`NAKED GUN` CLASSIC FLASHBACK
by Paul Freeman [December 1988 Interviews]
“We like to catch the audience off-guard, so we try not to use actors who`ve been identified with comedy,`` says David Zucker, director of “The Naked Gun: From the files of Police Squad!”
Indeed, most moviegoers (with an emphasis on ``most``) wouldn`t associate Ricardo Montalban, Priscilla Presley or Leslie Nielsen with slapstick comedy, although Nielsen proved his comedic talents in Zucker`s “Airplane!” The unlikely trio, however, turn in the most hilarious performances in “Naked Gun” since the days of the Stooges and the Marx Brothers.
Naked Gun reteams Zucker with his brother, Jerry, and buddy Jim Abrahams for their fourth screen collaboration, after “Airplane!,” “Top Secret!” and “Ruthless People.” Together with Pat Profit (“Police Academy”), they wrote “Naked Gun,” a riotous parody of police adventures.
The movie revives Lt. Frank Drebin, the bumbling cop of 1982`s short-lived “Police Squad! TV series. Though the show was canceled after four episodes, it became a cult favorite on cable and video cassette.”
"Police Squad! should always have been a film," says Nielsen, casually clad in a red short-sleeved knit shirt and tan slacks, his white hair and ruddy complexion fitting the police detective mold. "When they called me to say they were making a movie version, I felt like a shipwrecked mariner, stranded on the ocean, finally sighting land."
"We wrote this for Leslie," says David Zucker. "If he had turned it down, we probably wouldn`t have done the movie. There`s some mystical quality about Leslie Nielsen that is funny."
"We picked him for ‘Airplane!’ because he had this wonderfully dignified image from Poseidon Adventure and other roles. When we met him, we were surprised at what a goofy guy he really is."
Nielsen believes his humor flows more freely these days. "I used to be spontaneously funny only in spurts. I had to feel secure, comfortable, which usually meant having a couple of drinks first. I`ve always marveled at the guts of stand-up comics who put themselves on the line every night.
"When David and Jerry and Jim selected me for ‘Airplane!,’ it was a high compliment. I figured they must know what they`re doing. That was a confidence boost. Now I`ll take a shot at anything for a laugh, especially when I`m working with them."
In “Naked Gun,” Nielsen must keep a straight face while delivering wild sight gags and outrageous double entendres. "It wasn`t easy staying in character when the crew and director were breaking up. Comedy is hard work."
Playing Drebin, however, is a joy, according to Nielsen. "He has a beautiful lack of logic. He doesn`t know what the hell is going on. He always solves the crime, always does it in the wrong way and never knows that there`s anything wrong about what he does."
The Canadian-born Nielsen, who has acted in more than 1,000 TV shows and dozens of films, including “Forbidden Planet,” “Tammy and the Bachelor” and “Harlow,” is grateful to have found a new niche.
"Frankly, I`d be happy to stick with comedy now. Thanks to video and cable, my whole body of work will be played and replayed, so my heavy dramatic side will not be forgotten.
"I was talking with Robert Donner, a talented comedian and actor who played Exeter on ‘Mork and Mindy.’ He said, `Leslie, now you are a given.` I said, `What do you mean?` He said, `Wherever you go now, all you have to do is say hello and they`re going to start laughing.` I thought, `What a jump it is having that kind of acceptance!` I`d be foolish not to use it as fully as possible."
Zucker had difficulty deciding which actress to use as Drebin`s love interest. After considering many movie performers, he chose Presley, whose most notable credit was a four-year-stint as Jenna Wade on TV`s “Dallas.”
"The main female character in ‘Naked Gun’ was beautiful, sweet and sexy," Zucker says. "Priscilla embodied all those qualities and she`d never been in a comedy before, which was a big plus."
At an interview session, Presley, dressed in a black velvet dress, is alluring and aloof. There`s a softness about her features and her voice, but her eyes are tough.
"This character was basically shy and naive, kind of an innocent," she says. "I figured I could convincingly portray that."
As for playing comedy, she says, "At first, it`s frightening going into something you`re not familiar with, not identified with. This was the perfect way to get into it, because I was playing it straight, not trying to be a comedian. This was the first role that required me not only to look pretty, but to fall down stairs, as well," she giggles.
Presley did not learn about pratfalls in drama school. She began studying acting when she was hired as a spokeswoman for a shampoo company. "I thought I was just to do commercials, but they informed me I had to appear in classrooms and conventions. That petrified me. I was very shy and needed to work on myself.
"My acting training has made it much easier for me to deal with being in the limelight."
Presley, in 1967, still a teen, married the King of Rock `n` Roll. She has lived in a fishbowl ever since, though she and Elvis divorced in `73.
Media members still want to talk about Elvis. Priscilla Presley doesn`t. "I`ve separated myself from the past. If we endlessly revert to the past, there is no future. I believe in letting go and moving along in life.
"I want to earn the respect of my peers. It`s been difficult to convince people in the industry that I really am an actress. I`m always having to prove myself. That just seems to come with who I am. Because of my name, I`m looked at differently. But the name has been as much of a detriment as a help.
"I`m not acting as a hobby. I take my career very seriously. It`s my life on the line. Naked Gun is a step in the right direction.
"I want to try lots of different roles. I don`t mind not looking elegant. I`d like to play the opposite of what I am. I`d like to play a bad girl, a real devil."
That devilishly dapper Montalban, his voice as rich as Corinthian leather, plays the bad guy in “Naked Gun.” He relished the opportunity.
"A villain doesn`t think he`s a villain," he declares. "Nobody says, `I am going to be evil!` Circumstances shape a person`s character, causing them to do evil things. They can rationalize anything. They can be very charming, no matter how dangerous they are."
Charm was one of the prime characteristics of Mr. Roarke, whom Montalban portrayed for seven seasons on TV`s “Fantasy Island.” Though he has appeared in numerous movies, including “Across the Wide Missouri,” “Latin Lovers” and” Let No Man Write My Epitaph,”Montalban was afraid of being typecast.
"The series embedded this image in the public`s mind -- the white suit, the cool, collected man, always knowing what to do, controlling the destinies of others, as well as his own."
Then, with Star Trek II, Khan came to Montalban`s rescue. "I welcomed the opportunity to play a man who was seething inside. The audience didn`t point at the screen and say, `That`s Roarke in a wig!` I`m hoping that the ‘Naked Gun’ role will continue to chip away at the Roarke image."
Montalban says he enjoyed working with the Zuckers and Abrahams. "They realize that moviemaking is serious business, but fun was definitely the key word. They are constantly inventing, creating new situations, trying anything. They don`t depend on manufactured wit. W.C. Fields once said, `Anyone who relies on manufactured anecdotes has a crippled wit.` The Zuckers have true wit. They see the humor in everything."
David Zucker says the team drew inspiration from Mad magazine and used the Dirty Harry movies and such cop series as “M Squad” as targets for satirizing. He believes this type of comedy works best on the big screen.
"On the ‘Police Squad!’ series, we worked 18 hours a day. If it had been a hit, it would have been hell. It took a year to write ‘Naked Gun’ and a year to make it. That`s just for 90 minutes.
"TV depends on viewers being able to understand the program even if they`re in the next room. We require the audience to look at the screen."
Zucker fills the screen with a non-stop torrent of gags. "We find that it`s easier to keep the audience laughing than to give them a breather and then try to get them started again."
He hopes to keep the audience in stitches with ‘Police Squad’! sequels. "We weren`t involved with the ‘Airplane!’ sequel, because we felt we had exhausted that genre. But with a cop, we can take him anywhere, involve him in any situation with all kinds of characters. Virtually any joke we could concoct would fit in a ‘Police Squad!’ movie."
Nielsen would be delighted to return as Frank Drebin. "I`m in the position of being able to work when I want. If I prefer, I can do nothing. I have few responsibilities now. I care about things, but I also don`t give a damn. ‘Police Squad!’ is enough fun to make me want to throw myself into acting again.
"To me, being successful means waking up at 93, still laughing.`