SFX was very sad to hear of the death of actor Leslie Nielsen. You may know him from such films as Airplane and Naked Gun , but he was, of course, also the star of one of the greatest SF films ever made, Forbidden Planet . As a tribute, we’re reprinting this classic SFX interview with cinema legend…
Has this ever happened to you? You find a mate who’s never seen Forbidden Planet . You’re gobsmacked. You rave about it. “Pot bellied robots,” you enthuse. “Disney-created monsters…” And then you rail off as you realise that mere words cannot sell the film, and you decide to show your mate your well-worn video of the SF movie masterpiece instead. And there you are, expecting them to be wowed by the concepts, the effects, or maybe even Anne Francis in a saggy body stocking emerging from a plastic bottomed lake. But no. The biggest reaction you get is… “Isn’t that…? No, it can’t be… Yes it is! It’s Leslie Nielsen from the Naked Gun movies!”
Shirley, it is.
The star of over 50 movies, and, amazingly over 1,500 TV episodes, Canadian-born Nielsen is the brother of a former Canadian deputy prime minister, who claims his acting career started when he was forced to lie to his father to avoid severe punishment. He remains, however, intensely proud of his involvement in Forbidden Planet .
Were you wary of science fiction when you were offered the role in Forbidden Planet ?
“I love science fiction and I always have. At the time, a science fiction script wasn’t necessarily the thing to do in motion pictures. Certainly, if you did one, don’t certainly do a second one, because then you get to be the science fiction king and you never have a chance of doing Gone With The Wind . You know, Clark Gable never did science fiction!
“The script for Forbidden Planet was really beautifully put together, I thought. It was very fine. And also, it was one of the first times that they did a science fiction picture that took place away from Earth – you know, everything else hung around Earth. And they spent the money on the special effects.
“When I shot that film they still had the six-day week at MGM. And it wasn’t until it was over they went to a five-day thing. Not because of the actors – it was the technicians who said we should only work five days. So they got the actors a five-day working week too.”
Obviously a whole generation knows you from the Naked Gun and Airplane movies, so many people have forgotten that you were once prime leading man material.
“Yeah, yeah, I refer to it as my Donald Duck period! You know, Picasso had his Blue period… I had my Donald Duck period. I was so panicked. This was my first picture at MGM and almost literally my first picture in Hollywood. I was under contract for MGM and I had the feeling that at any time they would discover that I had no talent. I was sure they would come and run me back to Canada, saying ‘You have no talent! Get out of the country!’
“So I was living on the edge of panic and trying to be nonchalant about the whole thing. So I tightened up my voice and I would say, ‘Alright, men. Get the spaceship set up now. We’re going!’ And my heart would be beating so hard inside, and yet you had to appear totally calm. I was the Commander. I gave the orders, you know! But looking back I have very fond memories of those days.”
Forbidden Planet was a pivotal film. In many ways it blazed the trail for Star Trek and everything else that followed.
“Yes, it did. It was the grandfather of them all. And it could very easily have been a pilot film for Star Trek . It could very easily have been ‘We have gone no place where anybody else has ever been yet. And we’ll get there sooner or later, but in the meantime we’re going to go to Altair IV, because something’s going on there with Walter Pidgeon, and we want to keep an eye on him!’
“As I said, it was the first science fiction film to leave planet Earth. And it was the first one to really develop and use wonderful effects. Today, of course, you would refer to them as kind of manual, kind of old-fashioned, but they got it all done beautifully. And all that Disney stuff that was done when they drew the monster, all the animation of the monster screaming and yelling. I’m very proud to have been in that film.”
The effects hold up amazingly well. And, of course, it’s all based on The Tempest, isn’t it?
“Yeah, it is.”
So it’s deeper than it seems?
“As a matter of fact, you’re absolutely right, because it became a cult film and it was a favourite during the days of the flower child. It talked about the monsters from the id and, of course, this was going back to the development of nuclear power and all the hydrogen bombs, those kind of things. Forbidden Planet showed us that it would be possible for a human being like Walter Pidgeon to have so much anger, and to direct that anger at something that was offending him. Of course, he thought he had to protect his daughter. And with this power he would draw out this monster to take care of his enemies.”
You had a legendary co-star in Robbie the Robot. That was a very innovative design, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, absolutely. Everything in that picture was the first of its kind. They had two guys who would be inside the robot – one of them was Frankie Dell from The Dead End Kids . It was hard work for them. They’d put their suspenders on and then put the top on and then they would try to walk.”
What sort of relationship did you have with Walter Pidgeon, who played Morbius?
“He wasn’t a pal, but everyone always refers to Walter Pidgeon as the golden gentleman, and indeed he was. He was probably one of the most charming men that you could ever want to spend time with. I suppose Errol Flynn would have been the same, because that’s another charming man. I used to play chequers with Walter Pidgeon. He was a very good chequers player, so I was very complimented that he would even sit down and let me be in his company and play chequers.
“We had a biting, sarcastic repertoire that we would deliver to each other. We had this exchange going and at one point he’s moving his chequers and I made a comment about his feet, because he had size 13 shoes. You know, he really had big feet. And I said something like ‘Size 13 shoes, I understand…’ And he says ‘That’s uncalled for, Leslie.’ And so I knew I had crossed the line. So I said ‘You’re quite right, Walter. I apologise.’ ‘Accepted,’ he said (laughs). It was just such a delightful, quiet way to be gentlemen with each other. I loved it.”
So why do you think you never made it big as a in serious films after such an auspicious start?
“When I first came to Hollywood, I ran across an astrologer and one of the things he said was that I was going to be a successful actor. There was no problem with that, but it wouldn’t be until very late in my career that I would have a major impact of any kind. I think the biggest break in my acting career came that morning, whenever it was, quite a while back when I decided not to take myself seriously anymore.”
And now you’ve made it big, no plans to retire?
“Re-tyre? I haven’t even been vulcanised just yet.”
Leslie Nielsen sadly passed away yesterday at a Ft Lauderdale, Florida hospital from complications from pneumonia at the age of 84. We’ll miss you, Leslie, we Shirley will. Thanks for so, so many wonderful one-liners delivered with such dead-pan brilliance.