Scottish audiences will know LESLIE NIELSEN as that moronic guy from The Naked Gun films, but his role in David Rintels' Clarence Darrow will change all that.
Words: Steve Cramer
Far from being the superficial funnyman, Leslie Nielsen is driven by his anger at persecution. exploitation and racism
THE CRAGGY-FACED, CLEAR-EYED, silver-topped features of Leslie Nielsen are indelibly identified with his character in The Naked Gun. As Lieutenant Frank Drebin. his po-faced imbecility contributed the largest part to the runaway success of these classic Zucker/Abrahams comedies. Even when you know about his long and distinguished film career - his roles in the 50s sci-ii classic l-brhidden Planet and as the captain in The Poseidon Adventure -- you can't look at his deadly serious face in close-up without giggling.
22 THE “ST 16-30 Mar 2000
How. then. did Nielsen stifle the giggles of audiences across the United States and Canada. where he has been performing Clare/tee Darrow. a one-
man play on the merry theme of
capital punishment? 'Film is obviously quite different from theatre.’ he says. 'I love doing comedy on the screen. because you can do a double-take with jtist your eyes. On stage. I have to stop people from looking at my eyes. so they won't be reminded of how dumb and stupid I am as Drebin. and then I can keep them on track. This was the design I
had in mind. and in touring so far, the character has been totally accepted.’
This character — the criminal lawyer of the title — had a career which ran from the late 19th century until his death in 1938. during which his single-minded aversion to the death penalty brought about 102 successful defences of people scheduled for execution. David Rintels’ play — originally produced in 1973 with Henry Fonda leading — but seldom heard of in Europe, has adopted the strategy of its century in seeking heroes. Such genuine characters have been thin on the ground on both sides of the Atlantic. and it takes a trawl through the half- remembered narratives and forgotten bywaters of history to ﬁnd people of truly noble stature.
Darrow was one of these ﬁgures. and Nielsen‘s admiration for the man and his own avowed revulsion for capital punishment combine to form an impassioned account of his character. ‘He did over half of his work for no money.’ says Nielsen. ‘He did most of his defending not for the fee, but because capital punishment was involved. As far as he was concerned. the state was committing a second murder by putting someone to death.’
It‘s a view that Nielsen shares. ‘1 don‘t see what good the death penalty does.’ he says. ‘Recently in the US. someone was proved innocent by DNA testing when he was within three days of execution. God knows. we don’t even have to discuss the race prejudice involved. In recent years there’s been one example after another of this all around the world. And it’s notjust race but also religious persecution and the exploitation of the
'I have to stop people from looking at my eyes, so they won't be reminded of how dumb and stupid I am.’ Leslie Neilson
working man are still as alive today as they ever were. This is a very contemporary play.‘
This crusading. liberal spirit is not surprising, given that Nielsen learned his acting at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in the New York of the l950s. which produced not only the singular American Method technique. but also many voices of dissent. This is a rare opportunity to see Nielsen — a contemporary of Brando and Newman — reprise the golden age of this performance technique. applying it to a play which promises strong drama. social issues and even, he assures us. a healthy dose of humour.
Clarence Darrow, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 28 Mar-Sat 1 Apr.