It was the end of eighth grade — spring 1975, Long River Middle School, Prospect, Ct. — and I was making my stage debut: as the dim-witted comic sidekick to the lead in the school play. I’m spacing on the title, but hey, it sure beat having to prepare for the bullshit school essay contest, like my classmates.
It was the first time I could remember receiving attention for something besides ridicule from the other kids. People were laughing at my lines! And they were applauding me! And I learned at a young age why so many lonely, tortured souls gravitate to the stage: as an escape and, when it’s done right, to receive positive reinforcement that you can’t get in the real world.
I also learned something else early on. The director — my English teacher, Don Gray, who was once a roommate of Paul Newman at Denison College in Ohio — told me: A stupid person can’t play someone smart, but it takes a smart person to play someone stupid very well.
That said, Leslie Nielsen was a genius.
And his passing Sunday of pneumonia in Florida, at 84, also marks an “Airplane!” three-on-a-match this year: Peter Graves, then Barbara Billingsley, and now Nielsen.
After a lengthy career of roles in movies (“Forbidden Planet,” “The Poseidon Adventure”) and TV — where he exuded maximum gravitas, with a baritone just north of fellow Canadian Lorne Greene — who knew that there was a serious idiot just waiting to break out?
Well, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker did. And I’m sure most of you wouldn’t remember his character’s name — Dr. Rumack — but you sure as hell remember Nielsen’s lines. But the key was the acting. If it weren’t for the Most Serious Tone carried out with the straightest of faces by Nielsen and Peter Graves (as the pilot, Capt. Clarence Oveur), we wouldn’t be celebrating “Airplane!” 30 years later as one of the funniest films ever made.
And, of course, that led to some very happy, non-accidental typecasting — as Lt. Frank Drebin in one of the criminally shortest series in TV history, “Police Squad!” — which led to three hilarious “Naked Gun” movies. And I’m sure Nielsen was crying to his local bank over being typecast the rest of his life as the somber bumbler.
So it’s the laughter we will remember. Whenever we remember …
Surely you can’t be quoting Streisand!
I am …
And don’t call me Streisand!