My first encounter of the close kind with Hollywood’s funniest man occurred in 1984. His brother Erik Nielsen had just been sworn in as Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister. Yukon Erik was, against all odds, the number two man on the Canadian political scene, a heartbeat away from the Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. On a September day outside the Governor General’s residence in 1984, I waited eagerly to hear who would be in the newly elected Conservative Government cabinet. We knew Yukon Erik, who had baited Liberals all his political life, was in for something. At the formal swearing in Erik, to the surprise of most reporters, was given the job of Deputy Prime Minister. I couldn’t wait to interview him. After all, I was reporting for Yukon radio, and had interviewed the hawk of the house many times. When the new cabinet ministers emerged from Rideau Hall, most headed straight for the microphones, for lesser lights, or the reporters they knew. Not Erik, he headed straight for his waiting limo. I yelled his name (Mr. Nielsen to be polite) as loud as I could at the black oversized car. Low and behold, out from the limo leaped Leslie Nielsen, the Naked Gun himself. This son of an RCMP constable who was born in Regina, and had grown up in Fort Norman in the NWT and in Edmonton had an obvious gift for public relations. He walked over to me, and I sheepishly told him I wanted an interview with his brother Erik. “Meet us at the National Arts Centre tonight” said the Naked Gun, “you’ll do it there”. No he wouldn’t.
At the tory celebration party that night, I rubbed shoulders with Erik, his wife Shelley, and the Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen. But no amount of sweet-talk could entice Yukon Erik into giving me an interview. His excuse: he wanted to take some time to learn his new job. I wasn’t happy, and I expressed my displeasure to Leslie. He looked at me, and with a twinkle I will not forget he said “well, you need a Nielsen interview, don’t you? How about me?” As my tape recorder rolled outside the front door of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Leslie Nielsen gave an interview worthy of the humble Hollywood star that he is. He reminisced about growing up in the North, about how he became an actor while his brother took the long and winding road through the political landscape. He expressed a genuine brotherly fondness for the many accomplishments of his famous Yukon brother Erik. He never once talked about himself, or his many acting successes. He could have, since we all know and love him as the bumbling Lieutenant Frank Drebin, the silver haired patsy of the magnificent string of Naked Gun movies.
But there is much more to Leslie Nielsen, and his life history reflects a remarkably diverse career spanning six decades, nearly 100 movies, and more than 1500 television appearances. The first time I ever saw him, it was in the Capitol Theatre in Whitehorse in 1954. He was the young star of a movie called Forbidden Planet. Years later, that movie and the central character, then played by Leslie Nielsen, would morph into Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner as commander of the spaceship Enterprise, boldly going where no man had gone before in a TV series called Star Trek. As a kid in 1954 I thought Leslie Nielsen was great in Forbidden Planet, and as a reporter in 1984 I thought he was a great gentleman for giving me a Nielsen interview I badly needed.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin
See also: Erik Nielsen