"I'm not doing the "Naked Gun" movies to make anybody laugh," Leslie Nielsen told me in late 1992. "The Frank Drebin character just happens to be my style. I get to play portentousness for laughs. Insanity, when given credibility, becomes very funny."
On that note we had the following brief conversation.
Q: What's Drebin an anagram for?
NIELSEN: Don't know.
A: Makes perfect sense.
Q: You've helped sell millions of dollars of movie tickets. What makes you so attractive?
A: My appearance probably gives the impression that I know what I'm talking about. I've been pursued by that expectation all of my life. Yet I've always known that I was just the same as anybody else and that failure was just around the corner.
Q: Appearance is a prison for you?
A: Yes. But by doing comedy it becomes a license for me to be as nuts as I really am.
Q: What was your dumbest trick as a kid?
A: I went to a country schoolhouse. We had three classrooms. In each were rows of desks, and attached to each desk was a seat and the desk that was immediately behind it. At the end of the row was a desk that had no seat, so they had to have chairs. I was in grade six. There was a guy standing up, leaning over his desk to talk to my brother, who was immediately in front of him. I was at the blackboard at the back of the room, doing my 12 times multiplication tables. I turned around and noticed how this guy was standing away from his chair, so I quietly slipped behind him and put that chair back about four feet. All of a sudden I hear peoooockck! as he hit the floor. I never even turned around.
Q: Practical jokes are a constant theme, no?
A: I do fool around with a particular practical joke. The Whoope cushion.
Q: Do you have a virtuoso command of any animal noises?
A: You mean like a horse whinnying? Nooo. However, I've had astounding results with my whoope cushion at the paddock, with racehorses being paraded. In one case the jockey was up on the horse, being led by a young gal. You never saw so many looks. The jockey looked at the girl, she looked at him. Both looked behind and in front. There were three guys in the stall I was standing near and they knew what I was doing. They were sliding down the wall from laughing so hard.
Q: To what Trivial Pursuit question are you the answer?
A: "Whose undying wish was to become Tarzan's son, but never made it?" And here's why: bowed legs.
Q: Who should play you in the movie version of your tongue-in-cheek autobiography, "The Naked Truth"?
A: I wonder what Frank Sinatra is doing? It would be a stretch but I think he could probably handle it.
Q: Any other Nielsen's you wish you were related to?
A: In Denmark, Nielsen is the equivalent of Smith or Jones or Johnson in America. There's a lot to choose from. Maybe I'm related to Brigitte Nielsen. On the other hand, it would probably be better not to be related.
Q: Are you impressed that there's a street named after you in your hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan?
A: I haven't been back since it was awarded. Besides, two months after I was born, we moved close to the Arctic Circle.
Q: Give us a short lesson on living that far north.
A: I think there's 732 different ways of saying, "Boy, it's cold out, isn't it!"
Q: The Eskimos have many words to describe snow. What in show business takes a similar number of words to describe?
A: Profit participation.
Q: When did your hair turn white and why did you leave it that way?
A: It began when I was in my early forties. I never considered dyeing it back. White hair is very beneficial. People say, "Leslie, I just can't believe it, you just never change! Incredible!" "You look good, you look young." I say, "Hey, I've changed a lot. The only thing that hasn't changed is my hair."
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: I've wondered that myself. I don't have to get up in the morning, I don't have to answer the phone. I don't really have to do anything unless I want to do it. So the bottom line for me today is that I am free.
Q: What's the best way to stay sane in an insane world?
A: One way is to never know the answer to this question.
Q: You were around during TV's Golden Age. What was so golden about it?
A: It was the Golden Age because everything was new. Shows were either daring and very good, or they were very bad. Certainly the term "golden" didn't apply to the money. I did 36 shows my first year in live television and made slightly under $5,000. It was good enough; plenty of money for me. But otherwise, my early days as an actor were filled with panic. I was afraid that at any time they were going to discover I had no talent, would pound on my door at midnight, gather up my belongings and ship me back to Canada. Fortunately I have since developed my insensitivity today to a point where I can actually accept the fact that I'm an impostor.
Q: You went to the White House and met President Bush (Sr.) Considering how Frank Drebin treated the President and his Mrs., how did you end up getting invited?
A: First I was invited to go to the Desert Storm Golf Classic. Then I was called and asked if I'd like to meet the President at the tournament. I said, "Sure, but do you know if he's seen 'Naked Gun II-1/2?'" They said no. I said, "Well, have you seen 'Naked Gun II 1/2?'" They said no. I said, "Well, perhaps you'd better take a look at the picture or find out if Mr. Bush has seen it." The guy called back the next day, laughing. He said, "Yes, he's seen it and he'd be quite happy to say hello and to meet you." So we met at a cocktail reception. He was very attentive. They were fun. Great sense of humor, both of them. While I was there I got invited to attend a state dinner for Vaclav Havel. Then I got three or four more invitations, as well. [smiles] The last time I saw Barbara Bush was in a reception line. She looked away with exasperation and when I came up she turned her back to the camera. So I turned my back to the camera. She shook my hand and said, "No, you turn around a face front." So I faced front and they took the picture. Then she turned around and we chit-chatted. She said, "My granddaughter saw your name on the guest list. She questioned me about what I was going to say and she rehearsed me to make sure I was not going to say anything that might offend you."
Q: Had Vaclav Havel seen "Naked Gun II-1/2?"
A: No. And the first dish was lobster pate. Thank God there were no claws!
Q: Any wisdom you want to pass along to the next generation?
A: Seldom are things as bad as we think they are.