didn’t matter how physical the gag.
I thought today of the things I asked him to do. Spit milk at school children. Walk around nearly naked in front of an auditorium full of hundreds of people. Punch an old lady in the face. Climb into a coffin with a beautiful young woman and squeeze her breasts.
He did it all without ever complaining. Particularly that last one.
Leslie Nielsen wasn’t a natural comedian. He didn’t get into show business to be a clown. It was his unclown-ness that made him so great. I can’t tell you why certain lines were only funny if Leslie said them. All I know is that they were. When we wrote lines for Leslie, we knew they were “Leslie” lines, unperformable by any other human.
No one else could get away with it.
Leslie’s characters could be stupid, insane, proud, delusional, racist, violent, sexist… and people loved him anyway, perhaps because he played a deadpan dementia that made you excuse every word that came out of his mouth.
And yet, when the cameras weren’t rolling, he wasn’t a clown at all (well, there’s the matter of his famous “fart machine,” which someone will no doubt pull out at his funeral). He was a gentleman, a man’s man from an era that’s sadly bygone. Even in his old age, he was tall, broad and strong. He treated everyone with kindness. It didn’t matter that I was the new guy. It didn’t matter that I was the four thousandth director that had come and gone for him. It didn’t matter that he had achieved more in his career than I could ever hope to in ten lifetimes.
It didn’t matter that I asked him to do and say things no octagenarian should do or say.
He was respectful and professional, and he always tried. Leslie never phoned in anything.
I will miss him and anyone who worked with him will miss him, but more importantly, comedy will miss him. People can imitate him, but no one can bring that magical insanity he had. We lost one of the all-time greats today. I can only hope he’s in heaven with that Laplander…
And thank you.