Stop Calling Me Shirley!

An actor who has made me laugh more than most passed away on Sunday. Shirley Leslie Nielsen was born in Canada in 1926 and, after brief stints in the Canadian Air Force and as a radio DJ, he stumbled into acting in his early 20s. He got his first break doing television dramas and you may still catch him popping up on re-runs of Hawaii Five-O, Columbo or Murder She Wrote. He always played the straight guy in these shows and was just as likely to appear as either the villain or the good guy. He reprised these roles for cinema, though his only real successes up until the end of the seventies were in Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). I guess he was destined to be one of those guys you often recognise, but were unable to put a name to the face

He finally made it in 1980 when he swapped drama for comedy to appear in Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker’s Airplane! movie. Disaster movies had been commercially successful throughout the previous decade and whenever a genre becomes popular it is open to parody. The trio got the idea for their spoof from a 1957 b-movie called Zero Hour! that one of them came across on late-night TV. Not only does Airplane! borrow the exclamation mark from the original, but it also draws heavily upon its plot, characters and even dialogue, which is often reproduced verbatim from the original. So, ZAZ used the story of a chaotic flight whose passengers and pilots have succumbed to food-poisoning from eating fish and are now in the hands of an ex-fighter pilot with a fear of flying. To this already hilarious premise, the writers threw in hundreds of verbal and visual gags to create a film that became a commercial and critical success and is still regarded as one of the funniest films ever released

ZAZ knew their script was funny but their masterstroke came when they decided to cast straight actors to play the roles that would have normally been taken by comedy stars. They had a bit of trouble convincing some of them, but eventually they got the likes of Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Shirley to appear in the film. They all played it straight and their deadpan delivery of already funny lines was the making of the film. Nielsen as Dr Rumack got some of the juiciest dialogue, most notably his “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley” response to Ted Stryker’s “Surely you can’t be serious” comment. Nielsen went on to more deadpan success as the inept Frank Drebin in the Police Squad TV series, which led to his first lead role in its film spin-off, Naked Gun. He reprised the part in a couple of inferior sequels and became typecast in many less successful genre spoofs

As I mentioned, Nielsen had spent some time as a DJ before going into acting and that radio station was located in Calgary, Alberta. Over a decade later, fellow Canadian Ian Tyson wrote a song called Four Strong Winds that was a big hit in 1963. He sings about going “out to Alberta” because the “weather’s good there in the fall” and surely Leslie would have agreed. I’ve included a version by yet another Canadian and it appears on his Comes a Time album. I can’t think of too many songs about a girl named Shirley except for Billy Bragg’s Greetings to the New Brunette (Shirley). On that note, I’ll bid farewell to Leslie Nielsen and thank him for all the laughs he’s given me over the years. And I’m glad he died at home and not in a big building with patients

Four Strong Winds (Ian & Sylvie cover) – Neil Young

Greetings To The New Brunette (Shirley) – Billy Bragg


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