Is the World Ready for a new Detective Frank Drebin?
Ron Seifried | On 10, Jan 2014
Lost in the sequel and reboot news closing out 2013 was the announcement that “Reno911!” creators Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have been commissioned to write the screenplay to the 4th Naked Gun film with Ed Helms taking on the iconic role of Detective Frank Drebin, memorably originated by Leslie Nielsen.
The comedy franchise dates back to 1982 with the initial 6 episode run on ABC-TV of Police Squad! starring the straight-laced Nielsen as the bumbling detective. The series and characters were created by the team who redefined spoof comedy in 1980 with Airplane! Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker found a small theater, The Kentucky Fried Theater in 1971, and eventually co-wrote a film in 1977, “The Kentucky Fried Movie“, directed by John Landis. Based on the critical and commercial success of its follow-up, “Airplane!”, the comedy trio got a production deal with ABC and produced 6 episodes before prematurely cancellation. The reason for the shows demise, according to then ABC-Entertainment President Tony Thomopoulos was “Police Squad was canceled because the viewer had to watch in order to appreciate it.” Odd statement for the shows cancellation after the 4th episode (the later 2 aired during the summer). TV Guide called the explanation “the most stupid reason a network ever gave for ending a series.”
After years of cult status and repeat viewings by loyal fans, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker returned to the Police Squad! universe in 1988 with the first of three successful films, “The Naked Gun! From the Files of Police Squad”, all starring Leslie Nielsen. With the death of Leslie Nielsen in 2010 at the age of 84, one of the most iconic comedic characters of the last 30 years went off into the sunset, never to be portrayed again in our lifetime. Not in the age of the franchise feeding frenzy of Hollywood executives. Paramount Pictures, the owners of the franchise, have a different idea in mind. The genius executives think now is the time for a reboot.
For several years, Paramount has tried to make a fourth Naked Gun film as a straight-to-video release without Leslie Nielsen. Due to budgeting, this project has never taken off beyond the development stage, until last month’s announcement for a Naked Gun reboot with Helms as Frank Drebin.
Ed Helms is best known as a correspondent of The Daily Show, Andy Bernard on the sitcom The Office, and co-starring in “The Hangover” trilogy of feature films. He was most recently attached to the spinoff of National Lampoon’s Vacation series, playing Rusty Griswald, son of Chevy Chase’s character that changed hands throughout that series. Rest easy, the Vacation spinoff is in indefinite hold.
Unlike the reboots of “Get Smart” and “The Pink Panther”, this is Hollywood’s first attempt to reimagine a comedy TV/Film franchise originating from the 1980’s and it is disconcerting. Growing up as a big fan of both the “Get Smart” TV series with Don Adams and “The Pink Panther” film franchise with Peter Sellars , I had a hard time accepting Steve Carell as the new Maxwell Smart and Steve Martin as the new Inspector Jacques Clouseau, and I believe the same will happen if Ed Helms ends up the new Detective Frank Drebin.
This is not a commentary on the talents of Carell, Martin and Helms. These three are the comedy gold standard today, and continue to make us laugh. Steve Martin is a legend and I am still amazed he tackled the role brilliantly portrayed by Sellars. I wore out Steve Martins comedy albums, digested his writings and watched all his films and TV appearances over the years. At the same time, I was fascinated with Inspector Clouseau and his well timed physical comedy and thick French accent. But seeing the two elements morph into one was almost unacceptable. In fact, I have never seen Steve Martin’s two Pink Panther films and may never.
Don Adams simply was and always will be Maxwell Smart. His creation of the shoe-phone talking spy transformed Buck Henry & Mel Brooks creation into an iconic comedic figure of the 1960’s that lasted for years in reruns. Although Steve Carell delivered decent performance, it was distracting to accept him as Maxwell Smart.
It is easy to dismiss the recent run of comedy reboots as introducing the old characters to a new audience. Scanning cable channels today, we rarely land on a “Get Smart” episode or classic Pink Panther films, maybe enough of a reason for their resurrections. On the other hand, “Naked Gun” still regularly pops up on the cable guide from time to time. This leads to the question as why Paramount deems it necessary to introduce a “new” Frank Drebin to contemporary audiences already familiar with Nielsen’s portrayal.
On paper, each of the actors is the perfect contemporary representations of their comedic characters. But what is on paper does not always translate well to film. There are some things that don’t lend themselves to remakes. Taking over the roles originated by performers closely identified with their legendary creations, is a misguided precedent. It is too soon to recreate Frank Drebin, no matter how talented and capable Ed Helms is.
Another important factor is that Ed Helms is first a comedian, unlike Leslie Nielsen, who was a dramatic actor for year before being introduced into the world of “Airplane!” and “Naked Gun.” Nielsen created a straight man in a slapstick world, giving the comedy spoofs the additional credibility it needed to succeed. His portrayal of Frank Drebin was a parody of the guest roles he himself played over the years leading up to “Naked Gun.”
There is also no involvement from Zucker- Abrahams -Zucker, the creators of this literal take on spoofs over 30 years ago. Jerry Zucker has moved on from slapstick 20 years ago with the third “Naked Gun” picture, but his brother David and Jim Abrahams have been involved in the “Scary Movie” franchise of horror spoofs in recent years, so it is feasible part of the original team can be involved. Instead, the writing team of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant are on board. Best known for the Comedy Central series “Reno911!” and the first two “Night at the Museum” films, they certainly have big shoes to fill.
This is another bad idea to resurrect a franchise that was successful not only to the brilliant scripts, but the memorable performance Leslie Nielsen gave. “Naked Gun” was great because of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker and Nielsen, and that perfect mix of talent does not repeat itself.