Surely, Leslie Nielsen was never supposed to be a serious actor? Well, I am serious – and don’t call me “Shirley.”

Nielsen – who has always been a sort of Canadian Adam West to me, utterly and earnestly oblivious to how ridiculous he comes off – is an important dividing line between the serious actors I’ve discussed in previous weeks who would often find themselves caught up in the campiest of schlockfests, and the Canadian actors who began as clowns and later craved respect, such as Mike Myers and Jim Carrey.

Plummer and Sutherland brought gravitas to ridiculous roles, and, as we’ll see, Carrey and Myers tried to inject some levity into serious drama. Nielsen is different because – at least initially – he wasn’t going for over the top humour or deadpan seriousness. There’s a Chaplinesque passivity and calm on display as he boldly soldiers through silliness like the Star Trek forerunner Forbidden Planet.

Look at his performance as the ship’s captain in the classic disaster film, The Poseidon AdventureHere, he inspires sympathy and respect as an ordinary, if uncommonly brave, man whose world (the ship) has quite literally been turned upside down. The situation is extreme and a little ridiculous, but never played for laughs. In Airplane! he plays essentially the same character, but here he manages to be the funniest thing in a movie where jokes are delivered almost every minute.

None of this would be possible had Nielsen not been Canadian. He hails from the famously affable province of Saskatchewan, a place so flat-landed and level that it’s literally shaped like a rectangle, where the people grow wheat and cheer for their beloved Roughriders with a fervour that is possibly matched by the cheeseheads of Green Bay. But Nielsen’s early life, like that of Donald Sutherland’s was troubled: his father was physically abusive and he escaped to the Royal Canadian Air Force. He also suffered from life-long deafness. It’s possible that Nielsen’s famous unflappability stemmed from a desire to hide and suppress his difficult early years. He is funny because he is sad and frightened underneath it all, as he grapples with circumstances far beyond his control.

And, unfortunately, we can see the results of Nielsen taking off his mask and descending into outright self-parody: the increasingly desperate tone of the Naked Gun films, attempts to recapture the spoofy magic of Airplane with junk like 2001: A Space Travesty, and finally, the Mel Brooks-calibre farce of Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Audiences wanted to see restraint from Nielsen: when he finally let himself go, he bored viewers to tears.

But for now… Mr. Sulu, set a course for a total lack of restraint, as the next Canadian on our list is the Shat himself, William Shatner. Next week, we will go where no self-respect exists, but we will continue with our theme of actors alternately constrained and empowered by the personas they have created for themselves.


See the previous installments in the series:

Part 1 on Heroes: ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ Vs Terrance Denby and ‘Sidequest’

Part 2 on “Humour”: The Libertarian Fantasy of ‘Letterkenny’

Part 3 on Graphic Novel Nihilism: The Harsh Truths of ‘Essex County’

Part 4 on Spawn and Wolverine: Banished From The Promised Land: A Tale of Two Canadian Anti-Heroes

Part 5 on Science Fiction Dystopias: Inside Quebec’s – and Canada’s – Replicant Culture

Part 6 on Animation: The Garrison Mentality: More Than Meets The Eye

Part 7 on Pop Music: How To Build A Successful Canadian Musical Act

Part 8 on Anne of Green Gables and The Traumatized Artist: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Treacherous Alpine Path

Part 9 on Avoiding the Serious: Mordecai Richler, Montreal, And Gritty Realism

Part 10 on Southern Ontario Gothic: The Marriage of the Mundane and the Fantastic

Part 11 on Margaret Atwood’s Reign of Terror: Literary Tyranny and The Handmaid’s Tale

Part 12 on the First Nations Fraud: Whitewashing Genocide: Truth, Lies, and Joseph Boyden

Part 13 on the inventive Esi Edugyan: A Novel I Cannot Recommend Enough

Part 14 on Generation X Origins: Douglas Coupland And The Hopeful (?) Future Of Canadian (?) Culture

Part 15 on Jordan Peterson Rising: Canadian Culture Creators And The Intellectual Dark Web

Part 16 on The Awkward Quiet: David Cronenberg’s Silent Hell

Part 17 on The Saddest Music In The WorldGuy Maddin’s Surrealist Madness

Part 18 on Ararat: Atom Egoyan’s Stammering Grief

Part 19 on Paul Haggis’ Superficial Gloss: Promising More Than He Delivers

Part 20 on the Reitman Family’s Blissful Ignorance: Space to Laugh an Easy Laugh

Part 21 on Mark Pickford: The Archetypal (Canadian) Actress

Part 22 on the Modern Prospero Christopher Plummer: As Blue-Blooded and Upper Canadian as They Come

Part 23 on Donald Sutherland: Grit Personified


Photo by Ome Les