Riggs and Murtagh. Tango and Cash. Starsky and Hutch. John McClane. Frank Bullitt. Dirty Harry Callahan. While those are all tough movie cops, none of them are as hard as nails was perhaps the toughest, most dangerous movie cop of all time… Frank Drebin as played by Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Jump back to 1980. Leslie Nielsen was a character actor known for playing deadpan, ultra-serious roles. He was typically the bad guy of the week on TV shows and TV movies, and his biggest claim to fame was playing the captain in 1956s Forbidden Planet. His career was middling; David Zucker, Jim Abrams and Jerry Zucker, aka ZAZ – Zucker-Abrams-Zucker – wanted to cast him in their movie Airplane. He would play the third lead, a deadpan doctor who would perfectly ape similar roles he played in movies like The Poseidon Adventure. While the studio initially balked, the directors had their way, and to everyone’s surprise – the movie was a mammoth blockbuster. Moreover, every critic singled out Nielsen’s hilariously deadpan performance, and suddenly, Nielsen was a bonafide comedy star.
Yet, Airplane didn’t really make him a star, although it certainly elevated his status in Hollywood. He stayed loyal to his Airplane directors, skipping the sequel when he heard they weren’t coming back. It turned out, though, that they had plans for him, with them developing a TV show called Police Squad, designed as a take-off on the popular cop shows of the fifties-sixties and seventies. In it, he would play a none-too-bright cop named Frank Drebin, who would narrate the show in Nielsen’s classic deadpan style. Despite rave reviews, Police Squad was cancelled after six episodes, and Nielsen went back to the kinds of roles he played in the seventies, playing a college dean in the – let’s say problematic – Soul Man, a rapist in the Barbara Streisand movie Nuts, and other undistinguished parts.
Yet, Team ZAZ still felt their character, Frank Drebin had a lot of potential. They convinced Paramount Pictures to finance a big-screen version of the show called The Naked Gun – From the Files of Police Squad. They couldn’t use the name Police Squad because of the Police Academy series. Nielsen would return as Drebin, opposite a unique cast that included George Kennedy, a legendary character actor, as Drebin’s boss, and the somewhat – let’s use that phrase problematic again – OJ Simpson as his beloved partner Nordberg. Well, Simpson wasn’t problematic in 1988, but as Nielsen later said, he became known for something other than comedy as the years passed.
Perhaps the most unconventional piece of casting was Priscilla Presley, who was known mostly for being the late Elvis Presley’s ex-wife. Presley’s acting career had gotten off to a quiet start via tv roles, but the gorgeous actress proved to be shockingly adept at comedy. Most importantly, his chemistry with the bumbling Nielsen was pitch-perfect, with her always citing Nielsen as a dream co-star.
While the tv series mostly mocked other cop shows, The Naked Gun, with its bigger budget, served as more of a spoof of the Dirty Harry series, with several scenes directly riffing on classic moments. In the movie, Drebin, after single-handedly demolishing a room full of America’s greatest adversaries in the opening, including Idi Amin and a mohawk-wearing Ayatollah, has to prove that his partner, Nordberg, played by Simpson, is innocent of a trumped-up drug charge. Making matters worse, Nordberg is on his deathbed after an ambush, something not helped by the fact that Drebin accidentally keeps injuring him further every time he goes to visit him.
Eventually, the path leads to a drug-running businessman, Vincent Ludwig, played by Khan himself, Ricardo Montalban, who sits his sexy secretary on Drebin to distract him, only for her to be powerless against Drebin’s seductive charms (insert scene of him ripping his suit off). The movie’s premise, which centres around Ludwig’s plot to assassinate the Queen using sleeper assassins, is actually lifted from an old Charles Bronson movie called Telefon. The movie itself is a complete blast, with surprisingly tight action that’s expertly mixed with non-stop hilarity. It’s probably one of the funniest films ever made, with even throw-away gags, including Drebin and Jane walking out of Oliver Stone’s Platoon in hysterics, being top-shelf. Nielsen himself is superb as the none-too-bright but heroic Drebin. If ever Nielsen was cast to perfection, this was the part – with him loving the role so much that he had Ira Newborn’s theme song for the series play at his funeral.
Presley is shockingly funny as Drebin’s love interest, with the romance pretty convincing, and Kennedy is a riot sending up his iconic Airport character roles as Drebin’s boss and best pal. Even OJ Simpson is as funny as Nordberg, although watching him dressed in black, stalking around heavily armed in the opening sequences, has a different context now than it did way back then.
The film was a smash hit at the box office, grossing 78 million domestically and about the same amount overseas. On video and cable, it was even bigger, spawning a very profitable franchise for the studio. It certainly made Nielsen a bankable comedy star, although, for my money, no one ever used him as well as the Zucker Abrams Zucker team.