Priscilla Presley Was the Perfect Non-Comic Actor for ‘The Naked Gun’ Movies
The guys behind Airplane! hit on an ingenious comedy formula when making their spoof of disaster movies — David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (or ZAZ, as they are affectionately known) bypassed comic stars and cast deadly serious actors to play the screwy roles. Earnest, deadpan performances were essential for laughs, and no one did it better in Airplane! than Leslie Nielsen. He was an obvious choice for detective Frank Drebin, the overly serious police officer in the Police Squad! television series. And when ZAZ decided to adapt the show into the Naked Gun series of hit films, they needed an equally non-comedic costar as Nielsen’s love interest. Enter Priscilla Presley.
Presley, whose life story gets the Sofia Coppola biopic treatment this weekend, was an unlikely choice to star in a comedy movie. Prior to the ZAZ films, she was mostly known for being married to the most famous man on the planet. Her IMDb was sparse with roles in primetime dramas The Fall Guy and Dallas — who the hell was casting her to headline a comedy? You could have said the same thing (or worse) about Leslie Nielsen only a few years earlier.
Presley told journalist Mark Greczmiel (as reported by Collider) about her audition with the ZAZ guys. “That was one of the questions — have you ever done comedy before, and I said, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘Thank you very much.’ So I walked out of there thinking that I don’t have the part.” Turns out, Presley gave the perfect answer.
And like Nielsen, Presley was funny. “I don’t know where she dug down and came up with it,” David Zucker told The Los Angeles Times. “But there are moments when Priscilla takes it those extra 10 yards across the goal line.”
Nielsen agreed although he was worried whether or not Presley had the chops: “But then when I started making grotesque faces at her, and she made faces right back at me, I knew we were home sailing.”
Still, Presley had to resist the urge to deliver a funny performance. She admits to going for laughs at first, but Zucker made sure she knew that wasn’t what he was after. “David said, ‘Priscilla, you know what? Just play it straight. Like walking into the wall happens every day to you or falling down the stairs is your routine.’” Or something as simple as practicing safe sex.
Presley admits that at first, she didn’t believe the deadpan approach would work. But then they would perform a scene and the crew would be beside themselves with laughter. Just like in Airplane!, earnest sincerity was way funnier than silly line readings.
“They had me laughing at myself,” Presley told Los Angeles Times. “I was making fun of myself. I was making fun of glamour. I was making fun of being attractive. It’s what I needed to do.”