When people talk about the greatest big screen comedy actors of all time, one name that always comes up is that of the late, great Leslie Nielsen. The Canadian actor may have started out pursuing largely dramatic work, but it wasn’t until he side-stepped into comedy that he really cemented his legend.
Nielsen is justly renowned for his side-splitting work as Dr. Rumack in 1980 classic Airplane! However, most fans would agree that his real signature role was that of Sgt. Frank Drebin, the hard-nosed, dim-witted hero of 1988 cop thriller parody The Naked Gun – and here are some facts about that riotous comedy classic that you might not have known!
20. The film was based on a short-lived TV show
While it’s generally referred to simply as The Naked Gun, the film’s full title is The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
This is because the movie was a big screen spin-off of TV series Police Squad! which introduced Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin.
Produced in 1982, this short-lived series was the brainchild of writer-director trio David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams – the same time behind Airplane!
The broad, over-the-top comedy was a send-up of TV cop shows of the 60s and 70s like M Squad and Felony Squad.
Unfortunately, executives at TV network ABC simply didn’t get it, and cancelled Police Squad! after only six episodes.
Happily, the show built up a huge cult following in reruns, and soon enough there was sufficient interest for a movie to get the green light.
19. The title was changed because the original sounded too similar to Police Academy
The title of the film was originally going to be simply Police Squad! as with the TV show it was based on.
However, in the years since the show first aired, a new film comedy franchise had emerged: Police Academy.
After the first movie was a hit in 1984, studio Warner Bros put out further Police Academy movies almost annually; they were on Part 5 by 1988.
As such, studio Paramount were concerned that releasing their new cop comedy as Police Squad! would confuse audiences, or make it look like a rip-off.
The Naked Gun filmmakers were well aware of this: in fact, the film’s fourth co-writer (alongside the Zucker brothers and Abrahams) was Pat Proft, writer of the original Police Academy.
The Naked Gun was chosen from a list of 20 other possible titles which the creative team came up with.
18. Priscilla Presley was cast because she had no comedy experience
Whilst it may seem crazy to cast someone in a comedy film because they’re not funny, that’s exactly what happened in the case of Priscilla Presley.
The makers of The Naked Gun decided Presley (widow of rock’n’roll legend Elvis Presley) was perfect for their female lead precisely because she had no prior comedy experience.
As strange an approach as this might seem, it was par for the course for the Zucker brothers and Abrahams.
The trio had taken much the same approach when casting their breakthrough hit movie, 1980’s Airplane!
In that film they made a point of casting primarily dramatic actors in the belief that their ridiculous jokes would be so much funnier when played totally straight.
It bears repeating that The Naked Gun’s leading man Leslie Nielsen was not known as a comedy actor prior to Airplane!
17. O.J. Simpson and George Kennedy replaced actors from the Police Squad! TV series
The most notorious part of The Naked Gun’s legacy is the casting of O.J. Simpson as Frank Drebin’s partner Nordberg.
At the time, Simpson was a big name in America as a former pro-football player turned actor.
However, since 1994 Simpson’s name has lived in infamy following the murder of his wife and her lover.
Simpson was cast as Nordberg in the place of original Police Squad! actor Peter Lupus (whose character was credited as Norberg).
Meanwhile, George Kennedy took over from Alan North in the role of Drebin’s Captain, Ed Hocken.
Reportedly Kennedy was cast because Paramount demanded an Oscar-winner in one of the leads. (Kennedy was named Best Supporting Actor at the 1968 Academy Awards for Cool Hand Luke.)
16. Bo Derek was the first choice for Priscilla Presley’s role
Before casting Priscilla Presley as Frank Drebin’s love interest, the filmmakers had their eye on another big name.
Reportedly the first name on their wish list for the role of Jane was Bo Derek.
Best remembered for her iconic turn in 1979’s 10, Derek was for a time one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
However, by the late 80s her star had fallen considerably thanks to a series of flops.
Such films as Fantasies, Tarzan the Ape Man and Bolero traded heavily on her sex appeal, but bombed critically and commercially.
After missing out on The Naked Gun, Derek starred in another largely forgotten film, 1989’s multiple Razzie ‘winner’ Ghosts Can’t Do It.
15. One scene is almost directly lifted from Dirty Harry
At the time Frank Drebin made it to the big screen, the cop movie audiences were probably most familiar with was Harry Callahan.
Following the success of 1971’s Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood went on to reprise the role in four sequels – the last of which, The Dead Pool, opened the same year as The Naked Gun.
Perhaps it was the knowledge that they’d be coming out in the same year that persuaded the filmmakers to slip in a direct nod to Dirty Harry.
One scene sees Drebin inform the police commissioner, “when I see five weirdos dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park… I shoot the b*****ds, that’s my policy.”
It turns out Drebin shot actors performing Julius Caesar. However, the dialogue is taken almost word for word from the original Dirty Harry.
In the 1971 film, Eastwood’s Callahan tells his superior, “when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the b*****d, that’s my policy.”
14. Ricardo Montalbán was cast because of his performance in Star Trek II
Hand-in-hand with their preference for straight actors in the lead roles, the makers of The Naked Gun needed a truly great bad guy.
For the part of villain Vincent Ludwig, they cast one of the best bad guys in the business: Ricardo Montalbán.
The actor had enjoyed a career resurgence in the 80s thanks to his performance in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
While that film is most fondly remembered for William Shatner screaming his adversary’s name, Montalbán’s lurid performance as Khan is also vital to Star Trek II’s lasting appeal.
And it was reportedly on the strength of that performance alone that he was offered the bad guy role in The Naked Gun.
Montalbán (also famed for TV’s Fantasy Island) would go on to appear in the Spy Kids movies before passing away in 2009, aged 88.
13. Years later, Leslie Nielsen performed for the real Queen Elizabeth
The Naked Gun features scenes in which Drebin meets Queen Elizabeth II – and behaves very inappropriately with her.
Her Royal Highness is portrayed by English actress Jeanette Charles, who has been frequently cast based on her resemblance to the British Monarch.
However, many years after The Naked Gun, leading man Leslie Nielsen performed in front of the real Queen Elizabeth herself.
The monarch was in attendance at the Saskatchewan Centennial Gala in 2013, which had Nielsen on the bill.
We can find nothing to verify suggestions that the Queen may have said of Nielsen’s performance, “we are not amused…”
12. The baseball game takes place in the wrong stadium
The big finale of The Naked Gun takes place during a Los Angeles Angels baseball game.
However, baseball fans might spot a factual error on the part of the filmmakers.
As an Angels game, it should really be taking place at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
However, the sequence was actually shot at Dodger Stadium, home of rival team the L.A. Dodgers.
While this stadium had once been home to the Angels, this ended all the way back in 1965.
Such is the nature of the movie business: the filmmakers have to make use of the locations which are available at the time.
11. Scenes were shot up to 40 times to get the comedy just right
A few legendarily fastidious filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick are famous for asking their actors to perform huge numbers takes for every scene.
Believe it or not, this was also the case during filming of The Naked Gun.
Director David Zucker would routinely shoot each scene over and over, as many as 40 times.
This intensive approach was taken to ensure they got every beat of the scene exactly right.
Viewers would probably agree this approach paid off, given how heavy on laughs The Naked Gun is.
Still, it’s not hard to see why it may have proved exhausting to the cast: actor George Kennedy in particular is said to have not enjoyed shooting so many takes.
10. Mel Brooks wrote one of the film’s best gags
As iconic as the creators of Airplane! and The Naked Gun may be, they’re by no means the biggest names in film comedy of the late 20th century.
Few would dispute that the true king of big screen comedy from the 60s onwards is the legendary Mel Brooks.
His influence can clearly be felt in The Naked Gun, and it’s no surprise to learn he was also a great fan of the movie.
Did you know, however, that Brooks also suggested one of the gags in The Naked Gun?
The gag in question is when Frank Drebin gets hit in the head by a baseball bat whilst undercover as a Major League umpire.
Seven years after The Naked Gun, Leslie Nielsen and Mel Brooks worked together with the actor taking the lead in 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
9. Ludwig’s secretary is played by David and Jerry Zucker’s mum
David and Jerry Zucker didn’t have to look far when casting the role of Dominique, Ludwig’s secretary.
This is because she was played by Charlotte Zucker, David and Jerry’s mum!
On top of which, the Zucker brothers also cast their sister Susan Breslau in a one-liner cameo: she’s the lady who shouts, “hey, look out!”
This was neither the first nor last time that the filmmakers cast their mother and sister in their movies.
Both Charlotte Zucker and Susan Breslau make appearances in The Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane!, Top Secret and both the Naked Gun sequels.
Charlotte Zucker made her last appearance in David Zucker’s 2003 film My Boss’s Daughter, before her death in 2008. Breslau, meanwhile, was most recently seen in 2008’s Superhero Movie.
8. It’s one of three 1988 comedies in which a character is run over by a steam roller
Considering how over-the-top it is, it’s only fitting that the climax of The Naked Gun would see its villain die in a very excessive manner.
It’s only fitting, then, that during Ricardo Montalbán’s over-the-top death scene, he is run over by a steam roller.
No doubt the makers of The Naked Gun felt they had hit upon a uniquely ridiculous fate for their antagonist.
However, there may have been something in the air in 1988, as two more major movies that year also see characters run over by steam rollers.
One of these is Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which this fate befalls Christopher Lloyd’s Judge Doom.
The other is A Fish Called Wanda, in which Michael Palin’s Ken runs over Kevin Kline’s Otto with that most hefty of vehicles.
7. The film features the final performance by a Hollywood legend
As we’ve established, the makers of The Naked Gun enjoyed nothing more than casting dramatic actors to play ridiculous comedy completely straight.
On The Naked Gun, they got to do this once more with a true Hollywood legend, Oscar-winning The Paper Chase actor John Houseman.
It proved to be the final screen role from the seasoned stage and screen veteran, who was both an acclaimed actor and producer (he’d collaborated with such legends as Orson Welles and Vincente Minnelli).
Houseman passed away aged 86 in October 1988, shortly before The Naked Gun made it to cinemas.
He appeared as the calm, softly-spoken driving instructor whose car is unwittingly commandeered by Drebin.
We’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not it was a fitting swansong – but either way, it’s probably the funniest car chase ever.
6. One ‘blasphemous’ joke was removed at the request of the Catholic Ricardo Montalbán
As we’ve established, The Naked Gun’s brand of humour is outrageous and absurd – but for the most part it stops short of actually causing offence.
However, this might not have been the case were it not for Ricardo Montalbán speaking up.
The actor, who was a devout Roman Catholic, had a problem with one gag in the original script.
The hospital featured in the film was originally intended to be called Our Lady Who Never Got the Pickle.
Montalbán felt this was a blasphemous joke, and gently requested the filmmakers remove it.
Out of respect for the actor’s wishes, the filmmakers agreed, and the joke hit the bin.
5. It spawned two sequels
With a final box office haul of $140 million off the back of a $11 million budget, The Naked Gun was a qualified hit.
Small wonder, then, that it proved to be the starting point for a comedy film franchise.
Two sequels followed in 1991’s The Naked Gun 2 1⁄2: The Smell of Fear and 1994’s Naked Gun 33 1⁄3: The Final Insult.
Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, George Kennedy and O.J. Simpson reprised their roles in both follow-up films.
David Zucker was back as director on The Naked Gun 2 1⁄2,, but was replaced by Peter Segal on Naked Gun 33 1⁄3.
Collectively, the Naked Gun trilogy made upwards of $300 million at the worldwide box office, and did even better on home video.
4. It’s considered one of the greatest comedy films ever made
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! is considered by many to be one of the greatest comedy films of all time.
It was named the 7th funniest comedy film ever in a 2016 poll by Empire magazine.
Channel 4 ranked it at number 14 in a viewer poll of the greatest comedy films of all time.
Nor do the plaudits laid upon the film come exclusively from comedy-specific lists.
The Naked Gun was also named one of the 1000 greatest films ever made (irrespective of genre) by the New York Times in 2003.
Unsurprisingly, reviews for The Naked Gun were largely positive: the film currently sits on an 88% fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating.
3. The film’s theme was played at Leslie Nielsen’s funeral
Fans the world over were in mourning when Leslie Nielsen passed away in 2010, aged 84.
The film legend left behind a great legacy of over 250 film and television credits.
Of course, it was comedy that he was most closely associated with – so it’s only fitting that he was sent off with a sense of humour.
Believe it or not, Dominik Hauser’s Naked Gun theme tune was played at Nielsen’s funeral, as Canadian Mountain Police carried in the coffin!
Nielsen also chose a tongue-in-cheek epitaph to be interred on his grave stone.
The late comedy star’s gravestone reads, “Leslie Nielsen, Feb 11 1926 – Nov 28 2010 – ‘Let ‘er rip.'”
2. Weird Al Yankovic used to take dates to see the film without telling them he was in it
On of the many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags in The Naked Gun comes with the brief appearance of Weird Al Yankovic.
This comes early on, when Nielsen’s Frank gets off a plane and mistakenly addresses crowds of press who are actually there for Yankovic.
The comedic singer-songwriter found fame in the 80s for his parody songs, such as Eat It, a spoof of Michael Jackson’s Beat It.
Yankovic has said since that, when The Naked Gun came out, he would try to impress dates by taking them to the movie, without telling them he was it it!
The star added that, on some occasions, he deliberately wore the same shirt he wears in the movie on his dates, just to get the full effect.
Yankovic went on to make further cameo appearances in The Naked Gun 2 1⁄2 and Naked Gun 33 1⁄3.
1. Ed Helms may play Frank Drebin in a reboot
Only three years after Leslie Nielsen’s death, word broke that a reboot of The Naked Gun was in the works.
The Hangover’s Ed Helms – who has since taken the lead in another 80s comedy reboot, 2015’s Vacation – was announced as the new Frank Drebin.
However, the creators of the franchise were not said to be involved, which didn’t inspire much confidence from fans.
Director David Zucker didn’t seem too impressed discussing the project in 2015, when he suggested the studio were planning less of an outright spoof for their new Naked Gun.
Fans of the original may be relieved, then, that the project seems to have fallen by the wayside, with new news on the matter in years.