Shales on TV Live: On Leslie Nielsen remembered

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Nov. 30, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today's column: Thank television for developing the talents of the late, great Leslie Nielsen

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


Tom Shales: Hello and what a nice group of questioning commenters and commenting questioners and so forth. Vilkommen, bienvenue, welcome and -- brother, can you spare a dame. DIME, DIME!!!

Sorry, that was a kerfluffin. Old song from the Depression, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" You know, I am getting wackier and wackier. (I was going to say "in my old age" but no, not quite yet....................)


Retrospective: Tom,

Do you know if anyone (cable or commercial) is doing a retrospective of his work?

Tom Shales: I would keep an eye on AMC and TCM, which might ransack their libraries looking for Nielsen titles. TCM tends to be a little -- just a wee tiny little bit -- highbrow' ish, but they showed "Airplane!" not so very long ago. I think Mr Nielsen was USUALLY superior to the movies in which he appeared. don't you?


Leslie Nielsen was a great deadpan talent: ...but how great could he have been if he wasn't part of SNL, the first name in comedy that fools you by not being funny?

Tom Shales: Huh? He wasn't part of SNL so far as I know. Is this just your way of slipping in a whack to the knees of TCM? Be my guest - tho I don't quite understand the motivation.


Chantilly, Va.: I will always remember Leslie Nielson in Airplane assuring the passengers while his nose kept growing.

Tom Shales: Yes, one of the few "special effects" in that film. I think Mr Nielsen was a pretty special effect all by himself. By the way, if I should make even less sense than usual, it's because I was just abruptly awakened from a lovely sleep.......oops, just dropped a pasta (????) on my shirt. Well I'll just have to do the rest of the chat bare naked -- how's that for wild titillation?! Oh -is it

chilly in Chantilly?


CBS Early Show revamp: Bummed that they are axing Harry Smith, who I thought was the most soothing of the morning show anchors. (I want calm, not edgy at that hour.) And replacing him with thoroughly plastic Chris Wragge adds insult to injury.

Tom Shales: Yes - the big news of the day - and I am barely up to speed on it - I am barely up to speed. I am sorry that Harry is being set adrift, he did a good job under hugely difficult circumstances. Say you can do the reporting and I shall do the reading, dear Readers, if you want to fill me in on these Late-Breaking Developments !!!!!


Seattle, Wash.: Leslie Neilsen could take the most absurd line like "We can settle this matter like adults. Isn't that right Mr. Poopy Pants?" and say them with a completely straight face. I regret that he was never put into an SNL "Debbie Downer" sketch.

But he's also a shining example that even for an action/romance hero, a actor can get a second chance. RIP Leslie Neilsen.

Tom Shales: Yes, a actor can. Oh Sorry, I shouldn't ridicule typos, since I am guilty of so many myself. I don't know, but I would suspect that Harry didn't require a lot of retakes---

his line readings were probably Just Right the very First Time.......


Baltimore, Md.: Have you seen the American version of Top Gear on the History Channel? Tom? To me, the actual content is everything I wanted in an American Top Gear. The cinematography is excellent, the reviews are fairly thorough, and the 'challenge' segments are clever. The hosts, however... It's clear they're new at this and they need more time at it. They're so stiff and unnatural... It's possible that they could some day be good, but, at the moment, I'm doubting the show will last long enough for us to find out.

Tom Shales: You know, Baltimore, I thought it sounded like a bad idea when I read of an "American" Top Gear. It's just so British from the word "go" or so it seemed to me. So congratulations that they were able to bring it off -- I just don't feel like watching it... Have they had a Pfisker Karma yet?

_______________________ CBS News overhauls its morning show (AP, Nov. 30)


Dawson City, Yukon: Considering this is the Washington Post, Leslie Nielson had a deep involvement in Canadian politics and his younger brother was a pretty well-known politician.

Erik Nielson (b. February 24, 1924 in Regina, Sasketchewan - d. September 4, 2008 in Kelowna, British Columbia), was the M.P. for the Yukon Territory from 1957 to 1987 and served as Minister of National Defence and briefy Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in the mid-1980s under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Since was so tenacious and aggressive in the House of Commons, he was known within Canadian politics as "Yukon Erik" as a reference to Eric Holmback, an American professional wrestler better known by the ring name Yukon Eric. These qualities served him well in opposition, but not so much when his party regained power and ultimately he was forced to resign from the Cabinet by Prime Minister Mulroney.

Erik Nielson was a progressive, but (oddly to American liberals) his political party was the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Not to be a dictionary, but "progressive" doesn't mean you're liberal, but just how you approach liberalism.

Tom Shales: Thank you for the political primer on Lord Nielsen. No he wasnt a Lord of course, I just like to toss those titles around. You know he given something, as a nearly-British subject.....(like its any of my business -- but when has THAT ever stopped me?)........


Minneapolis, Minn.: When I was a little girl, I fell in love with Leslie Nielsen when he played the dashing "Swamp Fox" on the Walt Disney show. I was fascinated by the scenes of Colonial America, the aristocratic British officers (wasn't it Tarleton who was Marion's nemesis?), the evil American Tories (as contrasted with the noble Rebels), and of course the theme song. "Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat/Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox's at/Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, hiding in the glen/He runs away to fight again."

Maybe not as catchy as the Davy Crockett song, but I liked it!

I understand that the show was actually banned in Nielsen's native Canada because it depicted the Tories (many of whom ended up in Canada as "loyalists" after the Revolutionary War) so unsympathetically.

Tom Shales: We should convene the human iPod here and swing into the Swamp Fox theme. Is it as good as "Old Turkey Buzzard," which D Letterman latched onto after seeing the movie on TCM a few months back? oh WHAT MOVIE, you ask?! Darn but I wish I knew. "Tail on his hat" really does sound like a Davy Crockett rip-off


East Lansing, Mich.: I remember way back when, SNL used to use to do a lot of skits based around the McLaughlin Group with a super funny Dana Carvey as John McLaughlin.

Then they started doing Hardball skits with Darryl Hammond as Chris Matthews.

Seems today SNL's default political affairs show is The Rachel Maddow Show with Abby Elliott. I think there is potential there, but still haven't made funny enough as Hardball skits nor the classic McLaughlin Group skits.

Tom Shales: Agreed, agred and once more, agreed. I loved Dana Carvey as John McLaughlin. And as Geo W Bush. Dana Carvey really did energize the show, no matter who retired or got dumped, Carvey was always ready with an impression.......


Ashburn, Va.: Don't call me Shirley.

Tom Shales: I say, by jove, good point, rah-there!!!!


"Surely you can't be serious": "...and don't call me Shirley" remains, for me, one of the great funny movie quotes/lines ever. I'm going to drag out my Airplane DVD this weekend. (I'm also partial to the Marx brothers "viaduct/why a duck" routine.) Call me simple.

Tom Shales: Hello Simple. Simply hilarious, that silly bit. Did any of the obits mention that Nielsen's uncle or great-uncle or distant was Jean Hersholt, who played kindly old Dr. Whosits, the mythic GP who still made housecalls and still had lollipops for sick kiddies ..... Same Jean Hersholt who has a "humanitarian" Oscar named after him......also later sang "Old Turkey Buzzard." Oops, wires crossed on that one.....

_______________________ Swamp Fox Theme (YouTube)


SW DC: I hope TCM or AMC or SyFy shows "Forbidden Planet" in tribute. It's a really great movie and Nielsen held his own against Walter Pidgeon and a robot.

Tom Shales: Robby was one of the ALL-TIME great robots of the screen, don't you think? He could whip up yards of silk for Anne Francis to wear to a dance and them he'd produce dozens of bottles of Old Turkey Buzzard -- WHOOPS -- that stupid thing again!


Falls Church, Va.: Didn't Leslie Nielson play the villain in a movie with Barbara Streisand and Richard Dreyfus? Nuts?

Tom Shales: "NUTS"? You're asking if I am? Well certainly not. I happen to be as sane as the day I ----- Oh perhaps you

are talking about the old buzzards again

_______________________ Harry Smith, Maggie Rodriguez out; Erica Hill rising at CBS's 'Early Show' (Post/TV Column, Nov. 30)


Chantilly Va. (the Loudoun version): Hi Tom -- couple comments on Leslie Neilsen:

1. It's always a pleasure to see him turn up on 60s TV shows like The Fugitive, where he usually played a decent but flawed husband-type.

2. Did any of the other former straight guys in Airplane, like Lloyd Bridges or Robert Stack, ever do more slapstick or was it a one-time thing for those guys?

Tom Shales: I think both Bridges and the other guy popped up om occasion in shabby spoofs ... Cheap jokes, cheap SPFX,


Sun Prairie, Wis.: I'm waiting for the Redskins to play a recording of Leslie Nielsen singing the Star Spangled Banner before a home game.

"Hey! It's Enrico Palazzo!"

Tom Shales: Actually, one is not supposed to mess around with the National Anthem, though Nielsen's mangling of it in

Naked Gun was painfully funny ("but we still had a flag...") Dontcha think? Kinda, sorta, almost, maybe?


Supreme Police Squad Dialogue: SALLY: Well, when I first heard the shot, and, as I turned, Jim Fell. HOCKEN: Uhh, he's the teller, Frank. DREBIN: Jim Fell's the teller? SALLY: No, Jim Johnson. DREBIN: Who's Jim Fell? HOCKEN: He's the auditor, Frank. SALLY: He had the flu, so Jim filled in. DREBIN: Phil who? HOCKEN: Phil Din, he's the night watchman. SALLY BEGINS CRYING SALLY: If only Phil had been here! DREBIN: Alright, now, wait a minute. Now, let me get this straight. Twice came and shot the teller and Jim Fell. SALLY: No, he only shot the teller, Jim Johnson. Phil is ill. DREBIN: Ok, then after he shot the teller, you shot Twice. SALLY: No, I only shot once. HOCKEN: Twice is the hold-up man. SALLY: Then I guess I did shoot Twice. DREBIN: Well, so now you're changing your story. SALLY: No, I shot twice after Jim fell. DREBIN: You shot Twice AND Jim Fell? SALLY: No, Jim fell first and then I shot Twice once. DREBIN: Well who fired twice? SALLY: Once. HOCKEN: He's the owner of the tire company, Frank. DREBIN: Ok. Now Once is the owner of the tire company and he fired Twice. Then Twice shot the teller once. SALLY: Twice. DREBIN: And Jim fell and then you fired twice. SALLY: Once. DREBIN: Ok. Alright. That'll be all for now, Miss Decker. HOCKEN: We'll need you to make a formal statement down at the station. SALLY: Oh, of course. DREBIN: You've been very helpful. We think we know how he did it. SALLY: Oh, Howie couldn't have done it. He hasn't been in for Weeks. DREBIN: Well, thank you again, Miss Decker. DREBIN (to HOCKEN): Weeks? HOCKEN: Sol Weeks. He's the comptroller, Frank.

Tom Shales: Wow. That took a lot of effort. And lest we forget, the spirits of Abbott and Costello I think are smiling and laughing. Remember Walter Matthau playing Whos On First for adopted son in the romantic comedy "Pete n Tillie" a really sweet little movie.


Glen Burnie, Md.: It's interesting that right after Maggie Rodriguez and Dave Price finish their highest-profile gig of the year, hosting the CBS broadcast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, that they're cast off. Looks like the Eye squeezed out their full worth for the year.

Tom Shales: Yes it is (interesting).......


Top Gear: Sorry the new U.S. version is awful. The show hosts are god awful. Discovery or whoever is paying these fools went real cheap with all the American auto writing car talent out there like David Davis Thos Bryant and the great Denise Mccullage.

And for current racers you could Scott Preutt, Cha McQueen Steve's son or Dorsey Schroeder.

The American Top Gear makes Motorweek edgy

Tom Shales: Sorry to hear it but grateful to you for repttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt --- what the devil?! Oh I kinda sorta little bit nodded off there....


Swamp Fox! : OMG, OMG, I had no idea Leslie Nielsen was Swamp Fox. That is the first TV show in my memory, and I remember every Monday afternoon, all the kids in the neighborhood would go out and play Swamp Fox --much better than cowboys and indians. Who knew you could learn so much from a technology-challenged chat? Thanks for the memories, Tom.

Tom Shales: I have to admit, I didn't do any Swamp Foxing -- that one

sailed over my - Thursday?


Nielsen's mangling of the National Anthem: Still nowhere near as offensive as Roseanne's.

Tom Shales: Certainly not. Besides Nielsen's was supposed to be funny. Roseanne's wasn't........


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Nielsen made an early comic appearance on TV in the first season of M-A-S-H, playing a gung-ho colonel. Hawkeye and Trapper got him removed from duty by essentially driving him batty. The line of his that I remember: "THIS is my tent, because THAT is my milk!" (You have to see it to understand it, of course.)

Tom Shales: until then - i shall see it someday


Bronx, N.Y.: Do you think it was hard work for Leslie Nielsen to be funny?

Tom Shales: Hmmm, that seems rather an odd question. ......... I mean, I really have no idea. I have a feeling that it can be hard work for ANYbody.


Olney, Md.: Police Squad! I loved those shows. I can't believe so few of them were made. I have the DVD and enjoy it a lot. One thing I enjoyed was a shtick that was done in Airplane (by Julie Haggerty) and in Young Doctors in Love (by Sean Young). In the Police Squad episode Connie Needham, best known as one of the daughters in Eight is Enough, was a dancing teacher who was being beaten up by thugs--as she grimaced and gyrated in pain, the little kids in her class matched her every move. Classic!

Tom Shales: Yes -- and I've seen variations -- maybe this is a very old classic from vaudeville and/or burlesque SO SORRY, Ive run over -- goodbye and good luck and THANK YOU very very very much............


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