Hasitha Fernando on the story behind The Naked Gun as the comedy classic turns 35…
Only a handful of actors have been able to master the level of deadpan humor that Leslie Nielsen achieved. A comedic genius of the first water, one of Nielsen’s greatest efforts was none other than The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! The quintessential spoof that parodied the tropes and conventions of police procedurals and detective dramas of its era, we take a look at some interesting facts about the movie as it celebrates its 35th anniversary…
The movie was based on a short-lived TV show
While the Naked Gun film series went on to achieve worldwide fame, the TV show which it was based off of didn’t have the same sort of luck. Made as a spoof to the hardboiled detective TV shows of its era, Police Squad! was created by the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, known in the industry as ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker).
The trio specialized in writing slapstick comedy films, finding great success with the likes of Airplane! and Top Secret! with the former being a major hit with audiences launching Leslie Nielsen to super stardom. The ill-fated show which lasted a mere six episodes, was headlined by Nielsen as the bumbling police detective Frank Drebin and it is this scuttled concept that the Zucker bros. and Abrahams expanded upon, giving it the big screen treatment by creating The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! film.
Leslie Nielsen didn’t start his career in comedy
It might surprise many, but Canadian actor and comedy legend Leslie Nielsen started out his career in more dramatic roles playing supporting characters in critically acclaimed affairs such as Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. But it’s with his foray into deadpan comedy roles that Nielsen found his true calling, with Airplane! marking a major turning point in his career, earning him recognition from the likes of film critic Roger Ebert who labelled Nielsen “the Olivier of spoofs”.
Bo Derek was considered to play the love interest
Bo Derek achieved recognition for her breakout role in the romantic comedy film 10 which was written and directed by Blake Edwards, of Pink Panther fame. The actress later went on to become one of the most popular sex symbols of the 80s but her career somewhat faltered with a string of critically panned movies directed by her husband, John Derek. At first the star was given major consideration to play Jane, the love interest in The Naked Gun, however, she was overlooked in favour of Priscilla Presley for the role. When one looks back now, it becomes quite obvious why she was the perfect choice for Jane over Bo Derek.
Some Star Trek villainy paved the way for Ricardo Montalban’s casting
Ricardo Montalbán was a Mexican film and television actor with a career spanning seven decades who gained widespread popularity for playing the mysterious Mr. Roarke in the hit television series Fantasy Island from 1977 until 1984. However, it is for his more villainous role as Khan Noonien Singh in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that he drew widespread acclaim and got the undivided attention of the producers of Naked Gun in tandem. Soon enough, Montalbán was cast as the primary antagonist of the piece where he played the deliciously manipulative German villain Vincent Ludwig. But even though he excelled at playing movie baddies, Montalbán was a devout catholic in real-life and in one instance politely requested for an irreverent joke to be removed from the original script of the movie.
There were multiple high-profile cameos in The Naked Gun
Naked Gun featured a multitude of hilarious high-profile cameos littered throughout its runtime. One such cameo involved singer “Weird Al” Yankovic who made an appearance as himself to perform a hilarious rendition of the song “Let Me Be Your Hog” at a charity event in the movie. The movie also featured a cameo of hockey legend Reggie Jackson, playing himself, who at first was suspected of being an assassin A few Major League Baseball (MLB) players who had cameos were Jay Johnstone and umpires Joe West, Doug Harvey, Hank Robinson, Ken Kaiser and Ron Luciano. Professional announcers Curt Gowdy, Jim Palmer, Tim McCarver, Mel Allen, Dick Enberg, and Dick Vitale also appear as play-by-play commentators.
The baseball game sequence didn’t initially go as planned
Being natives of Wisconsin, the Zuckers and Abraham made a personal request to have one of their local baseball teams – the Milwaukee Brewers – be one of the teams that would be featured in the climax set piece. MLB declined this request but recommended they use the Seattle Mariners instead. The producers’ attempts at securing the Minnesota Twins also failed. In the movie the Mariners’ opponents were supposed to be the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they too pulled out at the last moment. However, they allowed the Dodger Stadium to be used for production purposes. Finally, the producers settled on the California Angels, as they needed a home team based in greater Los Angeles, which was the setting of the movie.
Leslie Nielsen’s pratfall skills were next level
Starting his acting career in serious roles, Nielsen shifted to comedy with 1980’s Airplane! and never looked back. Whilst he pulled off deadpan comedy with relative ease from the get-go, the talented artists just took things to the next level with The Naked Gun and its subsequent sequels. His performance as Frank Drebin not only brilliantly showcased his physical comedy and deadpan skills, but it was complimented by a perfectly fine-tuned script the Zuckers, Abrahams and Pat Proft that brought out the best of Nielsen, creating pure comedy gold.
Critical acclaim, commercial success & sequels!
Upon its initial release Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! received much critical acclaim and quickly became a hit with audiences as well. Its unique blend of rapid-fire slapstick comedy, quotable one-liners, clever wordplay and visual gags had viewers of all ages rolling in stitches. The legendary film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars (of four), saying: “The movie is as funny, let it be said, as any comedy released this year… You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing.”
With such a strong audience response the movie naturally performed exceedingly well at the box-office, making a massive $ 152.4 million worldwide on a production budget of $ 12 million. Seeing these kind of numbers the producers and the studio decided to strike while the iron is hot and greenlit two sequels – The Naked Gun 2 1⁄2: The Smell of Fear (1991) and Naked Gun 33 1⁄3: The Final Insult (1994). In spite of the sequels diminished returns the franchise developed a devout fan base and the movies have, since then, gone on to become beloved comedy classics that continue to be revered today.
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Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.