For the record, my favorite comedy of all time is “Airplane!” — and there really is no close second.
It’s silly. It’s non-sensical. There is no underlying theme that makes you pontificate life’s many riddles, and you really wouldn’t classify it as heartwarming and charming. The movie is a parade of one-liners, no-liners and sight gags that many third-graders would consider sophomoric. In fact, it would be a reach to find a single socially-redeeming moment from the film.
I’ve easily watched it 50 times.
What makes this movie so appealing to me? Well, for starters, it was incredibly clever. Oh, there were plenty of jokes that just didn’t work, but that didn’t stop them from flying. Try to go 60 seconds in that movie without an attempt at a joke or gag. It’s impossible. It never lets up, from start to finish.
I also liked seeing respected actors, such as Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and, yes, Barbara Billingsley, go so deep into positively absurd comedic roles. And, maybe of all others, I absolutely loved Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack — the seemingly competent doctor aboard the troubled plane who appeared to be missing more than a few marbles.
Oh, I know Nielsen was more than just a comedic actor during his career. I loved him in “Poseidon Adventure,” and know that he got a lot of credit for “Forbidden Planet” and other dramatic roles as a younger man. But he nailed comedy. His deadpan expressions, exquisite timing and penchant for making lines stick with you forever made him one of my all-time favorites.
Those of us who loved “Airplane!” will never forget Nielsen’s stoic face responding to the statement, “Surely, you can’t be serious” with, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” Is it a silly line? Without a doubt. But he made it his own, and it will go into the annals of movie history as an absolute classic.
Of course, his re-birth as a comedic actor certainly didn’t end with that one movie. He also played another one of my favorite characters as Detective Frank Drebbin in the television show “Police Squad!” and three “Naked Gun” films. Nielsen played the same type of character in that role — the takes-himself-more-seriously-than-anybody-else-in-the-planet-does guy.
And, again, he was brilliant.
Coincidentally, I watched “Airplane!” once again Thanksgiving night for the first time in years. Camped out on my couch with a belly full of holiday food, I found myself laughing at the same old jokes that have made me laugh for years. I vividly remember the closing credits scrolling down the screen and feeling immensely satisfied, like all was right in the world.
Throughout that following weekend I was repeating jokes from the movie, and was actually itching to sit down and watch it again. It truly never gets old for me, and it make me happy just watching it.
That just has to count for something in this all-too-difficult world, doesn’t it? The simple act of bringing somebody joy? Nielsen did that, and I’ll be eternally grateful for that gift.
Then I heard on Sunday that Nielsen had passed away at the age of 84 in a Florida hospital due to complications from pneumonia. For some reason, it really hit me hard. I never met the man. I haven’t seen him in anything new in years. But somehow I felt like I lost a longtime friend.
I was reading through my Twitter feed that night and was stunned by how many people were touched by his life, as well as his passing. There were messages from people in their 70s and people in their 20s. They were sending out messages of his greatest lines from “Airplane!” and “Naked Gun.” One person I used to work with years ago posted, “Leslie Nielsen died today in a Florida hospital. It’s a big building where doctors work, but that’s not important.”
That fed off one of his great lines in “Airplane!” and was the ultimate sign of respect for the man, in my opinion.
I know what you’re thinking. “You didn’t digress this week. Surely, you can’t be serious.”
You know my answer.