I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Leslie Neilson Was Way Ahead of His Time: Police Squad!

by Casey Dewey
Sept. 18, 2015

Fresh off the success of 1980ʼs white-hot comedy Airplane!, the team of directors/producers Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams brought their grab bag of visual puns, non-sequiters, and unabashed silliness to the small screen. Police Squad!, starring Leslie Nielsen, debuted on ABC in March 1982. This gag-asecond goof on the cop drama genre was quite possibly too smart and funny for itʼs time; it only lasted a mere six episodes.

Police Squad! couldn't have existed without Quinn Martin. Martin was the brains behind small screen knuckle-crackers The Fugitive, Streets of San Francisco, Cannon and most importantly, M Squad, starring the no-nonsense Lee Marvin. As Lt. Detective Frank Ballinger, assigned to “a special detail of the Chicago Police Department”, every week saw Marvin taking on the mean streets of 1950s crimeridden Chi-town, chasing down every lead, shaking down any cook - small fry or big time. Armed with noir cool, brassy score and every hard-boiled crime trope in the book, M Squad and the other various Quinn Martin productions (not to mention the uptight ethos of Dragnet) the hard boiled cop genre was ripe for the Zucker, Zucker, and Abrahams unmistakable brand of comedy.

Having played the laconic Dr. Barry Rummack (“Donʼt call me Shirley”) in Airplane!, Leslie Nielsen exchanged the stethoscope for a badge and a gun in Police Squad! without losing any of the deadpan. Not exactly known for his comedic chops, Nielsen had for years played dramatic characters in often lightweight features, both on the small and big screen. Here he plays Lieutenant Frank Drebin (or Sergeant Drebin, or Captain Drebin, as his rank changes every episode, and sometimes even in the breadth of one three minute conversation), the droll and bumbling lead of the series. Joining Drebin as the titular squad are his superior, the shambling Captain Ed Hocken (Alan North), the clueless lunkhead Officer Norberg (professional weightlifter Peter Lupus), and the brilliant, somewhat perverse (think the Peter Graves as the pilot in Airplane! asking young Joey inappropriate questions) resident scientist Ted Olsen (Ed Williams). Thereʼs also the gigantic officer Al (Ronald “Tiny Ron” Taylor), whoʼs so tall his head is never shown in frame, and my personal favorite, the shoe-shining police informant Johnny (William Duell). While professing to not know what youʼre talking about, for a cool 20 spot Johnny well tell you everything from where a criminal is hiding out to whether there is an afterlife or not. A reoccurring gag occurs every episode; after Drebin gets the info he needs, a random passerby (often a celebrity) will again slip Johnny some dough and get a correct answer on any given topic. Dick Clark stopping by and asking Johnny about Ska music and procuring some “secret formula youth cream” is a high-water mark. 

Every episode kicks off with a gag-laden credit sequence. Ira Newbornʼs blaring big band theme song wails while a narrator (the same authoritative announcer of the Quinn Martin produced dramas) announces the show title and exclaiming itʼs “In Color!” After introducing Drebin and Hocken in duck-and-shoot situations, Rex Hamilton is introduced as Abraham Lincoln in a sequence where not only does Lincoln avoid his assassinʼs bullets, he gets the drop on him and squeezes a few off himself. Suffice to say, Abraham Lincoln never figures into any of the episodeʼs plots. Weʼre then introduced to “tonights special guest star,” always a B-list actor (Lorne Greene, Florence Henderson, William Shatner and Robert Goulet to name a few) whose only purpose is to immediately get killed off in various ways during the same introductory sequence. A piece of trivia for you: John Belushi filmed one of these, a drowning scene, but overdosed right before it was to air. Another actor and sequence were quickly substituted.

Like a lot of police dramas at the time, the title of the nightʼs episode was always shown, but with the announcer announcing a completely different one. For instance, one episode is shown to be titled “The Butler Did It” but the voice over will establish it as “A Bird in the Hand.” Other title puns shown through out the episodes are the “Act II” title cards after the first commercial break, a random slew of titles like “Leiber”, “Ball III” and “Gesundheit”. Police Squad!ʻs most satisfactory television trope to be skewered is the ending credit sequence. Where many a serial ended with the characters giving each other a congratulatory salutation and a sideways glance before the obligatory freeze-frame, this time the camera kept rolling, the freeze-frame would be live with Drebin and Hocken standing still, still pouring an overflowing cup of coffee with complete cheesy grins, or standing still while the set falls around them.

With a juggernaut of gags, characters breaking the fourth wall, and an overall dismantling of conventional television, Police Squad! flew over the ABC brassʼs heads quicker than you can say Rex Stryker. Then ABC president Tony Thomopolous said “Police Squad! was cancelled because the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” Given the climate at the time, when Mork & Mindy and Happy Days were the kings of prime time, Police Squad! suffered from the executives expectations of the audience, even though it was proven popular by fans and industry alike. Both Leslie Nielsen and the Zucker, Zucker, Abrahams team were nominated for Emmys in 1982. Fans only had to wait a few more years before Police Squad! was spun off to the big screen in the widely popular Naked Gun film series. Reprising his role as Detective Frank Drebin, Leslie Nielsen joined up with actors Ricardo Montalban and Priscilla Presley for the first installment, with George Kennedy and a pre-tabloid fodder OJ Simpson taking over the roles of Captain Hocken and Officer Norberg (now Nordberg) respectively. Many of the showʼs jokes were recycled for the film, never losing their luster. For me, this was my introduction to the TV series, after inquiring about the subtitle of the film, From the Files of Police Squad!

Police Squad! is every bit as hilarious now as it was then, and with the advent of VCRs, DVD players, various desktop media players and now Youtube, the ability to catch those jokes you may have missed (and I guarantee you have, these missives fly so fast) is crucial. Wanna test the strength of your funny bone? Take a ride with the Police Squad!

Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.