The Gentlemen of 1980 died within a day of each other. Yet thirty years before they were responsible for two of my favorite movies. One a sequel to a blockbuster, one changed his image and started a whole movie trend.
I knew Leslie Nielsen from the movie Tammy and the Bachelor, starring Debbie Reynolds as a backwoods girl who comes to the Big City and shows those city slickers What's Really Important. Yup, cliché big time. However it worked because Debbie Reynolds is so endearing, and Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Ned The Bachelor is kind and sweet in the role.
Nielsen did Ned roles throughout his career until 1980 when he was cast as another doctor, yet this doctor said one of the best lines in movie history when asked "Surely you can't be serious?"
"I am. And don't call me Shirley."
It was Airplane! Without cracking a smile, Nielsen shone as a doctor who had take care of sick passengers, a nervous pilot (Robert Hays) and helped slap a woman in hysterics. How he didn't dissolve into laughter took the resolve of a Margaret Durmont.
Years later he was in Police Squad, which morphed into the Naked Gun films. One clip that was shown last night during Nielsen's obits was when he sings the National Anthem: "Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light? Something Something Something..." I did a spit take on that one. Then there's a clip when he and Frank Drebin's girlfriend Jane (Pricilla Presley) come out of a theater laughing hysterically. The movie they just saw? Platoon.
Yet he still did the occasional serious role. In Nuts, he was the client of Barbra Streisand's prositute character. At first you think is he going to be comic relief? Then you realize his character is there for a darker ride than we thought, and I remember thinking, "Wow, Frank Drebin can really act."
Irvin Kershner wasn't an actor, yet he did something else that was incredible: he stepped in the shoes of George Lucas. Those shoes were so big, so huge to fill. Lucas decided not to direct the sequel to Star Wars. So he chose Kershner. I'm guessing Kershner took a deep breath, then proceeded to make The Empire Strikes Back.
We have to be honest: Most movie sequels aren't that good. (Arthur On The Rocks anyone?) Yet Kershner (with help from Lucas's screenplay) did the impossible: He made a fantastic sequel. A sequel that has so many twists and turns that at the end you are a bit frustrated and upset because things did not turn out the way you wanted it to. Han Solo is frozen by Jabba the Hutt? Luke lost his arm? And we can't forget the biggest surprise of them all, the one that is one of my favorite movie theater moments.
I was watching the movie at the Festival in Walnut Creek. It was a packed house. It was the scene we all were waiting for: the confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Then Vader dropped the biggest bomb of them all: "Luke, I am your father."
I remember in the audience there was exclamations of shock, dismay and many, many "What The Hell?" It was before spoilers, before anything. We were just shocked. Me, I thought, "Wow, Luke doesn't look a thing like Darth Vader."
I remember feeling so sad at the end of the movie, despite the suggestion of hope with them all standing by the window, looking at the stars. It wasn't until I saw it again during the rerelease in 1997 when I got it. You're supposed to be sad at the end. It makes you want more, and that's what Lucas and Kershner wanted. To want more, and to make sure three years later people would be in line for Return of the Jedi. And I was.
Nielsen and Kershner were both older when later success hit them, proving that you're never too old to acheive what you want and be successful at it. In 1980 with the hostages of Iran, John Lennon's murder, and oil prices skyrocketing they made people forget their troubles for a while, and escape in new world. We needed them in 1980. And thirty years later we still do; my nephew is a huge Star Wars fan and is about to see The Empire Strikes Back. My niece will watch Airplane! tonight. They'll find out for themselves what America loved about the Gentlemen of 1980. No doubt they'll love them too.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries