In March 1982, still hot from the success of Airplane!, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker brought their distinctive humour to the small screen, as Police Squad! made its debut on the ABC network in America. Starring Airplane!‘s Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin, it was a parody of 1960s crime and detective series, such as those by Quinn Martin (who’s perhaps best known here in the UK for The Invaders). However, the show was cancelled after just six episodes had been made.
The ABC Entertainment president at the time said that it was cancelled because the viewer had to pay close attention to the show in order to catch all the humour – other sitcoms of the time didn’t seem so demanding of its audience, with the style of the comedy apparently not translating across to TV as well as hoped. In many respects, Police Squad! was ahead of its time, as if it had been a decade or so later, it would have more likely become a hit, as it was only with the wider availability of home video that viewers could pore over every last detail and pick up on all of the hidden gags, with the show giving up more and more with repeated watching.
The trifecta of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker went on to jointly make Ruthless People, as well as 1984’s criminally underrated and overlooked Val Kilmer vehicle Top Secret!, which followed in the vein of Airplane! and their debut film Kentucky Fried Movie. However, towards the end of the 1980s, they revisited Frank Drebin, and brought him to the big screen in The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad! Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker had previously flirted with sending Drebin to the movies, and were going to film some extra material after Police Squad! had been cancelled, in order to link together three TV episodes as a theatrical release, but the project was abandoned. It wasn’t until The Naked Gun that Drebin became a cinematic draw.
All of the main elements were intact, such as Ira Newborn’s memorably bombastic and brassy theme, and Drebin’s Film noir-esque voiceovers. As well as all the major characters from Police Squad!, two of the actors – besides Nielsen – transferred over, in the form of Ed Williams as Ted Olsen, and Tiny Ron Taylor as Al, the freakishly tall lab assistant. The other main roles were recast for the film, with Capt. Ed Hocken and Detective Nordberg played by George Kennedy and O.J. Simpson (some years before his own run-in with the law) respectively. Having a more established cast in these parts isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as both actors make the characters very much their own (although there’s only so much anyone could do when they spend most of their time pretending to be comatose, which is probably a blessing for Simpson).
The trademark Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker humour is still in place, with jokes taken to their illogical conclusion, countless sight gags and background details to look out for, wordplay, slapstick, scatological humour, and fourth wall breaking. As Police Squad! was still something of a minor cult hit at the time, they didn’t waste an opportunity to reuse some of their gags from the series and present them to a far wider audience. However, it’s more of a challenge to do a single story over almost 90 minutes than a single 30-minute (with advert breaks) TV episode, but Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker – as well as co-writer Pat Proft – have managed to put together a decent enough plot to be able to fill the time without sagging, along with packing more jokes into an hour-and-a-half than you’d tend to get in an entire season of an ITV sitcom (which, to be fair, isn’t difficult).
It helps that they’ve given us a far more rounded Drebin than we saw in Police Squad! – Nielsen previously played the part with the sort of delicious deadpan that he previously put to great effect as Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, being totally oblivious to the sheer absurdity of what’s going on around him. In The Naked Gun, Nielsen finally gets a chance to cut loose, and do some slapstick pratfalling, as well as gurning and mugging to camera. We also get to see Drebin have a love interest in the form of one Jane Spencer, played by Priscilla Presley, who was at this point in time best known for being the King’s ex, as well as having established herself as an actress in network TV in Dallas. Hardly a comprehensive résumé. However, Presley manages to acquit herself admirably, and she unexpectedly has great comic timing, managing to hold her own while playing alongside Nielsen, with the two of them making an endearing pairing.
You need a suitably grandiose villain to go up against Nielsen in his first big screen outing, and thankfully The Naked Gun has just that in the form of the legendary Ricardo Montalbán, whose best-known role on TV was as Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island, as well as being responsible for the death of Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. To put things into context, by the time that The Naked Gun went into production in 1988, The Wrath Of Khan had been released just six years earlier, and it had been only 11 years since the death of Elvis; with Montalbán and Presley both having such strong and then-recent associations, it’s good to see that neither ends up being overshadowed by them, and Montalbán fits right into the role of the suave and debonair Vincent Ludwig, who’s masterminded a plot to kill the Queen of England.
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The Naked Gun sets itself apart from the TV series by establishing a much grander scale, right from the off – the very opening scene sees Drebin going undercover in Beirut, disrupting an axis of evil which is made up of Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who are jointly plotting a terrorist attack on the United States. Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker manage to send them up beautifully, and the cartoon-esque humour perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the movie. There are belly laughs aplenty, and perhaps the most wonderful thing about the Z-A-Z comedy machine is that their machine gun approach to the frequency of gags is that if one misfires, there’s another one along in a matter of moments to take its place.
There’s barely an ounce of fat to be seen anywhere in the movie, and it’s edited to near-perfection, with a zip-along pace. It’s something of a testament to the strength of the movie that one of the showpieces – Frank’s extended peeing – is played out in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, yet doesn’t seem to work quite as well as here. In fact, this is by far the strongest of the three films in the Naked Gun trilogy, as it sadly becomes a rather good example of the law of diminishing returns in effect by the time that we get to Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. The influence of The Naked Gun ran heavily through the 90s and 00s, with one of the biggest homages coming in the form of a series of TV ads for Red Rock Cider, with Nielsen playing a Drebin-esque character in a copyright-skirting parody of Police Squad! – you know you’ve made it when people are parodying your parody.
Perhaps the largest legacy of The Naked Gun was Leslie Nielsen’s conversion into the go-to person for any spoof or parody going – his appearance effectively became shorthand for denoting the type of film you were about to watch. Sadly, many of these didn’t come even remotely close to the greatest of the Z-A-Z productions, with the vast majority of them blindly aping the type of humour, but with barely an ounce of the charm, sophistication and wit in evidence. Who could ever forget Nielsen vehicles Repossessed, 2001: A Space Travesty, Spy Hard, Wrongfully Accused, or Dracula: Dead And Loving It? Well, anyone with a modicum of taste and common sense, it turns out. It’s such a pity that The Naked Gun was the catalyst for so many lazy, crude spoofs, although a few did stand out, such as Hot Shots! and its sequel, as well as Scary Movie 3 and 4, all of which had some involvement from separate constituent parts of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker unit.
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Despite talk over the years about doing a fourth Naked Gun film, it never came to anything, and with Leslie Nielsen having left us back in 2010, it looked as though the file had been closed on Police Squad! for the last time. However, rumours of a sequel or continuation have circulated for years, with The Hangover‘s Ed Helms at one point being tipped to play Drebin’s son, and then Drebin himself when the movie morphed into a reboot. Recently, David Zucker announced that he’s been working on a continuation, with plans to cast Bill Hader as Frank Drebin Jr., who gets recruited by the CIA to take down the Russian crime lord who killed his father. Based on that, maybe this movie should have ended up being the one called ‘The Final Insult’?
Hopefully, if we see another iteration of the Naked Gun series, it won’t besmirch or tarnish the greatness of the trilogy, or the first movie in particular, which really does stand up to being rewatched over and over again. It’s certainly at the very forefront of its class, and is rivalled only by Airplane! and Top Secret! (which, if you haven’t seen it, you really should try and track down, as it’s a hidden gem) in terms of gags, laughter rate, and overall quality. It seems that many modern so-called comedies could do with learning a thing or two from The Naked Gun, which will definitely stand out as a classic for the ages.
Oh, Frank: everyone should have a friend like you. And I’m glad we did.