My Other Dad
We called him my dad, but he was more like a brother, a kindred soul who shared my 8th grade sense of humor.
Leslie Nielsen is dead of pneumonia complications at the age of 84. His fans are certainly sad but, knowing him the way I got to over the years, the LAST thing he'd want are tears. Laughs are not only suggested, but required. And, with Leslie, they're so easy to find.
The story has been told over and over again about the serious character actor who decided to play-against-type for laughs, starting with "Airplane". The Zucker brothers of Milwaukee area fame penned the script and filled the movie with Nielsen and other "straights" like Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges. Their words, and the stars' skills, made for a comedy classic that holds up three decades later.
Next would come "Police Squad", the Zuckers' early try at episodic TV with Leslie starring as Lt. Frank Drebin. It was too good for prime time, lasting but for a handful of episodes, but the boys saw cinematic potential and morphed the template into "The Naked Gun."
Off the screen, Leslie crafted a relationship with the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic, cutting hilarious public service announcements for the outing and then playing each year as a celeb at North Hills. It was during one of those visits that he happened by the WKTI studios, and our relationship began.
Leslie ALWAYS traveled with what some call a "whoopee cushion". In fact, it was a hand-held bellows, easily hidden from view and comically potent.
Leslie would pretend to be in gastric distress, lean in the appropriate direction and fire the bellows with devastating effect. It was unsophisticated, sophomoric...and hilarious. The flashing of the "on-air" light in the KTI studio did nothing to stop Leslie from turning our first interview into a free-fire zone. I almost wet myself, and the fact that we enjoyed his hijinks so much endeared Reitman, producer Gino and myself to Leslie. It also allowed us to return in kind with a series of practical jokes whenever Leslie came back to town.
There was the parade we tossed in his honor along Mitchell Street on the southside. Leslie was the guest of honor, riding atop a Champion Chicken delivery truck with the Milwaukee Lutheran High School band marching alongside.
The parade lasted all of one block.
Leslie showed up for one of our reunion shows in the lobby of what is now the Bank One building downtown, where he was presented with a bust of himself, made of fresh Wisconsin cheddar.
One of his last go-arounds with us featured another "surprise" we crafted in his honor: an impromptu party at a local intersection where he was greeted by a billboard that read "Welcome Lezlee Neeelsen" bearing a picture of "Airplane" co-star Peter Graves.
"You sons of bitches," he said, giggling all the way. Leslie took as good as he gave.
Leslie thought enough of Reitman to attend his farewell at the Riverside in the winter of 2006. He also agreed to do an on-stage interview during the evening show, although it wasn't quite as special as it might've been: Leslie forgot his hearing aids, and it made for a jilted q-and-a. He still pulled it off, though, because he was a pro who wouldn't let such a little detail get in the way.
That would be the last time I'd ever see "Dad", the affectionate title we bestowed on Leslie because of the way he and I hit it off. Gino stayed in closer touch, what with the frequency of his trips to L-A on the movie junket circuit. He'd tell me that Leslie had slipped a little bit along the way, and while it was sad to hear of his passing Sunday night, it was no surprise. Leslie got a lot of life into his 84 years, and few if any generated more laughs.
A serious actor who deftly segued into comedy. A huge Hollywood presence who had no trouble laughing at himself. A certified star who treated each and every fan like a friend, and who treated Milwaukee like a second home.
Someone told me the other day that "a comedian does funny things...a comic actor does things funny". I don't know if you can call Leslie Nielsen a comedian, a comic actor, or a dramatic lead who found a taste for humor late in his career.
In the end, I know I could call him a friend. I hope he felt the same.