I remember being in school around January of 1985. One of my friends sat next to me (can’t remember his name, it was almost forty years ago) and he was telling me how amazing Ghostbusters was, that he had seen it. However, I noticed something strange (in the neighbourhood) as all he kept talking about were scenes shown in the trailer and nothing from the actual film itself.
I mean, he didn’t even know about the giant marshmallow man. It became quite clear that he hadn’t seen the film at all and was trying to sound ‘cool’. I knew he hadn’t seen the film because well, I had. Anyway, that was the first memory that came to my mind when I heard that Ivan Reitman had died. I was a kid back then, I never understand filmmaking at all, I didn’t know what a director did, had zero idea of what (if anything) happened behind the camera. All I cared about was the fact I enjoyed watching the film.
As I grew older and became a fan of not just films but filmmaking. When I began to learn about everything that does go on behind the camera, that was when I understood what a director and producer did. That was when I started to become a fan of Ivan’s work. I remember watching Stripes on TV for the first time. It had a couple of the guys out of Ghostbusters in it, so that was enough to get me to watch. Of course, Stripes was also directed by Ivan Reitman. Then there was Meatballs, the film that really launched both Bill Murray’s and Ivan Reitman’s careers. This film was also the start of the personal and professional relationship between Ivan, Bill and Harold Ramis.
The all-time classic Animal House that really kick-started John Belushi’s film career and the whole National Lampoon’s film franchise was directed by John Landis but produced by Ivan Reitman. I didn’t realise it at the time but Ivan was shaping my tastes in American comedy films as I grew from boy to young adult. Then there was Twins, the mismatched and goofy comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as twin brothers. It is stupid but harmless and good fun. A film that took the then gargantuan action star that was Arnold Schwarzenegger and showed that he had some pretty decent comedy chops. Something that Ivan would do again later with both Kindergarten Cop and Junior.
Of course, the film that inadvertently made me an Ivan Reitman fan got a sequel. Ghostbusters II has always been a bit of a hit and miss film. A disappointment after the first film sure but still a good watch and it was great to see the old team back together again. As a director, Ivan kept himself busy up to 2014 with his last film being the sports drama Draft Day.
As a producer, Ivan Reitman had a few other notable films under his belt. Cult favourite Heavy Metal, the animated movie based on the magazine of the same name. Full of violence and beewbage! The awfully terrible Sylvester Stallone starring Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was another. But Ivan Reitman made up for how bad that was with the pretty damn great Space Jam afterwards. Melding live-action with classic Loony Tunes characters for some basketball action… and a Bill Murray cameo. Ivan was also a producer on the biographical making of Psycho with the 2012 film Hitchcock.
When Ghostbusters was remade in 2016, Ivan Reitman was on board as producer. And of course, he returned to the franchise one last time for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which was released last year. Directed by his son, Jason Reitman, the film worked as a direct sequel to the original films and was pretty damn great too. Ivan was not just a producer on this film, he even had a little ‘hidden’ cameo at the end, which I’m not going to spoil if you’ve not yet seen it.
Ivan Reitman was set to direct a sequel to Twins this year called Triplets. Bringing back Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito but now with Tracy Morgan playing the third brother. Sadly, now that Ivan has passed away, it is not known where the film stands, especially as it was set to begin filming this month. Ivan’s cause of death has not yet been revealed but his family have described it as being an ‘unexpected loss’. Maybe Jason will pick up the mantle and finish what his father sadly could not?
There’s been an amazing backlash for the last decade in America: political correctness. In many ways, I think that, while we’ve been remarkably violent in our media, there’s been a real schizophrenia. In private, on the Internet, and on public-affairs shows or talk radio, we’re way more explicit than we’ve ever been. But traditional Hollywood has been much more frightened than it ever was in the ’70s about presenting things that could be perceived as politically incorrect.
It popped up on my newsfeed that Mick McGinty passed away recently. No, don’t worry, I admit that I didn’t recognise the name either. Still, if you were a gamer in the nineties, the name may not have been familiar, but the work most definitely would be. Mick McGinty was behind some of the most iconic video game art in the 1990s.
Mick was an incredible artist as his personal fine art site can prove. But if landscapes and still life wasn’t your thing, his work in the gaming world most probably was. Perhaps Micks’ most famous gaming work would be his incredible Street Fighter II art. Whenever there was a new version of the massively popular beat ’em up (and there were a lot of them), Mick McGinty’s artwork was right there with them as he created some of the most recognisable game cover art ever.
His chunky, muscly character style suited the beat ’em up genre perfectly and Mick’s art soon found its way onto many a game box. Mick McGinty was also the man behind the covers for several of the Streets of Rage games for Sega.
Mick also did the cover art for games like Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry franchise, Zoo Tycoon, Kid Chameleon and Shining Force to name just a few. Mick’s art was also used by Disney, Reebok, MTV, Universal Studios, McDonald’s and so many other big-name brands. You’ve most probably also seen Micks’ art on movie posters and not even realised it. He was the man behind the Jaws 2 poster and other Jawsartwork.
The 1987 Dragnet movie, Curse of the Pink Panther, Harry and the Hendersons, Field of Dreams, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and so many more films. Mick McGinty’s art spans decades, genres and brands. You may not know it, but I can guarantee that you’ve admired at least one of his pieces over the years, whether it be gaming related, a movie poster or just a brand name that you’ve most probably bought into at some point in your life. Mick’s work was… is legendary and his talent will be greatly missed.
“I’ve been an artist since age 5, when I remember drawing an airplane better than my older brother. It was a bi-wing with a propeller, and it was encouraging because up until then, it was the only thing I could remember doing better. I kept at it, and now nearly 50 years later I’m still trying to improve my creative process… Now I realize you never really get better than anyone else… just more unique to your own style, and you become the best painter you can be.”
When he was younger, my older brother Robert, was really into comic books in a big way. I remember he used to go into town to a big comic book store called Nostalgia & Comics in the early eighties. It’s still around today too, only now called Worlds Apart. Anyway, my brother would come back home with bags full of comics, usually DC Comics too. Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Batman and of course, Superman.
I think that was when I was first introduced to Superman, as I would flick through my brother’s comics and just marvel at the art inside. Robert was also a bit of an artist when he was younger, a really good artist too, a talent he (sadly) never followed through on as he grew older. He drew and painted a huge and really impressive Superman mural on his bedroom wall when he was a teenager. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of that anymore but believe me, it was amazing. Highly detailed, full of colour and it looked like something right out of a comic book. I think it would be safe to say that my brother was a bit of a Superman fan. One Christmas, the 1978 film Superman: The Movie was being shown on TV. Me and my brother sat down to watch it and we both became instant fans of the flick. That, that whole memory was the first thing that came to mind when I looked at my news feed this morning and read that film director Richard ‘Dick’ Donner had died aged 91. Of course, Donner was the man who put his heart and soul into making us ‘believe a man can fly’ as the tagline of the film boasted. We did too.
As a very young kid back then, I never understood filmmaking, I didn’t know what a director did or even what one was. I just knew I loved the Superman film. I also didn’t know that watching Superman with my brother over that Christmas period would be the start of my becoming a fan of Dick Donner as a filmmaker. There was another Donner film I watched when I was younger that had a huge impact on me as I grew up…
The Omen. Yeah, I used to watch horror films as a kid and I loved them. That clip there of little Damien Thorn looking at the camera and smiling at the end of the movie came about thanks to some clever direction from Donner. Harvey Spencer Stephens who played Damien was told not to smile by Donner, Dick Donner even told the young Stephens that if he smiled, he would not be his friend anymore. Of course, a child being told not to smile did the exact opposite and we got one of the most chilling final shots to a horror film ever. If you look through Dick Donner’s history of filmmaking, you’ll find several stories where he would trick his actors into doing things he wanted them to do. For instance, just going back to Superman for a second Gene Hackman was hired to play main bad guy, Lex Luthor. At the time, Hackman was sporting a moustache and refused to shave it for the film. In fact, early promotional photos for the picture showed Hackman with his very seventies ‘tache.
Still, Donner was adamant and wanted the lip-warmer gone for the flick. When talking over the phone and before they ever met, Dick Donner promised Gene Hackman that he would have his moustache shaved off if Hackman also did it, so an agreement was made between the two. When they met on the set of the film for the first time, Donner kept his promise, he and Hackman both went to the make-up department to get shaved. Gene Hackman went first and got his soup-strainer whipped off, after which, he then turned to Donner and said it was his turn. That was when Donner refused and said he can’t have his moustache shaved, before pulling off the fake ‘tache that the make-up department had only just applied before Gene Hackman turned up.
Before I move on, I just want to cover why I’m referring to Richard Donner as Dick. Obviously, Dick is a well-known shortening of Richard anyway, but I always feel strange about using that, especially in regards to someone I never even knew. Still, during the making of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (a history I’m not going to get into here, maybe later?), Dick Donner specifically thanked the fans for their support in finally getting the film made. He also said he likes his friends to call him Dick and that he considers any fan a friend. So there you go, as a fan and friend, I have permission for the man himself to call him Dick. I find it kind of warming that he enjoyed being called Dick.
When you look back on Dick Donner’s career, he was behind some of the greatest films ever. But before he was a film director, he made a name for himself in TV. Directing episodes for Wagon Train, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Perry Mason, The Fugitive, Kojak and even The Banana Splits Adventure Hour to name just a few. I used to love watching The Banana Splits as a kid. Donner also directed a few episodes of the classic The Twilight Zone TV show and perhaps the most famous episode too, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. You know, the William Shatner starring one where he is on a plane and sees a monster/gremlin on the wing.
Dick Donner’s first proper feature film was the already mentioned, The Omen from 1976 and it was that film’s success that landed him the job of directing the also already mentioned Superman: The Movie a couple of years later. By the time the eighties rolled around, Donner was very much a big name in Hollywood and made some of his finest pictures through that decade. Not all of his flicks were universally loved though, he did make The Toy in 1982 a film panned by critics at the time. It’s also a film that when you watch it from a more modern sensibility… It does come across as a bit racist. I mean, it does feature a plot about a rich white man buying a poor black man to basically be his son’s plaything. Now, I’m not one of those ‘snowflakes’ we have today that gets offended by stuff from decades ago. I quite liked The Toy truth be told and never once saw it as being ‘racist’. It’s just a silly film showing the difference between the rich and the poor and no so much black vs white as many others like to make out. Anyway, Donner was also behind the cult classic Ladyhawke and the massively popular The Goonies.
Then in 1987, he made the film that would pretty much define his career from that point on. Easily the greatest buddy-cop film ever and a movie any fan just has to watch over Christmas, Lethal Weapon. Bringing together the then fairly unknown Mel Gibson and equally unknown Danny Glover to play Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh respectively. A brilliant action romp with a wonderful slice of humour. Lethal Weapon would go on to become a huge and successful franchise with four films in the series made up to 1998, all four directed by Dick Donner too.
There was even talk of a fifth film that was going to be made. Even as recently as December last year, Donner said that Lethal Weapon 5 was happening and that it would be his last film before retiring. Apparently, work on the movie was moving ahead quite fast too. A script existed, both Mel Gibson and Danny Glover were confirmed as to coming back and it was set to begin shooting sometime soon. I always had mixed feeling over this one. I am a big fan of the Lethal Weapon fraise… But I can’t say that I was honestly looking forward to a new one. If anything, I was more interested in seeing a new Dick Donner film over a Lethal Weapon one. I just love when old directors are still going even into their nineties. I mean, if Clint Eastwood can still direct films at his age, why not Dick Donner? Of course, now that Donner has sadly died, Lethal Weapon 5 really is a project that I feel shouldn’t go ahead. It was his baby and no one else should be taking up the role of director.
Anyway, I can’t yak on about Dick Donner and not give mention to one of the greatest Christmas films ever (not Lethal Weapon). I’ve always been a fan of the Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, I honestly think it’s the greatest story ever written. In 1988, Donner made his own version of that classic tale with the Bill Murray starring Scrooged. I absolutely love this film. Obviously, The Muppets version is the best ever take on Dickens’ tale, but Scrooged is certainly up there too. There are a lot of behind the scenes stories about how Murray and Donner just did not get on and there were many arguments on set about the direction the film was going. Still, when you watch Scrooged, you really don’t see any of that on-screen and whatever disagreements Bill Murray and Dick Donner had never seemed to harm the film at all.
Donner returned to his TV roots in the late eighties and nineties when he became an executive producer on the TV show Tales from the Crypt. Not only was he a producer on the show, he also directed a few episodes. I actually have quite a lot to say about Tales from the Crypt, but just not here. It was an amazing show that really deserves its very own article. Maybe for one of my Halloween specials one year (not this year as I already have something else planned)? In 1994, Dick Donner teamed up with Mel Gibson again for a flick that was not a Lethal Weapon one. Maverick was based on the classic TV show of the same name. Oh, how I adore this film. It’s funny, has a great plot and is brilliantly directed too with a great stinger of an ending. Plus it has that amazing Lethal Weapon in-joke/reference. Maverick really is a cracking flick and one that seems to be overlooked these days.
Speaking of overlooked films, Donner also directed Assassins from 1995. Written by the Wachowski’s before the whole The Matrix phenomenon. Assassins stars Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas as rival assassins who end up in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Now, Assassins was not a critical or commercial success, it was heavily panned when it was released and reviewers were not kind at all. But I really do enjoy the film. It has this nice, slow-burning quality to it and I find it a very easy watch. It’s not an action-packed flick (though there are action scenes in it) and relies a lot more on character. It is a slow film and I can see why some folk didn’t enjoy it. But for me, I feel that Assassins is a very watchable film.
Dick Donner’s career began to dry up in the late nineties and his best years were most definitely behind him. He teamed up with Mel Gibson again for Conspiracy Theory (I’ve never seen it) and there was the fourth Lethal Weapon flick too, which was decidedly okay-ish. As much as I loved Donner as a filmmaker, he most definitely wasn’t the great director he was in the seventies and eighties. He had a couple of films with Timeline from 2003 and his final flick as a director was the Bruce Willis action-thriller 16 Blocks from 2006. His directing may have dried up later in his career, but Dick was still an active producer. In fact, he was the executive producer on X-Men from 2000 and he really helped to kickstart the modern superhero movie genre, just like when he revolutionised it back in 1978 with Superman: The Movie.
Richard Donner died on the 5th of July 2021 aged 91. The cause of death has not yet been revealed. Still, the man was a legend and helmed some of the greatest films made. He pioneered superhero movies… Twice, made us believe a man could fly, turned Mel Gibson a household name and entertained me and millions of others around the world for decades.
“I have a bust of Abraham Lincoln in my office, and it’s not because of the greatness he did for our country, but it’s because that whenever I look at it I have to remember an actor killed him.”
This is actually an older (and fairly lengthy) article I wrote for another (now defunct) site a few years back. I’ve given it a bit of an update and a polish to re-posted it here on my blog, as a way to remember one of my heroes on the anniversary of his death.
On this day twenty-seven years ago in 1994, the world lost, who was quite simply, the greatest racing driver who ever sat in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car. The three-times F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna da Silva. In this article, I’d like to share my own personal memories and highlights of watching the great man and how I first became a Senna fan.
How It All Began
As far as I recall, it all started with a simple Formula 1 toy car.
I think it must have been 1985 and I was 8 or 9-years-old. My older brother, Rob would have been around 16 at the time. No older brother in the midst of their teenage years wanted their annoying little brother hanging around with them, but Rob was different as he would often let me join in with (almost) anything he was doing. I remember that our granddad gave my brother a toy F1 car and it was this simple toy car that got Rob into watching F1 on TV. He would usually have to use the small, portable TV on a Sunday afternoon to watch the races as my mom would be engrossed in her soap operas on the main TV. So my brother would be relegated to the kitchen to watch the racing on that old black & white, small screen and I would watch with him. His favourite driver was a young Italian called Elio de Angelis who, at the time, was driving for the Lotus team.
It was the 1985 season when de Angelis gained a new teammate. A young, unknown Brazilian driver from São Paulo who had made his way up through the Karting, Formula Ford and British Formula Three circuits in the late seventies and early eighties, before arriving in F1 by joining the Toleman team in 1984. That young, unknown Brazilian was Ayrton Senna da Silva. Elio de Angelis and Ayrton Senna were teammates at Lotus through 1985. On the rare occasion that me and my brother did get to watch Formula 1 on the bigger, colour TV, I remember just loving the contrast in colours of that black JPS Lotus and Senna’s bright yellow helmet design. That’s pretty much how I became an Ayrton Senna fan, just because my brother liked his teammate de Angelis, and I liked Senna’s distinctly coloured helmet. Then, when de Angelis left Lotus for the Brabham team in 1986, this was when us brothers became united as fans of Senna. There was just something about him, his attitude, his personality, his driving style and of course, the fact that the black Lotus with that distinctive yellow helmet sticking out of it looked awesome. This young driver had something very special, even if we didn’t realise it at the time. I admit that I never really understood F1 back then, I just thought that the black Lotus looked cool. But my brother would explain the rules to me and I began to learn more and more about the sport and slowly fell in love with it.
I do vaguely remember hearing about the crash that killed Elio de Angelis in 1986 while he was testing his Brabham BT55 in France, I recall being shocked, even at that young age, that people could die in this sport I had just begun to watch. After de Angelis died at only 28-years-old, all eyes were on Senna as he started to make waves in F1.
The Lotus Drive
Anyway, Senna’s first year for Lotus in 1985 was an exciting watch. It was the Portuguese Grand Prix where he secured his first-ever pole position which he then converted into his first race win. The 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix was run under very wet conditions and this is where Senna showed his unbeatable driving skill and dominance in the rain, a skill and talent he would prove he had time and time again in the years to come. During the race, Senna managed to lap everyone up to and including third-place driver, Patrick Tambay and brought his Lotus home to take the chequered flag a whole minute ahead of second-place driver, Michele Alboreto. Senna managed to secure the fastest lap of the race too and he did all of this in the pouring rain. While other drivers were sliding about, spinning off and crashing into barriers, Senna was dominating. The 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix has rightfully gone down asone of the greatest F1 races ever seen.
Senna finished the 1985 season in an impressive fourth place and racked up some very memorable races along the way too. His second race win was again, under wet conditions at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Just another excuse to show off his wet racing dominance. As well as collecting a few podium finishes at the Austrian, Netherlands and Italian Grand Prix. Even then, early in his Formula 1 career, Senna was making huge waves.
Senna’s 1986 season and his second one with the Lotus team got off to a strong start. He finished second in the first race at Brazil and won the second race in Spain after a nail-biting climax where Senna finished ahead of Nigel Mansell by just 0.014 seconds. One of the closest finishes in F1 history.
After two races, Senna was leading the championship. But later in the season, he was bogged down with poor reliability as he struggled to keep up with the Williams team. Despite being the top qualifier that season with eight poles and six podium finishes including another win at the Detroit Grand Prix, Senna only managed to finish the season in fourth place once more. It was after his win in Detroit (one day after Brazil were knocked out of the 1986 World Cup), Senna pulled up at the side of the track and asked a fan for their Brazilian flag. Senna then drove a celebratory lap waving the flag, a tradition he repeated every time he won a race from that point on.
Senna just loved driving so much, it didn’t matter what it was, if it could go fast, Senna wanted to master it. He even had a brief foray into rallying as 1986 was the year when he headed to Wales and drove a Vauxhall Nova, MG Metro 6R4, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and a Ford Escort just for some rallying fun.
1987 saw a lot of changes at Lotus, least of all was an all-new look to their cars. As the striking John Player Special black and gold livery was replaced with a yellow Camel sponsorship. But, this would also be Senna’s last season with Lotus before switching teams in 1988 to form one of the most memorable team-ups in F1 history. Ayrton Senna’s 1987 season got off to a controversial start, a strong podium finish at the San Marino Grand Prix led to an altercation between him and Nigel Mansell. After the race, in the pit lane, Mansell reportedly grabbed Senna by the throat and he had to be restrained by the Lotus mechanics. This was following a collision between the two drivers on the track:
“When a man holds you round the throat, I do not think that he has come to apologise.”
– Ayrton Senna
Senna had a very strong start to this season including his first and a very memorable win at Monaco… One of many to come. Senna soon found himself leading the Drivers Championship. However, the latter part of the season saw the Williams cars take the advantage, this led to Senna becoming dissatisfied at Lotus as he looked around for a new team for the following season. He finished the 1987 season in third-place with six podium finishes and only one pole position. He knew he could de better, he knew he could be World Champion and he knew it was the Louts car holding him back too. So, Senna said goodbye to Lotus as he joined his new team for 1988.
The McLaren Drive
Senna joined the McLaren team with the approval of McLaren’s number-one driver and then-double world champion, Alain Prost and the two became great teammates. A relationship that would quickly turn sour over the years. The 1988 season was full of incredible race incidents between the two teammates and marked the start of one of the most famous rivalries in F1. It was at the Monaco Grand Prix where Senna out-qualified Prost and went on to lead most of the race, yet he crashed on lap 67. Senna just disappeared from the Grand Prix as he went to his apartment in Monaco without telling anyone. He eventually returned to the track later that night as the teams were packing away and Prost was none too impressed with Senna’s apparent lack of professionalism.
Then, at the Portuguese Grand Prix, Prost managed a slightly faster start than his teammate, yet Senna dived into the first corner ahead with aggression. Prost retaliated and attempted to pass Senna by the end of the first lap. Senna then swerved to block Prost, forcing him to almost run into the pit wall at around 180 mph. But Prost refused to slow down and soon edged out Senna into the first corner and started pulling away. Prost was angered by Senna’s dangerous manoeuvre and the Brazilian was given a warning from F1’s governing body, the FIA. During the post-race team debrief, Prost voiced his anger at the move which prompted Senna to apologise to his teammate for the incident. Despite the numerous clashes between the two McLaren drivers, Senna rewrote the record books in 1988 with a total of eight wins, thirteen poles… Oh yeah, he won his first-ever World Championship too.
The 1989 season didn’t see the relationship between Senna and Prost improve, if anything, it got worse as tension and mistrust increased between the two. Senna took an early lead in the championship after wins at the San Marino, Monaco, and the Mexico GPs, which he followed up with wins in Germany, Belgium, and Spain too. But unreliability in the latter part of the season meant Senna soon found himself in second place in the standings while Prost took the lead. It was the penultimate race of the season in Japan where the two teammates collided… Figuratively and literally. Senna needed to win the race to remain in contention for the title. Prost managed to get away at the start ahead of Senna and he led the race. It was on lap 46 when Senna pulled up alongside his teammate and attempted a pass on the inside at the last chicane, but Prost turned in, cutting off Senna and the duo tangled wheels. Both of the McLarens slid off the track and on to the escape road and they both seemed to be out of the race, meaning Prost was World Champion, so he abandoned his car and the race. However, Senna stayed in his car and requested a push-start from the circuit marshals so he could rejoin the race.
Senna went on the win the race by taking the lead from Benetton driver, Alessandro Nannini. He was World Champion for the second time… For a few hours anyway. Later, after the race, Senna was disqualified for receiving a push-start, cutting the chicane after the collision with Prost as well as for crossing into the pit lane entry, during a stewards meeting after the race. An enraged Senna entered a bitter war of words with the then FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre. He claimed that Balestre had forced the race stewards to disqualify him so his fellow countryman, Prost, could win the championship.
Senna finished the 1989 season in second place behind Prost with six wins and one second place. Prost left McLaren for Ferrari ready for the 1990 season. While Prost may have left McLaren for Ferrari, that didn’t end the bitter rivalry between him and Senna. Replacing Prost at McLaren was Austrian driver, Gerhard Berger. Senna and Berger soon became much more than just good teammates, they became very close friends too:
“I tried to find weaknesses in Senna, but I couldn’t. He is 100 per cent in everything. I learned a lot from him, so for me, it was a good three years. And I still like Senna. We had good fun, a good relationship.”
– Gerhard Berger.
Once again, Senna got off to a strong start in the 1990 season and he was leading the championship. It was the latter part of the season where Prost in his Ferrari began to close the gap as he won five races bringing the point difference between himself and Senna to just nine, with only two races left. In an almost identical replay from the previous season, it all came down to the Japanese GP at Suzuka. Senna took the pole over Prost and he requested to have pole position moved to the left side of the track as it was cleaner and he could get a better start. The FIA president, Balestre denied Senna’s request. Meaning Senna had to start on the dirty side of the track, thus favouring Prost on the left.
The race started and Prost managed to get away ahead of Senna. However, Senna refused to relent and tried to pass Prost at the first corner. Prost turned in to take the corner while Senna kept his foot on the accelerator and the two cars collided (again) at the Japanese GP (again) and the crash settled the World Championship title (again). Senna and Prost spun off into the gravel trap as they both exited their cars, both of them out of the race. Only thistime, there was no stewards inquiry, no disqualification and Senna was crowned World Champion for the second time.
It was also during the 1990 season when Senna witnessed something that changed his perception of the sport and when he struck up a very important friendship with the then head of the Formula 1 on-track medical team, Professor Sid Watkins:
“I was in the pits, practice was stopped. I hear by different people, there was accident, was Donnelly. Was bad, was too bad, was disaster. And I decide to go to the place to see myself. Million things went through my mind, in the end I… I realised I was not going to give up my passion, even just having seen what I had seen … And I had to, to put myself together, and walk out, go to the racing car, and do it again. And do it again, and do it even better than before. Because that was the way to… Kind of cover that impact it had on me. I was just not ready to give up. As much as I was scared to continue, I was not ready to give up my aim, my target, my objective, my passion, my dream… My life. It is my life”
– Ayrton Senna
Senna was referring to this…
Martin Donnelly crashed his Lotus during practice at the Jerez circuit. His car was decimated and his limp, lifeless body lay on the track still attached to the seat as the medical team rushed to the scene. Amazingly, Donnelly survived. He suffered horrendous injures including brain and lung contusions as well as severe leg fractures and the crash ended his F1 career… But he was alive.
It was this crash that (in his own words) ‘scared’ Senna. Following this incident, he sought out a friendship with Professor Watkins and Senna continually questioned Watkins on certain medical procedures and practices. Senna learned some basic first aid that could possibly save injured driver’s lives and he did exactly that later in his career. Before the final race of the 1990 season at the Australian GP, Senna was famously interviewed by the legendary ex-F1 driver, Jackie Stewart. Stewart quizzed Senna on his recent collisions and Senna firmly, but rather respectfully put Stewart in his place:
The 1991 season began and Senna showed his dominance as the Ferrari of his ex-team-mate and bitter rival, Prost struggled to keep up with the pace and Senna won the first four races. His main competitor for this season was Nigel Mansell driving for the Williams team and between the two, they managed to produce some of the most memorable highlights of this season. During the British GP, Senna ran out of fuel on the last lap and his car slowly came to a stop, Senna was left stranded on the circuit while Mansell went on to claim victory. During his celebratory lap, Mansell stopped and offered Senna a ride back to the pit lane, by doing so they created one of the most iconic images of F1.
They may have been fighting for the World Championship, but there was a deep respect between the two. I very much doubt Prost would have stopped to offer Senna a ride back.
Then later in the season at the Spanish GP, Senna and Mansell fought and fought hard as Mansell managed to pass Senna as sparks literally flew with only centimetres between the two cars at around 200 mph. A brilliant piece of driving from both Senna and Mansell:
“In the 1980s, I was blessed to drive against so many great drivers but Ayrton certainly stood out most among them.”
– Nigel Mansell
1991 also saw Ayrton Senna win one of his most memorable races. Of course it had to be at the Interlagos track in Brazil. Senna was leading the race with Nigel Mansell in second. What we didn’t know was that Senna’s gearbox was failing, by lap 60, he had lost fourth gear and his lap times began to drop as his lead was drastically decreasing. Mansell retired from the race on lap 61, putting Riccardo Patrese in seconds and fast catching Senna in his struggling McLaren. Shorty after and Senna’s gearbox issues continued as he lost both third and fifth gears too. Pretty much only giving sixth gear to work with, which caused major issues on cornering and nearly stalling his car to go out of the race. Senna battled with his difficult to control car and won the race just 2.9 seconds ahead of Patrese… In the rain too.
Senna screamed, as he had just won one the his most difficult races and in his home country too. His first race win in Brazil after losing out mulitple times before. But he wasn’t screaming with happiness, he was screaming in pain. The struggle of keeping the car on the track with only sixth gear to work with took a serious physical toll on Senna. He suffered severe muscle cramps and when he stopped the car, he couldn’t get out, couldn’t even loosen his grip on the steering wheel. Senna had to be carefully lifted out of the cockpit of his McLaren. He was checked over by the medical team and told he needed to rest, Senna refused. He had just won his home Grand Prix for the first time, he wanted, nay, needed to show his appreciation to his home-track fans. Senna was driven to the podium celebrations by the medical team, where he had to fight to swing the Brazilian flag and lift the trophy, while the pain of the muscle cramps fought him every step of the way. You could clearly see the pain on his face too. Perhaps one of Ayrton Senna’s greatest and most memorable races.
Senna’s consistency throughout the season meant he managed to claim his third World Championship title. Yet the McLaren car was just not as competitive as the Williams and Senna knew this too. In fact, he wanted to move to the Williams team for the 1992 season, but he was persuaded to stay at McLaren by engine supplier, Honda’s CEO Nobuhiko Kawamoto, which Senna did purely out of loyalty. Senna’s 1992 season was full of bad luck and poor reliability. Though he secured a few race wins, Senna only managed to place fourth in the World Championship by the end of the season, behind both of the far superior Williams cars.
Yet, the season was not without its memorable moments. During the qualifying session for the Belgian GP, French driver, Érik Comas suffered an horrific crash at around 200 mph, just in front of Senna who was on the track. Ayrton Senna stopped his car and got out disregarding his own safety, in an effort to aid a fellow driver. Senna’s selfless actions and knowledge he gained from Sid Watkins after the Donnelly crash in 1990 actually saved the life of Comas.
By the end of the season, Senna had not secured a drive with any team. He was unhappy at McLaren as they were just not able to create a car that could make him world champion for the fourth time. He even looked at leaving Formula 1 and thought about joining the IndyCar championships instead, when he tested for Penske Racing. However, Senna disliked the bulky, heavier American cars and despite posting the fastest lap during a test run at Firebird International Raceway in Arizona. He decided to stick with F1.
The big problem was that by December of 1992, Senna was a driver with no team to drive for in the 1993 season. He didn’t want to return to McLaren as he just knew they couldn’t offer a competitive car. It was the Williams team and their far superior and more technically advanced car he needed. Senna even offered to drive for Williams for free, a great offer for Williams to have the mighty Ayrton Senna drive for them for nothing. But there was a problem, a French driver shaped problem. Alain Prost, Senna’s biggest rival had already signed to be the number one driver at Williams and he was having none of his arch-nemesis joining the same team and so Prost vetoed against Senna joining Williams.
McLaren boss, Ron Dennis managed to persuade Senna to stick with McLaren for the 1993 season. Though he refused to sign a full season contract and only agreed to stay on via a race-by-race basis. Senna still ended up staying with McLaren for the whole season regardless. The Williams cars were just too damn fast, too technically advanced and far more reliable over the McLaren. And yet, despite the lack of competitiveness from the McLaren cars, Senna was still able to finish the championship in second place behind Prost, even in a far less competitive car. There may have been a deep rooted rivalry between Senna and Prost, but there was always respect too.
You know, Senna must have driven hundreds, thousands of laps during his career. Countless man-hours invested into learning his cars and the tracks he raced on as he perfected each and every corner of every circuit he raced on. Yet, of those hundreds and thousands of laps that he ever drove… There is one single lap that showcased just how much of an amazing talent Senna truly was. That one lap was during the Donington GP of the 1993 season. Senna managed to qualify in fourth place, but dropped down to fifth at the start, yet by the end of the lap, he was in first place under wet conditions in what many consider the greatest lap in F1 as Senna once more displayed his raw talent in the rain.
The Williams Drive
He finally did it, Senna secured a drive for the Williams team in 1994 now that Prost had retired. The world’s greatest driver in the world’s greatest F1 car. Anyone that knew anything about the sport just knew that this season was going to be a walkover for Senna, we all knew this would be his fourth World Championship with ease, it was inevitable. However, the 1994 season instantly got off to a bad start when new rules were brought in by the FIA banning the use of active suspension, traction control, and ABS, meaning that the previously technically advanced Williams cars had already lost their edge before the first race even began. Senna himself even made a rather spooky prediction about the 1994 season and all the rule changes:
“It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents, and I’ll risk saying that we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen.”
– Ayrton Senna.
During the first race of the season at Interlagos in Senna’s home country of Brazil, he managed to secure pole position and went on to lead until he was passed during a pit-stop by Michael Schumacher in the Benetton. Senna wanted to win on his home ground and he pushed hard to regain the lead. Only he pushed a little too hard, spun out on the 56th lap and stalled his car, taking himself out of the race. So, on to the second race of the season, the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida. Senna once more got his car on pole position, yet was dogged with even more bad luck during the race. He was hit from behind on the first corner by Mika Häkkinen. Senna went spinning into the gravel trap where the Ferrari driven by Nicola Larini T-boned Senna’s Williams forcing the Brazilian to retire yet again.
It was the worst start to any season in Senna’s career so far with two DNFs out of two races. Things were only going to get much, much worse from this point on too.
The San Marino Grand Prix, 1994
It was just another race weekend much like the hundreds that had occurred before it. Yet what was to unravel over the following three days of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix would go down in motor racing history as the darkest, most emotionally draining race weekend ever.
Friday’s qualifying session on the 29th of April and a fellow countryman of Senna, Rubens Barrichello suffered a terrible crash. He had hit the kerb coming into the Variante Bassa corner at around 140 mph, which launched the Jordan car he was driving into the air and it hit a tyre barrier. The car horrifically rolled several times before finally coming to a rest upside down. It really is a very nasty crash to see and serious injury (or worse) was inevitable.
Barrichello was knocked unconscious as medical teams rushed to the crash site to offer aid before he was taken to the medical centre. Jordan’s team boss, Eddie Jordan, soon arrived at the medical centre to find that Senna was already at the bedside of his recovering countryman. Senna was the first person Barrichello saw when he finally regained consciousness too. Senna refused to leave the young Barrichello’s side. Barrichello returned to the race meeting the next day with a broken nose and his arm in a plaster cast, he would not be able to continue the race weekend. Still, his injuries were a testament to not only how dangerous the sport was, but also how safe it was too. If literally flying into a barrier at 140 mph only resulted in a few broken bones, these Formula 1 cars were very safe places to be in during such a terrible accident… Or so it seemed.
Saturday’s qualifying session held on the 30th of April would bring an even bigger tragedy than Barrichello’s terrible crash. Austrian driver, Roland Ratzenberger was making his debut in F1 in 1994 driving for the Simtek team. He had damaged his front wing at the Acque Minerali chicane trying for a qualifying lap. Instead of coming into the pits to get it fixed, he chose to stay out and try for another fast lap time. As he entered the very fast Villeneuve Curva, his damaged front wing failed while driving at 190 mph and Ratzenberger struggled to control the car. He hit a concrete wall almost head-on and was fatally injured suffering a basal skull fracture. Roland Ratzenberger died aged just 33. It was the first death in Formula 1 since Senna’s ex-team-mate Elio de Angelis in 1986.
F1’s lead doctor and medical expert, Professor Sid Watkins was a very close friend of Senna. Watkins revolutionised medical treatment at F1 races and was responsible for saving the lives of many drivers over the years. The following is taken from his autobiography of a conversation that he and Senna shared after the tragic death of Roland Ratzenberger:
“Ayrton broke down and cried on my shoulder.”
“What else do you need to do? You have been world champion three times, you are obviously the quickest driver. Give it up and let’s go fishing.”
Senna replied: “Sid, there are certain things over which we have no control. I cannot quit, I have to go on.”
– Professor Sid Watkins
It was race day, 1st of May, 1994. Senna had secured pole for the start after refusing to take part in the previous day’s qualifying session following the death of Ratzenberger. It had already been an unrelenting two days of terrible luck and accidents. We all hoped the bad luck was over, fingers crossed there would be no more incidents But the worst was yet to come:
“This is the blackest day for Grand Prix racing that I can remember in the many, many years I have been covering the sport.”
– Murray Walker
It was a glorious, sunny day and one burnt into my memory for the rest of my life. Me and my brother Rob used to have a tradition where we would get together and watch the Formula 1 without fail, even if it meant staying up until dawn to watch a live race shown on the other side of the planet. We both grew up watching this sport together and we loved it with a passion. We followed Senna from his early Lotus years and all through his F1 career, little did we know that this would be the last time we would see Senna in the sport that both he and we loved. Rob went to the fridge to get a couple of cold beers for us and rushed back to his seat before the start of the race as not to miss a single second of Senna’s triumphant return to form and what we both hoped would be the race that kick-started his 1994 F1 World Championship. Even Senna himself was confident that Imola would be the start of his World Championship campaign, as he revealed in an interview with legendary commentator Murray Walker just a few hours before the race:
“Basically our championship starts here. Fourteen races, not sixteen. It’s not a comfortable position to be in, but that’s the reality. The team is conscious about the challenge we have to make to recover the ground over Benetton.”
– Ayrton Senna
A very pensive and somewhat apprehensive Senna sat in the cockpit of his Williams, reflecting on all that had happened the last two days. The car rested on the grid while the team mechanics ensured the Williams was as perfect as it could be just before the opening parade lap. Our beers were cracked open just as the cars pulled back into their respective qualifying positions ready for the start. Rob and I took a good swig of that golden brew as the red lights to signal the drivers that the start of the race was imminent. We both sat forwards in our seats, ready to watch our hero, Ayrton Senna dominate and teach the other drivers what real racing was. Murray Walker’s normal excitable voice was somewhat morose and downbeat following the events of the previous day as he introduced the live F1 action.
Our eyes were firmly fixated on Senna as he got away clean when the red lights finally change to green. But there was a problem, in the middle of the gird the Benetton of J.J. Lehto had stalled. All of the other cars accelerated from 0 – 160 mph heading towards the first corner of the race, the very fast Tamburello, unaware there was a stationary car on the grid. Pedro Lamy in the Lotus ploughed into the back of the stalled Benetton creating a scene of utter chaos and destruction. Debris from the crash showered the racetrack and some of it even cleared the safety fence put in place to protect the spectators and caused numerous injures to nine people. Thankfully, both Lehto and Lamy walked away unscathed. The terrible accidents of the Imola 94 race just refused to end.
The safety car was deployed, holding all remaining drivers at a slower driving speed. At the drivers briefing before the race, Senna expressed a major concern that the safety car did not go fast enough in order to keep tyres at the temperatures needed for race conditions and this would result in a loss of traction and grip, if only they had listened. The debris from the start crash was eventually cleared and the safety car pulled into the pit lane on lap 5, as the race got underway once more.
It was on lap 7 as he was leading the race, coming into the fastest corner of the track, Tamburello, when Senna’s car failed to turn and it went straight on. Senna managed to slow the car down from 190 mph to 131 mph, but it was too late. The Williams car skipped over the gravel trap designed the slow the cars down and careened into the concrete wall. Senna’s concern over the safety car cooling down the tyres proved to be true as his car ‘bottomed out’ when the tyre pressure dropped, which caused the car to lower and it was this that sent his car straight into a concrete wall… At least that is one theory.
Sid Watkins was one of the first to arrive on the crash scene and he recalled tending to his close friend, Senna at the track-side:
“He looked serene. I raised his eyelids and it was clear from his pupils that he had a massive brain injury. We lifted him from the cockpit and laid him on the ground. As we did, he sighed and, although I am not religious, I felt his spirit depart at that moment.”
– Professor Sid Watkins
Around ten minutes after Senna’s fatal crash, the Larrousse team mistakenly let one of their drivers, Érik Comas, out of the pits despite the circuit being closed under red flags conditions. Comas drove past the crash site and saw what had happened to Senna. He then pulled out of the race due to being too distressed and upset at what he had just witnessed. This is the very same Érik Comas whose life was saved by Senna in 1990 after a bad crash. Bitter irony?
Though Ayrton Senna was officially pronounced dead at 6:40 pm on the 1st of May, 1994 several hours after the crash, Professor Sid Watkins later confirmed that Senna died right there, track-side. As mentioned earlier, Senna had a tradition of waving the Brazilian flag on his celebration lap whenever he won a race and he would often have the flag under his racing overalls. At the hospital, it was discovered Senna had an Austrian flag tucked away in his racing overalls, obviously planning on paying tribute to Roland Ratzenberger who had died the previous day.
“If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs me my life, I hope it is in one go. I would not like to be in a wheelchair. I would not like to be in a hospital suffering from whatever injury it was. If I’m going to live, I want to live fully, very intensely, because I am an intense person. It would ruin my life if I had to live partially.”
– Ayrton Senna
I was 17-years-old then and up to that point in my life, I had not yet really experienced the death of someone I really looked up to like that. Senna’s fatal crash left long-lasting scars with me, so much so that I have only ever seen the crash once and that was when I watched the race live with my brother in 1994. For me, being a Senna fan was so much more than ‘just being a fan’. My brother Rob and myself have always been close, we share a lot of similar interests in music, films, etc. But it was our shared passion for Ayrton Senna that really was a defining and important factor in our relationship… And it still is.
I even have the iconic Senna ‘S’ tattooed on my arm (really, I do). Later, I named my firstborn child Sienna after Senna. Not just out of respect for a sportsman I never even knew or met, but also because of just how much closer following Senna brought me and my brother and the many, many happy hours of memories that linger in the back of my head whenever I see that distinctive yellow helmet. I even wanted to have our son be named Ayrt, so our kids would be called ‘Ayrt and Sienna’, but the name proved unpopular.
Many people still speculate to this day on just how Senna died with some not satisfied with the previously mentioned ‘bottoming out’ theory. Some people claim there’s no way that a driver as skilled and as experienced as Senna was would not be able to control the car better at the time. I really don’t care for all of the conspiracy theories surrounding Senna’s untimely death. Personally, I prefer to remember how he lived.
Senna was never an angel as some Senna fans will like to claim. He would bend and break rules, not as bad as Michael Schumacher but still, he knew how to make things work to his advantage. The collision with Prost in 1990 that secured Senna his second World Championship was done so on purpose, Senna himself admitted as much the year after. He infamously punched Eddie Irvine in the face after the Japanese GP in 1993. He certainly was no angel. But there is one thing he was and always will be… The Greatest.
If you’d like to learn more about Ayrton Senna, then I highly recommend the documentary film Senna from 2010. A brilliant and thought-provoking film that even non-F1/Senna fans can enjoy. Then there’s also an up and coming Senna TV mini-series inspired by the man’s life, from Netflix.
“I believe in the ability of focusing strongly in something, then you are able to extract even more out of it. It’s been like this all my life, and it’s been only a question of improving it, and learning more and more and there is almost no end. As you go through you just keep finding more and more. It’s very interesting, it’s fascinating.”
Today, the 11th of February, 2021 would’ve been Leslie Nielsen’s 95th birthday. This is an article I’ve actually been meaning to write for a few years now, but it just kept slipping down my ever growing list of an increasing backlog. Still, as a way to say happy birthday to and remember one of the all time great funny men, I thought I’d finally finish this up and get it published.
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada on the 11th of February, 1926. Leslie Nielsen’s father was reportedly an abusive man. Often beating both Nielsen’s mother and his two brothers, along with Nielsen himself. Wanting to escape his slap-happy childhood, when he turned seventeen, Leslie Nielsen the Royal Canadian Air Force, despite being legally deaf. Nielsen had to wear hearing aids since he was a young child.
“You know it’s very difficult to be an actor, and to have people depending on you to say the right line, at the right time, and to not be able to hear your cues! I can’t tell you how many times I would’ve had to have said What? if I didn’t have my hearing aids. So my hearing aids are a life saver, and they allow me to practice my craft.”
– Leslie Nielsen
While in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Nielsen trained as an aerial gunner during World War II. After the war ended he enrolled at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto to study acting. It was while studying in Canada when he received a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York. Here, Leslie Nielsen studied theatre and music before landing his first TV appearance on an episode of the anthology show Studio One in 1950.
Through the early fifties, Leslie Nielsen was cast in many small parts as handsome extra and bit part player. He also narrated a few documentaries and commercials just to bring in some much needed cash. However, he wanted more and dreamt of being a big name Hollywood leading man. In 1956, Nielsen landed a small part in his first feature film The Vagabond King. The film was a flop but the producer on the film, Nicholas Nayfack, took a shine the the young and good looking Leslie Nielsen and offered him an audition for a sci-fi film that Nayfack was working on next, Forbidden Planet. Of course Nielsen got the part and the film went on to be a hit too.
In fact, Forbidden Planet (a sort of Shakespeare’s The Tempest… In space!) has been cited as the forerunner to ground-breaking TV show, Star Trek and the birth of real sci-fi entertainment. So great the film was and more importantly, so much liked and impressive Nielsen was that he was given a contract to work at MGM. After several years of bit parts and struggling as an actor, Leslie Nielsen was making a name for himself. Through the mid-fifties, Nielsen made more films for MGM Ransom!, The Opposite Sex, and Hot Summer Night. None of which were big hits and Nielsen started to become a bit jaded with the films he was being offered and even doubting himself as an actor. He landed the lead role in the romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor from 1957 from Uniserial Pictures (where he was borrowed from his MGM contract), which did get some positive reviews and still seen today as a pretty good flick. Leslie Nielsen began to realise that perhaps it was MGM who where the problem and not him. Still, MGM had an epic of a film coming up and one that Nielsen very much wanted to be in, Ben-Hur. He auditioned for the role of Messala in the 1959 flick and didn’t get it. By now, that contract with MGM has ended, which left Nielsen free to work elsewhere… So he did.
Leslie Nielsen found himself working for Disney on the 1959 TV miniseries, The Swamp Fox. Being put off by movies the last few years and now finding TV work so much more fun, Nielsen gave up on trying to be a big Hollywood leading man and settled on a career in TV instead. He began to appear in numerous TV shows in the sixties like, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (based on the film), The Virginian, and The Wild Wild West. Over the years, Leslie Nielsen very much became a character actor on TV and kept popping up in supporting roles, never landing a lead. He was pretty much back where he started in the early fifties, small and secondary parts, no leads, only now on TV instead of film.
The thing was, Leslie Nielsen could really act, he was a fantastic serious/dramatic actor, good looking in his youth too. He just wasn’t being offered the parts he could really get his teeth into and prove just how good an actor he was. Then, he landed a role that could’ve proven to be a huge door opening for him. Leslie Nielsen secured a lead role in the 1969 TV show The Bold Ones: The Protectors. He played Deputy Police Chief Sam Danforth, a tough, no-nonsense, straight talking cop with a drive to rid his city of crime. This was gritty drama, a genre that Nielsen was really bloody great at. Sadly, the show only lasted for seven episodes and the big leading break he was striving for never came.
In the seventies, Leslie Nielsen was back playing smaller parts. Appearing in one of the greatest TV shows of all time, Columbo in 1971. Plus, he began to appear in a few movies once more too… especially the popular disaster movies of the decade like 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and City on Fire from 1979. In fact, it was the smaller roles in those disaster movies that would finally make Nielsen the household name he eventually became…
It was the late seventies, two writer brothers, David and Jerry Zucker, along with writer Jim Abrahams (collectively known as Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker… or just ZAZ), all had a zany sense of humour. The trio had a success with the hilarious The Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977, and they wanted to follow up on it with another off the wall comedy. But, they wanted to remake the little known but very serious 1957 disaster flick, Zero Hour!and turn it into a film with their unique brand of humour. That remake was 1980’sAirplane! and playing perhaps the most memorable character in the entire film was Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack.
He was hired for this offbeat comedy because he was such a great serious actor, because of those roles in the disaster flicks of the seventies. ZAZ wanted, not known, but recognisable faces in their film to help sell the fact they wanted people to think that Airplane! had the look and tone of a serious disaster flick. The jokes would do the work while the actors just acted. It was this serious take on comedy that really worked and helped to make Airplane! such a huge hit. No matter how silly the situations in the film got, no matter how stupid some of the lines were, Leslie Nielsen was dead straight in his performance. Just as a quick aside, here’s a video comparing Zero Hour! to Airplane! so you can see how much the two films are similar:
It was also that deadpan approach to humour that led to Nielsen landing a lead role in a new cop show on TV, but unlike his previous starring role in a cop show with The Bold Ones: The Protectors, which was a heavy drama, this would be a comedy. Created by ZAZ again, Police Squad! saw Leslie Nielsen play Sergeant Frank Drebin (a role created just for Nielsen), detective lieutenant of the titular Police Squad! Just like Airplane! being a silly take on the serious disaster movie genre, so to was Police Squad!, but for police TV shows. However, unlike Airplane!, Police Squad! wasn’t a big hit. In fact, only six episodes were ever filmed and of those, only four originally made it to air before the show was cancelled by the ABC network in America. Though the last two episodes were eventually aired. Nielsen just couldn’t get a break and soon found himself struggling to find a lead role. As for why Police Squad! was cancelled? I’ll let Leslie Nielsen explain himself:
“We thought it was gonna be one of the biggest hits of the season, and we realised after it had been on for four [episodes]. It was pulled off [the air] in America because the ratings were not high, they got worse and worse. It’s the kind of humour that doesn’t belong on television, on the small screen because you had to watch it. [Tony] Thomopoulos, who was the head of programming at ABC said ‘it didnlt make it because you had to watch it’. What he meant was, you had to pay attention to it.”
– Leslie Nielsen
It was true too. The trouble was that back then, people didn’t really watch TV like they do now. The TV was just something that would be on in the background while you did something else. The humour in Police Squad! relied on your eyes being transfixed because there was so much going on. Visual jokes, jokes in the background, jokes on signs, jokes any and everywhere. You eyes worked overtime watching an episode of Police Squad! because each one was so tightly packed with so many jokes and jokes within jokes that you would miss most of them if you didn’t sit and actually watch. What worked on the big screen with Airplane! with a captive audience in a cinema, just didn’t translate to the small screen with Police Squad! as it played in the background while you did the ironing, despite being just as (if not) funnier overall.
So, Nielsen was back at square one again (again), with just getting smaller roles on TV and in movies. One such role I’m saving for last. Anyway, Paramount Pictures got the VHS distribution rights to Police Squad! and released all six episodes in 1985. The tapes became a smash hit and Paramount soon realised how popular the show really was, they approached ZAZ with an offer to bring the show back… somehow. Then in 1998, we got The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, a film version of the cancelled TV show. Of course, Leslie Nielsen was back as Frank Drebin and it was also his first lead role in a movie for over thirty years too. While The Naked Gun still had that ZAZ humour and Nielsen’s brilliant deadpan delivery of the jokes, it also showcased something that neither Airplane! or Police Squad! did before it. It allowed Leslie Nielsen to show off his slapstick comedy too. The Naked Gun became a massive hit, far bigger than Airplane! in fact. At sixty-two years old and after decades of struggling, Leslie Nielsen was finally a lead a worldwide hit movie. After that, studios were commissioning parody films specifically to have Nielsen starring in them and the parody movie craze of the nineties was born.
The sequels, The Naked Gun 2 1⁄2: The Smell of Fear and Naked Gun 33 1⁄3: The Final Insult help cement Nielsen as a genuine Hollywood funny man legend. He’d always pop up on chat shows around the globe armed with his favourite joke, a simple fart machine, which he would sound off in the middle of an interview just to make the audience and himself laugh. By the time the third Naked Gun film was released, Nielsen was sixty-eight years old. An age when people retire and take it easy, but Leslie Nielsen was enjoying himself too much to retire, appearing in more films, making millions of people around the world laugh. Some of his flicks were popular, but they never got to the level of the Naked Gun trilogy. The starring roles began to dry up, but Leslie Nielsen still appeared in the parody film genre that made him famous right up to his death in 2010, aged eighty-four.
He struggled to make a name for himself for decades. He tried serious drama, which he was amazing at, but there were just too many good looking men doing the same thing around the same time, so Leslie Nielsen never really stood out. Yet, it was that seriousness of his acting that eventually led him to be loved worldwide for his comedy. All thanks to the trio of ZAZ who saw that potential in the actor when so many others were overlooking his unique talents as an actor and comedian.
Oh, and as for that earlier smaller role of Nielsen’s that I said I was saving until last? It’ from the all time classic horror anthology flick, Creepshow. Leslie Nielsen played Richard Vickers, a rich, slick and charismatic guy who discovers his wife is having an affair. He tracks down his wife’s illicit lover and well… Let’s just say that for me, this is the best Nielsen has ever been. He’s sick, pure evil and still a bad guy you can’t help but fall in love with. For someone so damn funny, he could be even more sadistic and I love it. My all time favourite Leslie Nielsen role.
There never will be another Leslie Nielsen. Happy birthday.
I’m afraid if I don’t keep moving, they’re going to catch me. I’m eighty-one years old and I want to see what’s around the corner, and I don’t see any reason in the world not to keep working. But I am starting to value my down time a great deal because I am realizing there might be other things to do that I am overlooking.