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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Count and countess

Commander Adams and the Swamp Fox (1926-2010)

The headlines and news bulletins announcing the death of Canadian-born actor Leslie Nielsen seemed to all echo the same career high points and the same audio clips. If I heard it once, I heard it a half-dozen times: “Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.” The Twitter-length summary on Nielsen was that he was “a comic actor.”

And he was. Among other things. I’m sure he was glad for all the work that came his way in his later years, at a stage in life when many former leading men may find it hard to come up with roles. But to a lot of us, Nielsen will always be Col. Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War hero whose proto-guerilla tactics got him dubbed the Swamp Fox and who was immortalized by Nielsen’s portrayal on television for Disney from 1959 to 1961. Before that, he had already entered geekdom immortality by playing Commander J.J. Adams, the leader of a starship crew that investigates the fate of a colony in Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. A sci-fi update to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which introduced many of us to the charms of Anne Francis and all of us to the weirdness of Robby the Robot. That movie was the clear template for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series, which made Nielsen the prototype for James T. Kirk and every other modern captain or commander of a starship in latter-20th-century pop culture.

Those were the kinds of roles Nielsen was known for, usually someone serious, often in authority. He guest-starred on every show from Bonanza and Rawhide to Gunsmoke and The Big Valley and on every cop and medical show ever. He was a general on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He appeared five times on The Virginian, each time as a different character. He starred as a police lieutenant in The New Breed. He was in Peyton Place for a while, in a dual role. He had a recurring role on Dr. Kildare. He succeeded Warren Stevens as the voice of the title character in Bracken’s World. He starred as a deputy police chief in The Bold Ones: The Protectors. And he appeared in four episodes of Kung Fu in 1975. Though he spent a lot of time working in television, Nielsen had a few memorable movie roles besides Forbidden Planet and his later comedies. He was the romantic lead, opposite Debbie Reynolds, in Tammy and the Bachelor, and he was the captain of an ill-fated ship in The Poseidon Adventure.

All of that dramatic work in the end mostly served as a set-up so that he could send up his own serious guy persona in a string of comedies. While Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Robert Stack could similarly send up their own screen images in Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker’s classic air disaster spoof Airplane!, for them it was more of a parenthesis in their careers rather than the complete switch that it signaled for Nielsen. There was something about the blank look and clueless expression about him, in addition to a face that didn’t always look real, that made him a funnyman waiting to happen. As David Zucker wrote the other day on the Big Hollywood blog, the great thing about Nielsen was that he never broke character, never winked at the camera. His turn as a doctor aboard a pilotless plane was one of the highlights of the movie, and before we knew it, the actor was everywhere, more or less playing the same gag. He did the same basic shtick on the series Police Squad! (why do exclamation marks make titles funny?) and then reprised his Detective Frank Drebin character in the movies The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult. Among other things, these films gave Nielsen the distinction of working with one O.J. Simpson.

Audiences could be forgiven if they thought he was playing the character yet again in Spy Hard (but he wasn’t; he was, rather, Agent WD-40, aka Dick Steele) and in 2001: A Space Travesty (in which he was Marshall Richard “Dick” Dix). He also played the title role in the Mel Brooks spoof Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and he played the president in a couple of the Scary Movie films. And he starred in Disney’s 1997 live action version of the beloved cartoon character Mr. Magoo. Though Nielsen’s blossoming as a comedian may have come as a surprise in 1980, we did have at least one portent. Three years earlier he had appeared in a movie-within-a-movie in another spoof movie written by Abrahams and the Zuckers: John Landis’s The Kentucky Fried Movie.

Frankly, Nielsen wasn’t always as funny in subsequent outings as he was in Airplane! and at times he seemed to be a bit desperate as he took on one silly role after another. But as long as he worked with the Abrahams/Zuckers trio, he was invariably a comic delight. But all of that pales next to the matinee-style thrills he gave us as the Swamp Fox and in Forbidden Planet. Still, you have to admire a man who deliver lines like these: “This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.” “A hospital? What is it?” “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”

Countess Dracula (1937-2010)

If Leslie Nielsen could claim the role of Count Dracula on his c.v., then Ingrid Pitt was able to include his female namesake. In the 1971 Hammer film Countess Dracula, she did not specifically play a Transylvanian vampire. Rather the name was an epithet given to her by villagers, appalled by her habit of bathing in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth.

Pitt will always be associated with Hammer Film Productions, even though she really only made a handful of movies for them. Her other memorable title from that catalogue would be 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Camilla.

But if Pitt will be forever linked to the horror genre, there is a perverse irony in that fact, since her own life, in the early days, was worse than many horror movies. Born in Poland to a Jewish mother, she spent three years in a concentration camp, witnessing unimaginable horrors. After the war and when she grew up, she was determined to be an actor. She escaped to the West by jumping into a river (and being rescued by a U.S. serviceman who would briefly become her husband) while on the run from police after a stage performance.

Pitt went on to have bit parts in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, Doctor Zhivago and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She had a supporting role in Richard Burton/Clint Eastwood action/adventure flick Where Eagles Dare (as Heidi). Then came the Hammer films and other horror flicks, including The House That Dripped Blood and a particularly memorable one, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, in which Pitt played the village librarian on an isolated island. Her hair always seemed to be tousled, her eastern European accent was exotic, and there was something carnal about her mouth, whether she was a vampire or some other sort of being.

Over the years, she continued to show up in various, mostly forgettable movies, as well as TV. In that regard, a couple of roles deserve special mention. She appeared in two Doctor Who arcs, both underweater. In 1972 in “The Time Monster,” she was an undersea ally of the evil Master plotting against Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor. And in 1984 in “Warriors of the Deep,” she was a doctor (of the non-time traveling variety) when Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor visits an undersea colony in 2084.

-S.L., 2 December 2010

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