In Praise of Leslie Nielsen

Let me get this straight – you call him one of our finest comic screen actors?

He certainly did not start out that way. When he began his acting career in the early fifties, his rugged good looks and granite-like jaw earned him starring roles in a handful of films, including Forbidden Planet (1956). But most of the first three decades of this Canadian actor’s career was spent on television dramas.

He starred in a few TV series, including Walt Disney’s The Swamp Fox (1960-1961), The New Breed (1961-1962), The Bold Ones: The Protectors (1969-1970) and Bracken’s World (1970). But each those series ended within a couple of seasons and he moved on to new challenges (the man could not hold a job!).

Although he had a few occasional recurring roles in selected TV dramas, including Dr. Kildare, where he played Harry Kleber for nine episodes in 1965, most of his early work consisted of one shot deals – guest appearances on single series episodes. Yet a review of his resume, the TV programs in which he appeared, reads remarkably like a list of some of the most popular shows ever broadcast: Rawhide (1959) (the series that introduced us to Clint Eastwood), The Untouchables (1960), The Fugitive (1963, 1964), Daniel Boone (1964), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1965), The Wild, Wild West (1965), Bonanza (1967), It Takes a Thief (1968), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1968), Gunsmoke (1969), The Big Valley (1969), The Mod Squad (1972), M.A.S.H. (1973), The F.B.I. (1965, 1973), Barnaby Jones (1973), The Streets of San Francisco (1973, 1974), Hawaii Five-O (1968, 1969, 1974), Ironside (1974), Kojack (1974), The Rookies (1975), King Fu (1975), Cannon (1975), Columbo (1971, 1975), The Love Boat (1977, 1978, 1979) and Fantasy Island (1978, 1979, 1980), to name a few.

He was a consummate professional, never short for work. He moved from role to role and his stellar reputation consistently led to new opportunities.

We may therefore call him a popular guest star, a likeable villain or a talented character actor – but one of our finest comic screen actors?

Surely, you can’t be serious.

But serious you are. Commencing with Airplane! (1980), Leslie Nielsen began, at age fifty-four, the second stage of his career, one that saw him dive head first into slapstick with skill and aptitude that few suspected he owned. His most memorable comedic roles, Dr. Rumack in Airplane! and Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun trilogy (1988-1994) (both created by the insane Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, who never quite learned the meaning of excess or poor taste) saw him at the top of his game, displaying a mastery of deadpan humor and incomparable facial expressions that endeared him to the viewing audience. It should be noted that Nielsen originated the role of Frank Drebin in the 1982 TV series Police Squad!, which was regrettably cancelled after just six episodes (again, the man could not hold a job!).

Nielsen passed away this past weekend in Ft. Lauderdale, at the age of eighty-four, of complications from pneumonia. He leaves behind a body of work that is unparalleled in its scope and diversity.

So go ahead – call him a renaissance man, a small screen giant, or a comic genius.

Just don’t call him Shirley.

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Come Together

It’s the economy, stupid.

These words, plastered across posters and tee-shirts during the 1992 presidential campaign, helped ensure that Bush I became a one-term President and opened the door to the Clinton administration. Now, nearly two decades later, similar sentiments have helped Republicans regain control of the House and establish a balanced Congress.

Some right wing pundits have boasted that the results of this month’s elections constitute an indictment of President Obama’s economic and health care policies. But most Americans neither know nor understand those policies, nor the reasons why they have garnered opposition. They know only what they see and hear: bullet points in the form of campaign ads that can stretch, and often distort, facts.

The reality is that Americans are unhappy. They see a devalued dollar and double digit unemployment, and the adverse effect that these have on their everyday lives. While they may not understand the present administration’s efforts to ameliorate the situation, they live daily with the effects of the economic malaise and do not see things getting better. This makes them unhappy and, when people are unhappy, incumbents are voted out of office. In a two party system, that means that the other party, in this case Republicans, benefit from voters’ dissatisfaction. The results of any election are therefore rarely a direct indictment or embrace of the existing or alternative; rather, they are a reflection of the populace’s mindset insofar as everyday lives are concerned.

There is plenty of blame to be spread. Democrats contend that they inherited the present economic situation from Bush II, but that argument (excuse) is no less simplistic or incomplete than Republicans’ claims that Obama is solely responsible for what ails us.

Our problems did not materialize overnight. It took many years and many members of both parties to create the heightened animosity and mistrust that has resulted in stagnant leadership and a faltering economy. It will likewise take time and the efforts of many to right our economic ship.

We should look beyond the political when analyzing the results of our recent election. The American populace wants change, but not necessarily a shift to the right or left. Americans want to see an end to the politics of discord and an emphasis on working together to address and solve our problems. Instead of focusing on the 2012 presidential election, as many of our politicians have done (newly elected Marco Rubio has already been rumored as a possible vice-presidential candidate, even before he has been sworn in as the new Senator from the state of Florida), both parties should come together to honestly and efficiently address our economic problems. Our recent election was a call to action, not inertia.

Somehow, I am not convinced that our elected leaders get it. As Republicans and Democrats continue to take potshots at each other, the American public remains unhappy and restless. The Tea Party movement purports to offer an alternative to the status quo, but what kind of alternative are we offered when nearly every member of the movement is also a Republican?

Americans need a break from the rhetoric, finger pointing and blame shifting. We need our elected leaders to focus on what is truly important: improving the everyday lives of those who elected them.

It is the economy, stupid – but the economy that most concerns Americans is the household economy that slips further away from our daily control. Until our leaders understand this, the populace shall remain unhappy and no campaign slogans or bullet points will ameliorate our general malaise.

Hitting the Panic Button

This was not supposed to happen. When the Miami Heat made headlines this past summer by signing the three top free agents on the market, and soon after surrounded its stars with a credible supporting cast, most predicted immediate success. While there was disagreement on whether the Heat would win the NBA championship this season, the nearly universal sentiment was that the team would have the best record in the Eastern Conference and would likely face the Los Angeles Lakers for the championship. Some even predicted that the Heat would eclipse the all-time record for regular season victories set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who finished 72-10 on their way to the first of three consecutive championships.

Fourteen games into the season, the Heat face a quite different reality. Their record stands at a very ordinary 8-6, and any visions of setting all-time records have vanished. Their best shooter, Mike Miller, broke a finger during the preseason, and will not play until December. Their best rebounder, co-captain Udonis Haslem, suffered a torn foot ligament this past weekend and is likely out for the year. They have lost two close early season games to the defending Eastern Conference champions Boston Celtics, and in the past three days have lost two games to teams with a combined record of 11-15.

Some fans and media followers have already pressed the panic button. An unofficial countdown has begun on how long team president Pat Riley will wait before assuming coaching duties. Many are second-guessing the signing of forward Chris Bosh, suggesting that the team may have been better off spending its money on a point guard. They are all missing the point.

The reality is that this Heat team will ultimately be judged not by how many regular season games it wins, but by how far it advances in the playoffs. The team has noticeable weaknesses at point guard and center, but those were there before the season began, when prognosticators lost all perspective and predicted regular season greatness.

In 1994, the Houston Rockets, led by Hall-of-Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, were coming off their first NBA championship, a season in which the team won 58 regular season games. As with the Heat, many predicted that the team would challenge for all-time records during the regular season and breeze to a second championship. Instead, the team struggled early and finished the regular season third in its division with a record of 47-35. They were labeled a disappointment.

Then came the playoffs and, like the previous season, the Rockets dominated, winning 15 of 22 games on their way to their second championship. Today, no one remembers the Rockets’ disappointing regular season in 1994-95. Rather, they remember the team celebration as the final seconds of the deciding game wound down, and the hoisting of the championship trophy.

There is little doubt that the Heat will qualify for the playoffs – eight of the fifteen Eastern Conference teams will. Then the fun will begin.

Great players are defined by how they perform in the national spotlight, with championships on the line. Dwyane Wade, who has struggled in some early season games, particularly against the Boston Celtics, showed in 2006 that he thrives in the spotlight, leading the Heat to the NBA championship over the favored Dallas Mavericks. LeBron James and Chris Bosh have not yet matched Wade’s accomplishment, but they will get their chance this summer.

It does not matter where the Heat finish during the regular season. A team with this much star quality should compete on the road in the post-season, regardless of where they play. This does not mean that the Heat should be expected to win the Eastern Conference during a season in which players are learning to play together. More likely Eastern Conference champions this season are the Celtics and the Orlando Magic, teams that have been together for years and have won prior conference titles.

The Miami Heat will continue to be closely scrutinized and critiqued all season – this comes with the territory when a team assembles a cast of superstars and holds a pre-season celebration in its home arena before the first jump ball is tossed. But the only criticism that will resonate will come after the playoffs conclude and we see whether the shine on the team’s stars is real or an illusion created by the mist blown in from South Beach waters.

Start Your Engines

I have never been a fan of NASCAR. The concept of cars driving for hours in a continuous circle brings unpleasant memories of searching for a parking space in New York City. Also, I find it difficult to root in a sport where the athletes are machines wearing not shoes, but tires.

Perhaps my ambivalence towards the sport stems from growing up in New York, where racing is done by horses, not cars. While I have attended hundreds of sporting events in my lifetime, I have never had even a passing desire to drive to Daytona or Homestead, both easily accessible from my home, for a big race. Many have attempted to convince me otherwise, insisting that there is nothing like the noise and speed of a NASCAR race. But I worked on Fifth Avenue for several years and am pretty sure that the speed and noise of a NASCAR race were simulated outside my office building every day at lunchtime.

I bring this up because this weekend NASCAR comes to the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the final race of the 2010 Sprint Cup championship. For the past several days the Miami Herald has been running stories about the event, which promises to be one of the most exciting races in the history of the sport.

At stake is the legacy of Jimmie Johnson, perhaps the most successful driver in NASCAR history. Johnson, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion, trails leader Denny Hamlin by fifteen points in the Sprint Cup chase, the closest the second place driver has ever been going into the final racing weekend. Throw in the fact that the third place driver, Kevin Harvick, is only forty-six points behind the leader, well within reach, and we have what is certain to be a down-to-the-wire, nail biting finish.

Here, however, is where the sport loses me. The outcome of the Sprint Cup championship is not as simple as who wins this final race. Many factors go into determining how many points a driver attains during the course of a race – factors such as numbers of laps led, laps completed, and final placing. If I could turn on my television and root for one driver, knowing that the first to cross the finish line will win the championship, I could more easily embrace the sport. It is more likely, however, that I will not know who the champion is until the announcers tell me.

One final thing that baffles me is the concept of teams within teams. Jimmie Johnson drives for fellow driver Jeff Gordon’s racing team. Most weekends this means that Johnson and Gordon, although teammates, compete against each other on the track, each relying on his own sub-team – the pit crew that is instrumental to a driver’s success. About a week ago, Johnson decided that his pit crew was not performing as efficiently as he expected. So he replaced it with Gordon’s pit crew. This final weekend Johnson will rely on Gordon’s pit crew, while Gordon will presumably rely on Johnson’s. This is reminiscent of the Yankees’ Fritz Peterson/Mike Kekich family-swapping scandal of 1972.

Like millions of others, I will follow the results of this weekend’s race with some degree of interest. As a sports fan, I appreciate the accomplishment of competitors who put their reputations (and their lives) on the line every time they climb behind the wheels of their cars. Yet I cannot imagine a result that will stir me the way that the underdog Giants’ World Series victory did a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps if the race were conducted on the streets of New York, with drivers forced to avoid jay walkers, I would tune in enthusiastically. Barring that, I will likely wait until Sunday night’s ESPN SportsCenter to learn whether Jimmie Johnson’s legacy lives on.

Paper Trophy

If the Auburn Tigers win their final three football games of the season, they will be national champions – maybe.

The uncertainty does not stem from a flawed system that favors teams from “major” conferences, such as presently undefeated Oregon and Auburn, at the expense of “small” conference squads, such as Texas Christian University and Boise State (also undefeated, but behind Oregon and Auburn in the BCS rankings). This past January, two unbeaten “major” conference teams, Alabama and Texas, squared off for the championship while similarly unbeaten TCU and Boise State watched from the sidelines, relegated to playing each other in what was effectively a consolation game. Should Auburn continue its winning streak, it will receive the same degree of favoritism as Alabama and Texas, and “earn” a spot in the BCS championship game.

However, even if Auburn wins that game, it is not guaranteed a championship. The reason for this apparent contradiction is Auburn’s star quarterback, Cam Newton, who until a few weeks ago was the overwhelming favorite to win this year’s Heisman Trophy. Newton, who was once dismissed from the University of Florida team amidst allegations of cheating and theft, is embroiled in a controversy that threatens to swallow what has been, until now, one of the best seasons on the history of Auburn football.

After leaving Florida and enrolling in a junior college, Newton, whose talent has never been questioned, was aggressively recruited by several colleges before he landed at Auburn. A few weeks ago, rumors circulated that one of those schools, Mississippi State, had been approached by someone purportedly acting on behalf of Newton’s father, who demanded nearly $200,000 in exchange for Newton’s enrolling at the school. Newton’s father initially denied those rumors, but his more recent statements suggest there was an element of truth behind them.

Newton never signed with Mississippi State, choosing instead to play at Auburn. However, the question has been asked: if money was demanded of Mississippi State, why would Auburn be exempt from such demands; and perhaps more significantly, does the fact that Newton signed with Auburn suggest that his father’s demands were met?

The Auburn coaches and athletic department vehemently deny any wrongdoing and, truth be told, no evidence of such wrongdoing by the school has been uncovered, despite a slew of investigative reporters daily on the trail. However, misconduct by the school is not needed to jeopardize the season. Earlier this year, the University of Southern California was stripped of a national title because its star player, Reggie Bush, accepted money and other benefits from agents while he was enrolled and playing football at the school. Because his acceptance of such benefits stripped him of his amateur status under NCAA rules, USC forfeited all games in which he had participated, and consequently lost a national championship it had earned on the field.

Newton’s story is much like that of Bush. During Bush’s collegiate career, allegations abounded about cash, cars and houses provided to him and his family. Like Auburn, USC denied wrongdoing and urged reporters to focus on the team’s on-field accomplishments. USC, perhaps the most successful college team of the new millennium, won games and championships despite the off-field controversy. When the final die was cast, however, the school was stripped of one of those championships because of Bush’s improper actions.

Should Auburn win its game over state rival Alabama in two weeks and then defeat the University of South Carolina in the SEC championship game, it will undoubtedly be invited to play Oregon, or whichever “major” conference team sits atop the BCS rankings at the end of the season. Still, the dark cloud that hangs over the university and its star player raises questions about the outcome of that game.

Players from both schools will undoubtedly line up, ready to compete before a vast international television audience. No matter what happens on the field that night, however, it is likely that the final score will not be known until the NCAA completes its investigation into the allegations against Newton. Until that time, Auburn fans may celebrate the team’s on-field accomplishments knowing that, like USC, they may eventually be forced to return a championship trophy while college record books are rewritten and Newton watches from NFL sidelines.

Close Encounter

It had been a busy morning, the type measured not in minutes, but in superseding deadlines. I had been sitting in my office, working on a motion due to be filed that day, when my then partner Jeff poked his head through my door and asked if I could spend a few minutes interviewing a prospective associate candidate for the law firm. I was awaiting changes to the motion from my secretary and therefore had a few minutes to spare. I asked Jeff to bring her in.

I spent about ten minutes with the candidate, discussing her resume, the schools she had attended, the firms for whom she had worked, her likes and dislikes, the reasons for her job search. My secretary interrupted our conversation, indicating that I had a call from the chambers of the judge to whom the motion was to be delivered that day. I apologized to the candidate and asked my secretary to bring her back to Jeff. I then picked up the phone and re-diverted my attention to the motion.

At lunchtime, I had a short reprieve. While my secretary put the finishing touches on the motion, I stepped out for a few minutes for lunch with Jeff. We walked a couple of blocks to Chicken Kitchen, a local franchise that specialized in healthy meals. We stood on a short line, placed our orders, paid, and walked outside to dine at a table by the restaurant’s door.

After we sat, Jeff asked my impression of the associate candidate.

“Hard to say, “ I answered. “I didn’t spend much time with her. She didn’t strike me as an axe murderer.”

Jeff’s eyes opened wide. He seemed to be looking over my shoulder. I turned around slowly and saw the reason for his discomfort. At the table directly behind us, sitting within earshot of our conversation, sat former football superstar O.J. Simpson, he of Johnny-Cochran-“If the glove doesn’t fit you must acquit” fame.

Simpson had moved to South Florida shortly after a jury in Los Angeles acquitted him of the brutal murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman, and shortly before another jury awarded millions of dollars against him in civil damages to the Goldman family for the murder of their son. Simpson’s move to South Florida was not surprising, since Florida has long had laws favorable to judgment debtors seeking to protect their assets. What was surprising was that Simpson, whom I had repeatedly watched on television as a teen tearing through opponents’ defenses on the way to a Hall-of-Fame career, and whose criminal trial I had followed a few years earlier, now sat directly behind me while I discussed axe murderers with my partner.

If Simpson overheard any part of our conversation, he did not show it. He sat at a table with two other men eating chicken and rice and seemingly engaged in his own private chat. He never looked in our direction, nor acknowledged anything that Jeff and I had discussed.

After we finished our lunch, Jeff and I picked up our trays and deposited the trash in a receptacle by the restaurant’s door. We then headed back to the office, where my pending motion awaited.

As I walked past his table, I took a final look at Simpson. He seemed totally at ease, unconcerned by his troubled past or by the stares he was surely drawing from us and other restaurant patrons.

Years later, Simpson would be convicted in Nevada of attempting to forcefully retrieve sports memorabilia, which he claimed was his, from a broker in a hotel room on the Las Vegas strip. Prosecutors alleged that Simpson and his cohorts used guns and the threat of physical violence to force the broker to relinquish the property. The jury in that case convicted Simpson, perhaps influenced by his past and the brutal nature of his wife’s murder. Today he remains incarcerated with little prospect of release.

But on that day, Simpson sat at Chicken Kitchen, eating his meal and chatting away, without an apparent care. My last glimpse caught him leaning over his plate, plastic fork in hand, listening to one of his dining companions, and chewing his food through a crooked half smile.

Say Hey

The play was captured on black and white film. Willie Mays, then a twenty-three year old fleet-footed outfielder for the New York Giants, coming off a season in which he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, runs full speed towards the centerfield fence at the old Polo Grounds, the number twenty-four visible on his back. He never turns his head, instead looking straight up as he makes an improbable over the shoulder catch in the deepest part of the stadium, and then twirls and throws the baseball towards second base in one fluid, athletic motion.

It is often referred to as the greatest defensive play in the history of the game, made all-the-more memorable because it occurred during the 1954 World Series, a series dominated by the Giants, who swept the favored Cleveland Indians to take the championship.

At the time, with Mays, described by many as the greatest player of his generation, at the beginning of what would be a Hall of Fame career, it was assumed that the Giants would hold many championship parades through the streets of New York. Yet four years later the Giants packed their bags and moved to San Francisco, on the heels of their rival Brooklyn Dodgers, leaving behind only memories and a multitude of fans feeling betrayed and abandoned. The Giants would not win another championship for fifty-six years.

They came close several times. In 1962 a Giants team populated by such greats as Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, loaded the bases in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game against the New York Yankees in game seven of the World Series. McCovey, then at the beginning of his own Hall of Fame career, hit what he has described as the hardest ball he has ever hit. The ball, however, never lifted far from the ground and settled into the glove of Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson for the final out of the series. The Yankees repeated as World Champions, and the Giants went home in defeat.

Despite often fielding teams with exceptional players, the Giants did not return to the World Series until 1989. That year they were led by young first baseman Will Clark and powerhouse outfielder Kevin Mitchell, coming off an MVP season. The Giants faced their American League rivals Oakland Athletics, in a highly anticipated matchup of Bay Area teams. Then Mother Nature struck. The World Series was interrupted by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that killed 63 people, injured 3,727, and left thousands others homeless throughout northern California. The World Series became of little consequence, and the Giants never seemed to recover from the shock of the catastrophe, losing to the Athletics in four games.

The Giants next returned to the World Series in 2002, this time led by controversial outfielder Barry Bonds, coming off one of several MVP campaigns. Heartbreak once again awaited the team. Leading the series three games to two, and holding a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning of game six against the Anaheim Angels, the team collapsed. The Angels scored six runs in the seventh and eighth innings to take game six, 6-5, and defeated the Giants 4-1 in game seven to take the series. One again, despite fielding a superlative team, the Giants’ efforts came up short.

This year the Giants were not expected to contend. They fielded a makeshift lineup of castoffs from other teams, yet melded together to win their division on the last day of the season. The team’s lineup this post-season did not come close to rivaling those of past Giants squads. When they reached the World Series, their clean-up hitter was journeyman outfielder Cody Ross, a discard from the Florida Marlins picked up on waivers late in the season. Ross, who batted eighth at the beginning of the playoffs, became an unexpected hero in the Giants’ improbable march to the championship.

The true heroes of the Giants’ season, however, were the pitchers. It is an old adage that good pitching will beat good hitting when championships are on the line, and that proved the case again this year. Led by unconventional two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum (nicknamed “The Freak” by his teammates), the Giants defeated the Texas Rangers in five games, ending nearly six decades of futility.

Willie Mays, the “Say Hey” kid with the winning smile, who provided countless memories of athletic achievement to New York and San Francisco fans alike, is now seventy-nine years old. His catch during the 1954 World Series seems a distant memory kept alive only by the magic of film. Yet, as the Giants swarmed the field in celebration of their achievement, I could not help but wonder at the thoughts and emotion that must be going through him. Fifty-six years after Mays’ improbable catch, the Giants are champions once again – in a different city, in a very different sport played by vastly different players.