By Edward Copeland
No, Rex Hamilton isn't really 30 years old, but today marks the pearl anniversary of his most famous performance. Sure, many fine actors have taken a shot at playing our 16th president — Ralph Ince, Benjamin Chapin and Francis Ford practically made entire careers out of playing Honest Abe in film after film after film during the silent era. Among the better-known names to don the stovepipe hat on the big screen and TV include Walter Huston, John Carradine, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, Hal Holbrook, Gregory Peck, Jason Robards and Sam Waterston. Many of those names would return to the role again and again — and we still haven't even seen Daniel Day-Lewis' take in Steven Spielberg's upcoming film. What none of these greats had that made Hamilton's portrait of Lincoln so much richer than any Lincoln before or since was his supporting cast: Ed Williams as Ted Olson; the great, recently passed William Duell as Johnny; Mission: Impossible veteran Peter Lupus as Officer Norberg; Alan North as Capt. Ed Hocken and, most importantly, Leslie Nielsen as Sgt. Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad! — a special division of the police force.
The writing-directing team of brothers David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams couldn't have been hotter following the surprise hit of their no-holds-barred comedy Airplane! Made for a mere $3.5 million, it tallied a domestic gross of $83,453,539 and became the fourth-biggest moneymaker of 1980. Paramount Pictures, headed then by Michael Eisner, was eager to work with the boys again. ZAZ (shorthand for the trio) had an idea to make a parody of old TV police dramas, but Paramount had offered them such a small window they couldn't figure out a way to turn the idea into a 90-minute script. Someone suggested that if they were spoofing a type of television show, why not make a television show? The idea appealed to them immediately since it meant having to produce a shorter script. According to commentaries on the DVD on two of the episodes by ZAZ and producer Robert Weiss (whose voices all sound terribly alike and hard to distinguish from each other), they sold the Police Squad! idea to ABC based on the opening credits sequence alone. As Airplane! took its premise from the 1957 film Zero Hour! (so much so that the rights to that film had to be acquired), Police Squad! was loosely based on the police drama M Squad that ran from 1957-1960 and starred Lee Marvin. Below are two YouTube clips. First, watch the memorable opening to Police Squad!, and then below it, the credits to M Squad, and see how closely ZAZ aped it, right down to the music.
The opening credits alone leave much to discuss. First, anyone old enough to remember series from the 1960s and 1970s such as Barnaby Jones, Cannon, The Fugitive and The Streets of San Francisco recalls the announcer who would proclaim the series "A Quinn Martin Production" as well as informing the viewer the title of the night's episode. In yet another instance of inaccuracy and inconsistency found on the Incompetent Movie Database, the entry for Police Squad! claims the narrator was Marvin Miller. However, the Quinn Martin announcer was Hank Simms, who IMDb also identifies as the narrator on Police Squad!, a fact verified by multiple sources across the Internet. You don't find Miller's name associated with Police Squad! anywhere else. The other distinctions that need to be pointed out about the credits is that when Simms announces the title, as in the premiere when he says, "Tonight's episode: The Broken Promise," on screen it would read, "tonight's episode: A SUBSTANTIAL GIFT." All six episodes had dual titles like that. Then there were the special guest stars. In the clip, from the first episode, you saw it was Lorne Greene who rolled out of a car, a knife in his chest. It's never mentioned again. That happened each week with the special guest stars who always would be killed off and have nothing to do with the rest of that episode's story. In the second episode, they dropped a safe on Georg Stanford Brown, who made his name as an actor on The Rookies and went on to direct, including the third episode of Police Squad! In the third episode, Robert Goulet, the eventual villain in The Naked Gun 2½, bought it in front of a firing squad. The fourth special guest star honors went to William Shatner who dines with a beautiful blonde when a barrage of gunfire opens up on him. Shatner ducks, gets back up and fires back. He then smiles at his date and sips his wine and starts grabbing his throat. He points at her before keeling over. The fifth guest star death had Florence Henderson spoofing her Wesson Oil "Wessonality" commercials of the time. She's on a kitchen set holding a plate of fried chicken singing "Put on a Happy Face" when a hail of gunfire mows her down and she lets out a high note. We see her foot kicking up above the kitchen counter before it ends. The final celebrity death went to none other than an actual Quinn Martin production — William Conrad, Frank Cannon himself, doing a virtual shot-by-shot recreation of the Lorne Greene scene. The public has never seen the most infamous celebrity death scene and no one knows if it has been lost or purposely destroyed. ZAZ met with John Belushi, who jokingly suggested they film him lying dead with a needle in his arm. What they did film was him having rocks attached to his feet and then sinking below the water, bubbles coming out of his mouth and a fish swimming by. The eerie part is that during the filming, something went wrong with the air, and when they pulled him out of the water, he started choking. Once he was OK, everyone was joking about mock obits saying, "Belushi was best known for his work on Saturday Night Live…" Two weeks later, Belushi did die of an overdose, so they didn't air his cameo. They thought about putting it on the DVD, but the footage couldn't be found. Of course, Greene, Goulet and Conrad all have passed on now. On the DVD, it includes a two-page memo of proposed celebrity death ideas they had (if the show had gone on) that included a shark attack, getting on the Hindenburg and signing a contract with ABC. The final credit detail worth noting is that, according to the commentary, ABC was uncomfortable with a show that aired at 7 p.m. in some time zones having a man run through the squad room on fire. ZAZ ignored them, but ABC kept complaining, and after three episodes had aired with that footage, ABC made them remove it, which was dumb considering the show was pulled after the fourth episode. Apparently for the DVD, they just used the same credits with the burning man for all six episodes.
Yes, as beloved as many hold Police Squad! and Frank Drebin now, and even though less than two years earlier the comedy style employed by Abrahams and the Zucker brothers — namely having every kind of comedy running simultaneously as a nonstop bombardment of visual gags, puns, wordplay, very literal language, slapstick and more — reaped huge rewards in Airplane!, when ZAZ took that technique to TV, Police Squad! flopped badly. ABC didn't help the matter with where they placed Police Squad! on their schedule: the first show on Thursday nights opposite Magnum, P.I. on CBS and Fame on NBC (Yes Virginia, there once were only three commercial networks), filling in for Mork & Mindy. I'm uncertain what aired there for a couple weeks following its four-episode run, but then another short-lived (and truly bizarre) show, No Soap Radio, occupied the slot until Mork returned in May. While their madness appeared to be a new style of humor, on the commentaries the creators freely credit the influences of the Marx Brothers, Ernie Kovacs and MAD magazine. The trio had the right man for their star in Leslie Nielsen. In an interview on the DVD, he talked about how when he was making Airplane!, he noticed the writing-directing team watching him very closely, especially during the scene where he's trying to lift the spirits of Ted Stryker (Robert Hays) by telling him about George Zipp ("I don't know where I'll be then — but it won't smell too good, that's for sure"). "I thought, 'You know, if they watch too much, they're gonna find out I'm a fraud.' But it never turned out that way because they were watching me because they had detected in me the same wavelength in humor that they had." Indeed, aside from a few exceptions such as an early, hilarious episode of M*A*S*H, Airplane! unleashed the comic actor in Nielsen that always existed and Police Squad! sealed it. Rewatching the six episodes, while each episode had its share of funny bits, the premiere episode, the only episode actually written and directed by ZAZ, is a gem from beginning to end. It opens at ACME Finance Credit Union where Sally Decker (Kathryn Leigh Scott) argues with the teller Jim Johnson (Terry Wills) about skimming more money for her because she owes money to her dentist, but Jim won't steal anymore. Then poor Ralph Twice (Russell Shannon) comes in to cash his last paycheck after being laid off from his job at the tire factory, giving Sally an idea as she takes two guns from her desk. Viewers who didn't already realize this wasn't your average TV comedy started to realize it as they watched Sally prepare but still heard Jim ask Ralph the usual check-cashing questions: form of ID, two major credit cards, thumbprint. Then it gets odd as Jim asks Ralph to look into a camera, to turn his head and cough and, finally, to spread his toes. Sally finishes loading her guns and she shoots Ralph with one of them and he dies in horribly fake slow-motion before she shoots Jim with the other, though he's conscientious enough to finish his paperwork before falling dead. Sally makes it look like Ralph shot Jim in an attempted robbery, and then she shot him. This leads to Nielsen's introduction as Drebin as he's driving his car. "My name is Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad, a special detail of the police department. There'd been a recent wave of gorgeous fashion models found naked and unconscious in laundromats on the west side. Unfortunately, I was assigned to investigate holdups at neighborhood credit unions," he says in voiceover. When Drebin pulls up to the crime scene, his car crashes into a garbage can. They didn't end up getting to do it through all six episodes, but in each subsequent episode they would add a trash can for Drebin's car to strike, but for whatever reason the gag only got up to four cans in the fourth episode. The visual gags begin nonstop when he arrives and his boss, Capt. Ed Hocken (Alan North), awaits. One of the corpses is being brought out of the credit union on an insanely long gurney. As they go inside, they walk past the chalk outline of Ralph's body where there also is an Egyptian hieroglyphic on the floor. Someone takes a photo of a man posing on a bench with Ralph's corpse as Drebin and Hocken go to interview Sally, where Frank introduces himself with his third rank, this time captain. What follows is another great ZAZ variation on the classic Abbott & Costello "Who's on First?" routine, which they used in Airplane! among the pilot, co-pilot and navigator. It gives a great example of the absolute straight-faced style of Nielsen and North.
Nielsen and this episode's writing earned Police Squad!'s only Emmy nominations. Nielsen was brilliant, playing Drebin more deadpan than he eventually would in the movies. In an interesting comparison to their inspiration, click here to watch a clip of Lee Marvin in an episode of M Squad alongside a young Leonard Nimoy. In his interview, Nielsen says he broached the idea of a movie when the show died so quickly, but ZAZ still couldn't imagine stretching it out for 90 minutes. At one point, there was talk of trying to edit the six episodes together into a feature. In fact, according to the ZAZ and Weiss commentary, that's what prompted the freeze frames at the end of each episode. It wasn't just to spoof the old TV shows that would do that, but to use them as planned transitions for a feature. Surely, they can't be serious. That would mean the Zuckers, Abrahams and Weiss would have had to know before the episodes aired that the series would flame out in the ratings so spectacularly. Nielsen summed up fairly well why the series failed. "(Tony) Thomopolous, who was the head of ABC at that time, said the series didn't work because you had to watch it. Well, it sounds funny and it sounds dumb, but it was true. You had to pay attention. You couldn't look away," Nielsen said. "You had to watch to make sure you caught the humor or where it was coming from. People don't really watch TV…That's why you can have a laugh track. You can read a book, then look up and ask, 'Oh, what are they laughing at? Oh yeah, that's funny.' Then you go back to reading or do anything you want, but you don't really watch TV." ZAZ and Weiss said that ABC tried to get them to use a laugh track, but, by contract, the final decision on that matter rested with them. An episode actually was tested with a laugh track and without one, but the results were negligible so they got to go without one. As one of the Zuckers or Weiss or Abrahams asked, "How do you put a laugh track on a sight gag?" Remember, Drebin and Hocken had told Sally Decker that she needed to go down to the station and make a "formal statement." Several minutes passed between that direction and the payoff. Nielsen also put some of the blame on the size of TV screens at the time, which made some of the sight gags too small to catch whereas in Airplane! they were huge and hard to miss. Man cannot live on sight gags alone and that first episode contained what I think was Nielsen's greatest Frank Drebin moment as he and Hocken go interview Ralph Twice's widow (Barbara Tarbuck) in the Twices' apartment in Little Italy. Something Mrs. Twice says gets Frank a little distracted and nostalgic.
In "A Substantial Gift"/"The Broken Promise," we meet two of the series' priceless recurring characters. First, we meet Mr. Ted Olson (Ed Williams), sort of a forerunner of all those forensic specialists on the various CSI shows, only crossed with Mr. Wizard and perhaps someone who belongs on a neighborhood watch list. As Peter Graves' Capt. Clarence Oveur liked to ask young Joey uncomfortable questions such as, "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?" in Airplane!, each week when Frank goes to Olson's lab, he's always visiting with a child (of either sex) trying to explain different scientific things that inevitably draw comparisons to their mothers getting out of showers or something along those lines. Each week, he leaves them with a hysterically odd line. For those six brief weeks, we hear Olson make these promises or requests to various kids:
What might be the biggest gag concerning Williams' great performance as Ted Olson is that it was his first acting role. Prior to auditioning for Police Squad! and winning the part, Williams had retired from a career actually teaching science. He's acted steadily in small roles ever since. Every visit to his lab, even in the lesser of the six episodes, usually proved worth it. In the perfection of the premiere, Olson discovers problems with Sally's story because of the depth and trajectory the bullets would have had to take to make her story true. He demonstrates this for Frank with a state-of-the-art ballistics test where he fires each weapon into videotapes of Barbara Walters interviews. His first firing goes all the way to her interview with Paul Newman where Walters "asks him if he's afraid to love." The bullet from the second gun goes through the entire row of tapes clear through "where she asks Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she would be." For a first-time actor, one thing that sets Ed Williams apart is that when Police Squad! had its resurrection in the form of The Naked Gun movies, he was the only actor other than Nielsen to reprise his role. The Zuckers, Abraham and Weiss regret on the commentary not being able to bring Alan North back as Hocken, calling him "very good." The studio insisted on a better-known actor so George Kennedy got the role in the films and as (I think it was David Zucker) said, "We folded like a cheap suit."
Another recurring joke that Police Squad! spoofed from the Quinn Martin shows were mid-episode title cards that marked the start of an episode's second act. With that in mind, I will end the first half of the tribute here with my favorite second act joke. You can click here to go to Part II to read about the other recurring characters, the remainder of "A Substantial Gift/The Broken Promise," some of the best bits of the other episodes, other background tidbits and the lasting influence of Police Squad!