interview by Douglas Eby
"The comedy of The Three Stooges holds a significant place in the American history of motion picture comedy," says Leslie Nielsen. Recognition for his own comedic abilities has included being a recipient of UCLA's Jack Benny Award in 1995, joining the company of such comic performers as Johnny Carson, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, George Burns, Carol Burnett and others.
Nielsen comments, "I don't see how it would be possible for any of them, including myself, not to have brushed shoulders with The Stooges' work."
Their career spanned more than forty years, and "that's an incredible life in comedy," Nielsen points out. "And doing pretty well the same stuff all the time," he adds. "It endured. It lasted. It's their 'pyramid' is what it is. They're all 'pharaohs.' They've built an edifice and they can happily lay down and be buried."
Nielsen considers doing the kind of "insane comedy" they developed a great asset. "Because I became freer in my work and in my life," he explains. "The Stooges are wacko and they have such tremendous fans, like David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams. You can't think of insanity in comedy without thinking of The Three Stooges.
"The thing is, when you do those things, you're always dealing with the fear of revealing yourself. And of course, that's the essence of what your craft is: to be able to reveal yourself. So you always have that ambivalent thing at work, and the more insane the things you have to do... when they say, 'action,' you've got to do it. Every time you do something that is wacko, in front of strangers particularly – and you have strangers who become an audience – you gradually come to learn that it really makes no difference.
"It's nothing but fun. You do it as fully as you can, and when the smoke clears, you look down, your feet are still there and nobody shot you. You're still alive. It does lead to that kind of freedom."
Nielsen continues to pay attention to others' work to keep developing his own depth as an actor. "There are any number of things, when you watch comedy, that you pick up on," he says. "Even watching the brief Three Stooges material that is on AMC now, I pick up on material.
"I am very much a fan of things that happened in the background. They would always have things happening, but not every minute of the time like 'Naked Gun.' And I always found those very funny. The Stooges had to be very selective, and put things in there deliberately."
Referring to the Stooges' origins in vaudeville, he notes "The violence or the vaudeville style of comedy is a technique all by itself. You get up there, and you are a comedian, and you're doing one thing. That is, you're going to make the audience laugh. You don't have to do it necessarily with subtlety, and sometimes you revert to anything that is unsubtle to get a hold on them. Of course, back in those days, that's what paid the rent, was to get them."
Nielsen is also continuing the kind of dramatic work he did earlier in his career, portraying Clarence Darrow in a one-man performance. "I paid a significant sum of money to own that play," he notes, "and it is mine now, and I can travel and go do it anywhere I wish. I don't have to call anybody to get the right to do it. I'm off and running."
He will be going to England to do just that, touring and then mounting a production in London's famed theater district, the West End. "It's partly a balance for my comedy," he says. "Even when I was doing 'Police Squad,' I was thinking that I would like to direct. But I'd like to direct comedy, and that kind of comedy. Also, just doing that kind of comedy week in and week out, for myself, was not going to be sufficient. Not enough."
And playing Darrow, he says, is a way to keep more than just his comic talents alive: "I'm a professional actor. If I was a plumber, I wouldn't just do my plumbing in Beverly Hills bathrooms; I'd like to install air conditioning units and a few other things."
During his early life in Canada, where he began his show business career as an engineer and disc jockey, Nielsen says radio and TV programming were "very limited, very circumscribed" and that he had not been able to enjoy The Three Stooges. Referring to the wealth of media now, he exclaims, "Today, you can pick up everything, and it's wonderful." And, he adds, enjoying The Stooges as an adult has advantages: "It's better that I'm exposed to them now, because my appreciation of comedy is far broader than it ever has been."
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