[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]
"Yes, I know."
Such was the dry — and daffy — humor of Police Squad! Satirical and over-the-top, but always played straight, the short-lived ABC sitcom premiered 40 years ago this month. With just six episodes, the daring 30-minute series — call it a laugh-hour — made its indelible merry mark on television history and later found new life on the big screen with The Naked Gun franchise.
At the center of it all was the stone-faced Leslie Nielsen and his delightfully deadpan performance as Detective Frank Drebin.
For most of his career, Nielsen, who died in 2010, was known as a dramatic actor, with a bounty of work, including guest roles on Route 66, Kung Fu, Barnaby Jones, and dozens of other TV shows.
He also appeared in several MGM feature films in the 1950s, such as Ransome!, The Opposite Sex, Hot Summer Night, Tammy and the Bachelor with Debbie Reynolds, and the sci-fi cult favorite, Forbidden Planet. In 1972, when a tsunami struck the ocean liner in The Poseidon Adventure, Nielsen was the captain at the helm of the capsized craft.
In some pop-culture sectors, Forbidden Planet is considered the forebear to Star Trek. Police Squad! paved its own path, albeit borrowing a page from self-aware sitcoms like Green Acres and Get Smart. With its absurdist spin on the well-trodden tropes of TV cop shows, Police Squad! was also a sly send-up of the Quinn Martin-produced school of crime dramas and station-house classics like M Squad (NBC, 1957–1960) and Felony Squad (ABC, 1966–1969).
Police Squad! was created by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. That's the same so-called ZAZ team who cooked up The Kentucky Fried Movie and launched Airplane! on the big screen as a parodic, peril-in-the-skies mash-up of the Airport franchise of the '70s and the unintentionally hilarious 1957 classic, Zero Hour!
Airplane! featured Nielsen and a plethora of other stalwart stars better known for their dramatic talents, including Robert Stack (The Untouchables, an early Quinn Martin Production on ABC, 1959–1963), Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible, CBS, 1966–1973) and Lloyd Bridges (Sea Hunt, syndication, 1958–1961).
When Stack turned down their offer to topline Police Squad!, the ZAZ trio tapped Nielsen to play Sergeant Drebin on Police Squad! Or was it, Captain Drebin? Or Lieutenant Drebin?
No one really knows because the character would introduce himself differently with each droning narration. It was just one of the show's many running gags, which occasionally expanded into running-over gags — literally. In several episodes, Drebin would topple garbage cans, bicycles, and other obstacles in his path each time he drove his car into a scene.
These and other such tongue-in-cheek flourishes played out minus a laugh track, which was by then a dated effect. In truth, ABC wanted the canned laughter, but ZAZ nixed the idea. In retrospect, however, the fabricated guffaws might have served the show's self-aware humor, in much the same way the "doorbell" and maudlin music were played during "As the Stomach Turns" on The Carol Burnett Show.
In this and many other respects, Police Squad! was resplendent with unfulfilled potential, from its mock opening credits (announcer Hank Simms — a Quinn Martin vet — intoning the incorrect episode title, along with the words, "In color," as those words flash on the screen over a glaring red cop-car light) to its closing fake freeze-frame (the actors standing, motionless with their mouths open, heads and bodies tilted backward, halting in mid-laughter).
In March of 1982, ABC aired four of the show's six episodes before pulling it from the schedule. The remaining two installments aired later that summer.
Confident in their concept despite the show's quick cancellation, the ZAZ team convinced Paramount Pictures, which had released Airplane!, to take a chance on a feature-length version. Their instincts proved correct, and when the first Naked Gun flick — full title: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! — became a box-office hit in 1988, ABC, seeking to capitalize on its success, broadcast Police Squad! in its entirety the following year.
In retrospect, Police Squad!, in its refusal to wink at the wall-to-wall absurdity, may have been, as the saying goes, too clever by half. Tony Thomopoulos, former president of ABC Entertainment, reportedly told the press that Police Squad! was canceled because "the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it."
In a 2010 interview with CBS Interactive, Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, offered this perspective: "If Police Squad! had been made 20 years later, it would have been a smash. It was before its time. In 1982 your average viewer was unable to cope with its pace, its quick-fire jokes. But these days they'd have no problems keeping up. I think we've proved that."
Without a doubt one important factor in Police Squad! proving its worth was its stellar supporting cast. Key among them were Alan North as Captain Ed Hocken and Peter Lupus (another Mission: Impossible alum) as Officer Norberg — characters played in The Naked Gun franchise by George Kennedy (who co-starred in the original Airport), and O.J. Simpson.
Police Squad! also boasted an array of A-list guest stars, even if they were bumped off in the opening credits. Such comedic cameos included Lorne Green (Bonanza), stage and screen musical star Robert Goulet, Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch), William Shatner (who appeared in Airplane II: The Sequel, 1982), and John Belushi (Saturday Night Live).
When Belushi died shortly before his episode was to air, the part was recast with William Conrad (Cannon). When ABC rebroadcast Police Squad! in the summer of 1983, the show's producers sought to include and re-edit Belushi's bit, but the footage could never be located.
Fortunately, other classic screen moments, like those with actress Kathryn Leigh Scott, have remained embedded in memory. Shakespearean-trained and, like Nielsen, known for her dramatic work (on shows like Dark Shadows, the beloved 1960s gothic horror soap), Scott delivered a deftly dizzy performance on Police Squad!'s first episode, "A Substantial Gift (The Broken Promise)."
In "Gift," Scott plays Sally Decker, a clerk with the Acme Credit Union who kills her boss (Jim Johnson) after he rejects her request for a loan to pay off her orthodontist. "It's one of the funniest things I've ever done," Scott told me. "And to be working with Leslie Nielsen, and the producers...they were just terrific — and hilarious."
In 1982, Scott had just completed a film in England and, upon her return to the States, she received the "Substantial Gift" script pages from her agent. Her audition was scheduled for the next day, but she was not informed of any other details.
"No one knew anything about it," she says. Based on the episode title, Scott assumed it was a drama. But when she read the material, she thought, "This is funny."
"I wasn't sure if I would be able to keep a straight face by saying the lines," she recalls today.
When she met with Abrahams and the Zuckers, Scott heard the usual questions at an audition:
"Is there anything we can tell you? Do you have any questions?"
With a measure of hesitancy, Scott floated her first thought from the night before: "This is funny."
At which point, she remembers, the ZAZ trio "just roared, and fell on the floor."
When he gained his composure, Abrahams continued the conversation. "May I make a suggestion?" he said. "You have a slight overbite. Why don't you read the script as if you were Gene Tierney" — the Hollywood siren of the '40s and '50s known for such noir classics as Laura and Leave Her to Heaven.
In effect, he wanted Scott to speak her lines with the straight face she initially wondered if she could muster. "Gene Tierney, for gosh sakes!" she muses today. "But that's exactly what I did. I read the part totally straight, and they just kept laughing. And before I walked out of the room, they said, 'You're hired.'"
But playing things straight was at the heart of Police Squad!'s humor. "Obviously, when you're doing comedy, there's that slightly heightened sense of reality," Scott says. Although in her case, as Sally Decker, who was decked out in a big blond wig and a padded bra, "the costume...the hair...the absurdity of it does all of the work for you."
A key element of the "Gift" script involved Sally seeking to save money to have her teeth fixed. But as Scott explains, that took some ingenuity on her part.
On the first day of shooting, she wondered if the makeup artist was going to apply some form of prosthetic to her mouth. "I should have braces," she said. "Sally needs those because that's what the entire plot is about. She's committing these murders so she could pay for her teeth."
But the makeup artist did not have a ready-made prosthetic plan in place, so Scott went to work. Taking some spare gum from her purse, she separated the silver lining from the white paper wrapper, so all that was left was a thin sheet of silver. At which point, she borrowed some dental floss from the makeup artist and, she says, "We pulled off a long string of it. And as he held it taut, I carefully wound the silver around the dental floss. I then held the silver on my front teeth, while he took tweezers and tied it in a knot behind my front teeth...which of course affected my speech. When you watch the episode, you can barely glimpse it, but you know that Sally's got it on because of the way she's talking."
In the end, Scott says, "The [ZAZ] guys thought it all was just hysterical. And I made my own braces. I was so resourceful. That's what happens when you're a Girl Scout for 12 years."
And when you're cast in a TV comedy that surely doesn't take itself seriously — but don't call it "Shirley."