November 28, 2010

Leslie Nielsen's Obit

Despite decades spent playing sober commanders and serious captains, Leslie Nielsen insisted that he was always made for comedy. He proved it in his career's second act.

"Surely you can't be serious," an airline passenger says to Nielsen in "Airplane!" the 1980 hit that turned the actor from dramatic leading man to comic star.

"I am serious," Nielsen replies. "And don't call me Shirley."

The line was probably his most famous - and a perfect distillation of his career.

Nielsen, the dramatic lead in "Forbidden Planet" and "The Poseidon Adventure" and the bumbling detective Frank Drebin in "The Naked Gun" comedies, died on Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.

The Canada native died from complications from pneumonia at a hospital near his home, surrounded by his wife, Barbaree, and friends, his agent John S. Kelly said in a statement.

Critics argued that when Nielsen went into comedy he was being cast against type, but Nielsen disagreed, saying comedy was what he intended to do all along.

"I've finally found my home - as Lt. Frank Drebin," he told The Associated Press in a 1988 interview.

Comic actor Russell Brand took to Twitter to pay tribute to Nielsen, playing off his famous line: "RIP Leslie Nielsen. Shirley, he will be missed."

Nielsen came to Hollywood in the mid-1950s after performing in 150 live television dramas in New York. With a craggily handsome face, blond hair and 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter) height, he seemed ideal for a movie leading man.

Nielsen first performed as Thibault in the Paramount operetta "The Vagabond King" with Kathryn Grayson.

The film - he called it "The Vagabond Turkey" - flopped, but MGM signed him to a seven-year contract.

His first film for that studio was auspicious - as the spaceship commander in the science fiction classic "Forbidden Planet." He found his best dramatic role as the captain of an overturned ocean liner in the 1972 disaster movie, "The Poseidon Adventure."

Behind the camera, the serious actor was a well-known prankster. That was an aspect of his personality never exploited, however, until "Airplane!" was released in 1980 and became a huge hit.

As the doctor aboard a plane in which the pilots, and some of the passengers, become violently ill, Nielsen says they must get to a hospital right away.

"A hospital? What is it?" a flight attendant asks, inquiring about the illness.

"It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now," Nielsen deadpans.

It was the beginning of a whole new career in comedy. Nielsen would go on to appear in such comedies as "Repossessed" - a takeoff on "The Exorcist" - and "Mr. Magoo," in which he played the title role of the good-natured bumbler.

But it took years before he got there.

He played Debbie Reynolds' sweetheart in 1957's popular "Tammy and the Bachelor," and he became well known to baby boomers for his role as the Revolutionary War fighter Francis Marion in the Disney TV adventure series "The Swamp Fox."

He asked to be released from his contract at MGM, and as a freelancer, he appeared in a series of undistinguished movies.

"I played a lot of leaders, autocratic sorts; perhaps it was my Canadian accent," he said.

Meanwhile, he remained active in television in guest roles. He also starred in his own series, "The New Breed," "The Protectors" and "Bracken's World," but all were short-lived.

Then "Airplane!" captivated audiences and changed everything.

Producers-directors-writers Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker had hired Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Nielsen to spoof their heroic TV images in a satire of flight-in-jeopardy movies.

After the movie's success, the filmmaking trio cast their newfound comic star as Detective Drebin in a TV series, "Police Squad," which trashed the cliches of "Dragnet" and other cop shows. Despite good reviews, ABC quickly canceled it. Only six episodes were made.

"It didn't belong on TV," Nielsen later said. "It had the kind of humor you had to pay attention to."

The Zuckers and Abraham converted the series into a feature film, "The Naked Gun," with George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson and Priscilla Presley as Nielsen's co-stars. Its huge success led to sequels "The Naked Gun 2 1/2" and "The Naked Gun 33 1/3."

His later movies included "All I Want for Christmas," "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" and "Spy Hard."

Between films he often turned serious, touring with his one-man show on the life of the great defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow.

Nielsen was born Feb. 11, 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan.

He grew up 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle at Fort Norman, where his father was an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The parents had three sons, and Nielsen once recalled, "There were 15 people in the village, including five of us. If my father arrested somebody in the winter, he'd have to wait until the thaw to turn him in."

The elder Nielsen was a troubled man who beat his wife and sons, and Leslie longed to escape. As soon as he graduated from high school at 17, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, even though he was legally deaf (he wore hearing aids most of his life.)

After the war, Nielsen worked as a disc jockey at a Calgary radio station, then studied at a Toronto radio school operated by Lorne Greene, who would go on to star on the hit TV series "Bonanza." A scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse brought him to New York, where he immersed himself in live television.

Nielsen also was married to: Monica Boyer, 1950-1955; Sandy Ullman, 1958-74; and Brooks Oliver, 1981-85.

Nielsen and his second wife had two daughters, Thea and Maura.

November 07, 2010

Jill Clayburgh obit

The actor Jill Clayburgh, who has died of leukemia aged 66, was one of the brightest female stars of the 1970s, yet was somewhat forgotten in the decade that followed. "If they don't give me good parts in movies, I'm just not going to do them. And there's a time when they just move on to the next person," Clayburgh said prophetically at the height of her fame in 1978. Perhaps conservative Hollywood did not really know how to cope with an independent-minded, intelligent performer who refused to be pigeonholed.

Born in Manhattan, New York, Clayburgh was the daughter of wealthy parents. Her father was the vice-president of two large companies and her mother was a secretary to the Broadway producer David Merrick. As a child, Clayburgh was inspired to become an actor when she saw Jean Arthur as Peter Pan on Broadway in 1950. She was educated in New York, at the exclusive, all-girl Brearley school and then at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied religion, philosophy and literature.

She began acting as a student in summer stock and, after graduating, joined the Charles Street repertory theatre company in Boston, where she met another up-and-coming actor, Al Pacino, with whom she was to have a five-year relationship. The next step was New York, where she appeared in several off-Broadway productions.

She moved on to Broadway in the musicals The Rothschilds (1970) and Pippin (1972), and Tom Stoppard's philosophical farce, Jumpers (1974). But it was film acting that really excited Clayburgh. "One of the things I like about the movies is the adventure of it," she said. "I like going to different places and I like doing a different scene every day."

In 1963, while still at Sarah Lawrence, Clayburgh had made her screen debut as the bride-to-be in The Wedding Party, co-directed by her fellow student Brian De Palma in 16mm and grainy monochrome. However the film was not released until six years later when Robert De Niro (credited, in his supporting role, as Robert Denero) had made his name.

It took Clayburgh much longer to become a recognisable face. She had an absurd role as a Jewish Marxist in the unfunny Portnoy's Complaint (1972), and had little to do as Ryan O'Neal's ex-wife in The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973) and as the stripper murder-victim of George Segal in The Terminal Man (1974). Then she was unexpectedly cast as Carole Lombard opposite James Brolin's Clark Gable in the stunningly banal Gable and Lombard (1976), from which only she emerged with any dignity.

Clayburgh had the kind of warmth and witty sophistication barely seen in Hollywood since Lombard and Jean Arthur. This was demonstrated in Silver Streak (1976), an entertaining throwback to 1930s comedy-thrillers, where she played the lady on a train who tangles with Gene Wilder; and in Semi-Tough (1977), as the beautiful free-thinking woman living in a platonic threesome with two American football players (Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson) until one of them makes a forward pass.

These carefree, liberated characters led the director Paul Mazursky to give Clayburgh the title role in An Unmarried Woman (1978). Here, in one film, she proved that she was equally adept at drama and comedy. As a woman making herself a new life after being deserted by her husband, she overcame many of the superficial aspects of the script thanks to her ability to show both strength and vulnerability. Her performance earned her the best actress award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination.

The following year, she was nominated for another Oscar, this time for Alan J Pakula's Starting Over (1979), in which she played another unmarried woman, but with a different emphasis. Her character is a schoolteacher who, having been hurt by a relationship, keeps any emotional involvement at bay by remaining deliberately dowdy.

Clayburgh seized the chance to work with the director Bernardo Bertolucci in Italy on La Luna (1979), playing an internationally renowned singer who has an incestuous relationship with her spoiled teenage son. Clayburgh had all the strength and glamour required by this opaque, operatic film. However, in the 80s, she had a singular lack of success, despite luminous performances. She was splendid in It's My Turn (1980), as a mathematics professor who has an affair with an ex-baseball player (Michael Douglas), and as the first female judge appointed to the US supreme court in First Monday in October (1981), alienating and then attracting her shabby liberal colleague (Walter Matthau).

She gave another excellent, yet unappreciated, portrayal in I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can (1982), as a pill-popping film-maker who goes cold turkey. It was adapted, from Barbara Gordon's autobiographical book, by the Tony-award winning playwright David Rabe, whom Clayburgh had married in 1979.

Sadly her powerful performance as a lawyer defending a Palestinian in Costa-Gavras's Hanna K (1983) was little seen, due to pressure from pro-Israeli groups, who deemed it "anti-Israeli" and managed to limit its circulation. Upset by the film's reception, Clayburgh gave up cinema for three years, during which time she was busy bringing up her children and tending the garden of the family's home in Mount Kisco, New York.

In 1984 she returned to Broadway in Noël Coward's Design for Living, alongside Raul Julia and Frank Langella. Her return to cinema was unpropitious: in the silly whodunnit Where Are the Children? (1986) she was required to cry a lot. But she was amusing as a snooty New York journalist researching an article in the Louisiana bayou in Andrey Konchalovsky's comedy-melodrama, Shy People (1987), which flopped. There followed a series of minor roles in best-forgotten movies. Parallel to her film career, she appeared regularly on television, including five episodes (from 1999 to 2001) of the legal comedy Ally McBeal, as Ally's mother; and as the wealthy socialite Letitia Darling in all 23 episodes of Dirty Sexy Money (2007-09).

In her last Broadway performance, Clayburgh played the mother in a 2006 revival of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. The New York Times critic Ben Brantley praised her "winning way with dialogue that can make synthetic one-liners sound like filigree epigrams".

She is survived by David, her children Michael and Lily (who is also an actor), her stepson, Jason, and her brother, James.

• Jill Clayburgh, actor, born 30 April 1944; died 5 November 2010