Here’s the thing about Leslie Nielsen: He is completely serious when it comes to Clarence Darrow.
That’s right, the silver-haired actor best known for puns and pratfalls in three “Naked Gun” movies, parodies such as “Spy Hard” and Disney’s “Mr. Magoo,” is playing America’s most earnest trial lawyer. In performances of the one-man show “Clarence Darrow” in Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks this weekend, audiences will get to see Nielsen’s more somber side.
“He was an unusual man who was totally incapable of not feeling the suffering or the pain that his fellow human beings felt,” said Nielsen, a self-described Darrow-phile.
Darrow, an Ohio-born lawyer, gained national recognition in 1894 when he defended Eugene V. Debs for his role in the notorious Pullman strike. A brilliant orator and advocate for the downtrodden, Darrow remains America’s best-known criminal defense attorney.
David W. Rintels’ play, based on the Irving Stone biography “Clarence Darrow for the Defense,” examines eight of Darrow’s most famous cases. Among them: the “monkey trial” of science teacher John T. Scopes, who taught evolution in a Tennessee public school; the defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who tried to commit the perfect murder in killing a 14-year-old boy; and the defense of labor leaders and brothers John and James McNamara, who dynamited the Los Angeles Times building in 1910.
In the 1970s, Henry Fonda toured with the play, which Nielsen saw. “I had my attorney riding herd,” Nielsen said. “I said, ‘When Henry stops doing it, I want to be next in line.’ ” Indeed, Nielsen felt so passionate about the play that he bought the rights to it. As a result, he can do “Darrow” whenever and wherever he pleases.
Right now, that’s in Southern California, which he says is a warmup for a run in Boston, his first U.S. engagements in about 10 years. He also toured Canada last year.
“I just want to keep the edge on the production,” he said. “I don’t want to have it lie fallow.”
Nielsen also directed the play himself, a decision that drew fire from some Canadian critics who said the actor could have used help making the transition from screen to stage.
Nielsen asks for outside opinions on staging, but said he’s comfortable with his expertise on the subject. “There’s not too many people who know more about Clarence Darrow than I do.”
“Clarence Darrow” marks a return to drama for Nielsen, though not exactly a return to the stage. A native of Saskatchewan, he got his start on live TV in 1950, then moved into films in 1954. He bounced back and forth between movies and TV, frequently playing authority figures, from the commander in “Forbidden Planet” to the captain of the ill-fated cruise ship in “The Poseidon Adventure.”
All that changed in 1980, when he was cast as the doctor in “Airplane!” He then played Lt. Frank Drebin in the short-lived TV cop-show parody “Police Squad,” a part he reprised in three hit “Naked Gun” movies. Nielsen’s next film role is in “Wrongfully Accused,” a spoof of “The Fugitive.”
Nielsen is the first to admit that some of his pre-"Airplane!” roles hold up better than others. He’s gotten a particular kick out of seeing his early TV shows on cable.
“I realize when I see them now that I was always doing comedy, as serious as I thought it was. . . . But it’s there, and it’s there to be seen, and you can’t ignore it so you better keep a sense of humor about it.”
Though he has no regrets about the comic turn his career took, Nielsen acknowledges that 18 years of spoofs have him ingrained in the minds of moviegoers as a goofball. He’s played it straight on TV once or twice, but figures he’ll never be able to do it again on the big screen.
Working on stage allows Nielsen to achieve a new relationship with viewers. Being on stage, he said, “removed me from the audience. There were no close-ups. They couldn’t take a look into my eyes and see Mr. Dumb and Stupid at work. So they would perhaps pay attention to the play itself and the words.”
Nielsen occasionally lapses into Darrow’s own words when trying to explain the famous lawyer’s enormous compassion, as if the phrases could not be better put.
“When you read his summations, which are, of course, for the court record and are verbatim, he spoke eight to 12 hours, often without notes. He would speak in brilliant rhythmic prose that was so moving. It’s impossible for me to read his words without choking up and getting tears in my eyes.”
Nielsen is the latest in a long list of actors who have taken a crack at capturing Darrow’s larger-than-life persona. Spencer Tracy played the character based on Darrow in “Inherit the Wind,” about the Scopes trial. Paul Muni played the part on Broadway. In addition, George C. Scott toured as Darrow a few years back. Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey played him on TV in 1991. And Orson Welles played a Darrow-style lawyer in “Compulsion” in 1959.
“Orson Welles was about as far out as you could get,” Nielsen said. “He wore a camel-hair coat over his shoulders and came in like a Broadway/motion-picture director/star. But that was Orson Welles. He was always so incredibly flamboyant.”
Nielsen’s take on Darrow is more down-to-earth. And at 72, Nielsen is only slightly older than Darrow was when he defended John Scopes and Leopold and Loeb.
But while those cases are the most famous, Nielsen talks with equal enthusiasm about lesser-known cases, like the racially charged defense of a black man who killed a white man while defending his property. Or a case that led to the eight-hour limit of the work day.
At the end of his life, Darrow said that he hadn’t seen much sign of progress. All the same, he had made a difference. A staunch opponent of the death penalty, he defended 104 accused murderers. Not one was executed. When Darrow died in 1938 at age 81, people streamed by his coffin for 48 hours paying their last respects.
Everything Darrow fought for is still at issue in today’s America, Nielsen said. Racial injustice still exists. Labor unions are going through tremendous turmoil. The death penalty debate rages on.
But that means that Darrow’s words maintain their power and importance. Nielsen recites Darrow’s argument against the death penalty for Leopold and Loeb: “I’m pleading for a time when cruelty and hatred no longer control the hearts of men, and when we can learn through reason and judgment and understanding that all of life is worth saving and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”
“Those are simple words,” the actor said, “but beautifully put together.”
Leslie Nielsen as “Clarence Darrow,” Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. $30-$37.50. (805) 963-0761. Sunday, 7 p.m., at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. $15-$40. (805) 449-2787.