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Wednesday, 26 April, 2000, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
Nielsen challenges the law

Nielsen plays his hero Clarence Darrow
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

Naked Gun star Leslie Nielsen is not feeling quite himself.

The 74-year-old veteran of the hammy one-liner has come over all serious, as he tours the UK in his one-man stage show Clarence Darrow.

Darrow was arguably the greatest American lawyer of the 20th century, passing into folklore as the persistent champion of the underdog.

When I first read Darrow in the late 1950s I couldn't believe I had not heard of him before - he instantly became my role model

Leslie Nielsen on Clarence Darrow

As Darrow, Nielsen recalls supporting many battles for basic civil rights in the 1920s and 1930s.

He also explains how he saved 104 of his clients from hanging - even the now notorious teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb.

A role more removed from the blundering Lieutenant Frank Drebin of the Naked Gun triology would be hard to imagine.

But, says Nielsen - an admirer of Darrow for more than 40 years - the part couldn't feel more natural.

"When I first read Darrow in the late 1950s I couldn't believe I had not heard of him before - he instantly became my role model," Nielsen enthuses.

"He had such humanity and as he pleaded for clemency - sometimes for up to eight hours - he would often have the court and jury in tears."

Self-styled role

Luckily for audiences, Nielsen's stage monologues are considerably shorter and delivered in his characteristic rich tones.

Nielsen achieved his greatest fame as the buffoon of Naked Gun

What's more, those who have seen the play say Nielsen executes his task with captivating ease.

Nielsen secured the part for himself in the mid-1970s when he bought the rights to David Rintels' play.

Many people will be surprised by the comedian's choice of sober role but his early career shows he is up to the part.

Long before Airplane, Police Squad and Naked Gun, Nielsen spent 30 years doing earnest parts in films such as Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure.

If you ain't laughing, you ain't living. Life's too short to be miserable

Leslie Nielsen

But, today, Nielsen says he would always choose to play for laughs rather than high drama.

"If you ain't laughing, you ain't living," the actor booms.

"Life's too short to be miserable so I'm always having fun in front of and behind the camera.

"Films like Naked Gun are so stupid that there really is no other reason for making them than enjoying yourself.

"But I also love the credibility and scope movies give to comedy - the public take it in and have a really good time."

Non-threatening buffoon

Those most appreciative of his clownish behaviour are, observes Nielsen, the British.

Nielsen gets into a characteristically difficult position

He's toured the US with Clarence Darrow but looked forward to visiting the UK where his fans always make him welcome.

"The British have a great sense of humour - they laugh at anything," chuckles Neilsen - himself a fan of cult British comedy hero Benny Hill.

"The British see Drebin as the non-threatening buffoon that he is. They laugh with him, not just at him, and understand that everyone is more of a fool than they probably know."

But life wasn't always so funny for Nielsen. The son of a Canadian mountie, he grew up in the harsh surrounds of Regina in Saskatchewan. He was also subjected to a severe - often brutal - discipline at home.

But the past is water under the bridge for Nielsen who now sees the funny side of his parents' lack of interest in his career.

Naked Gun: The Final Insult
The Final Insult was the last Naked Gun but Nielsen wants to do more comedy

"They were just overjoyed to see me leave home," he laughs. Ahead of him now is the continued run of Clarence Darrow.

The show is currently in Brighton before it transfers to Nottingham in May.

But, says the master spoofster, more serious roles are not on the cards.

"This play gives me a certain liberty but if I were to do something similar on screen the public would, I'm sure, stay away in their droves.

"I have already gone down in history as the man in Naked Gun and I will always be remembered for raising a laugh."

Clarence Darrow is at Brighton Theatre Royal until 29 April and at Nottingham Theatre Royal from 2-6 May.

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