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The Straight and Darrow : Leslie Nielsen Puts His Goofball Image Aside as He Tours in Serious One-Man Play About Famed Lawyer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leslie Nielsen as Clarence Darrow?

Darrow was America’s most famous lawyer of the early 20th century: a brilliant and compassionate defense attorney best known for the 1925 trial in which he defended the right of John T. Scopes to teach the theory of evolution in public school.

Veteran actor Nielsen is best known in recent years as Lt. Frank Drebin, the deadpan hero of three “Naked Gun” comedies: a clueless police detective who, while trading shots with a bad guy, says, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you; don’t fire the gun while you’re talking.” Or, while a pretty woman is provocatively licking one of his fingers, says, “I’ve got nine more.”

So Nielsen, who’s starring in a touring production of “Clarence Darrow,” David W. Rintels’ critically acclaimed one-man play, knows what you’re thinking.

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“I found as much as that worried me in the beginning, it has been absolutely no concern since that time because the proof is in the pudding,” Nielsen said. “Rather than thinking there was going to be comedy and Frank Drebin stupidity, people come now to see ‘Darrow’ because the track record has been word-of-mouth and the reviews have been positive.”

Speaking from his hotel room in Manitowoc, Wis., where he was appearing before bringing the show to Cerritos this weekend, he cited a Vancouver Sun critic who wrote that it took Nielsen only two minutes on stage to dispel any notions he wouldn’t be able to shake his goofy screen persona and become Darrow.

“Darrow was a great man,” the review concluded, “and Nielsen does him justice.”

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Manitowoc is one of more than 40 cities in Nielsen’s latest tour with the play, which began in Phoenix earlier this month and ends in Anchorage in December.

The play, based on the Irving Stone biography “Clarence Darrow for the Defense,” examines not only the Scopes “monkey trial” but seven of the Ohio-born lawyer’s other famous cases.

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Among his clients: Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two teenagers who admitted kidnapping and murdering a 14-year-old boy in their attempt to commit a perfect crime; labor-leader brothers John and James McNamara, who dynamited the Los Angeles Times building in 1910; and a black doctor who killed a white man while defending his property after a mob assaulted his home in a previously all-white neighborhood.

Nielsen said Darrow, who could hold a courtroom spellbound with his brilliant, moving speeches, was known to deliver summations that could last eight to 12 hours.

“And that’s speaking extemporaneously, without notes, in prose that was so inspiring and beautiful it was impossible not to be compelled by it,” said Nielsen, 73. “I can’t read his work without choking up. What he really wanted always to do was compel others to feel what he was feeling. He believed if he could do that, he could make them understand how his clients felt. He was an extraordinarily feeling and compassionate man.”

Nielsen’s interest in Darrow dates to the late 1950s when he first read Stone’s biography.

“I was just astonished by his accomplishments and his abilities. “It’s just that he was so very much his own man. His values really had nothing to do with money. His values had to do with people and things called loyalty, friendship, humanity and kindness.

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“And he had strong views, for example, about capital punishment. He’d never hesitate to take a murder case if only to prevent the state from committing a second murder. That, of course, was at a time when anybody convicted of murder would be killed by the state. But he fought for the underdog; he fought to temper justice with mercy. He did not believe in the letter of the law.

“The phrase about Darrow was ‘I may hate the sin, but never the sinner.’ ”

Nielsen, who amassed a sizable library of Darrow biographies and Darrow’s own writings over the years, first saw the 1973 play around that time, when Henry Fonda was touring with it.

Recalled Nielsen: “I went to my attorney and said, ‘Henry will stop doing the play sooner or later, and I’d like to be first in line to pick up the cudgel after that.’ ”

Nielsen did become the second actor to do the show and toured with “Clarence Darrow” for the first time just before his career veered in an entirely new direction in 1980 with the gag-filled spoof “Airplane!” But he didn’t return to “Darrow” until he bought the rights three years ago.

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Besides touring with the play in Canada in 1996, Nielsen performed it in California before a one-week run in Boston last year, and last spring he did it for two weeks in an English-speaking theater in Vienna.

So ingrained in the public’s mind is the white-haired Nielsen’s comic movie image, it’s easy to forget that the first three decades of his five-decade acting career were devoted almost exclusively to drama.

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The Saskatchewan native and one-time Calgary disc jockey and announcer studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio in New York. He appeared in dozens of live television productions in the early ‘50s before moving in 1954 to Hollywood, where he worked steadily in television and films.

Over the years, he also managed to do a play occasionally.

But, he said, “I’ve never done one where I’ve been so totally immersed in one kind of play and one kind of part. All of a sudden I see what they mean by hard work and attention to detail.”

Just before embarking on his current “Darrow” tour, Nielsen finished filming a futuristic movie directed by Alan Goldstein. It’s set on a research center and way station for aliens on the dark side of the moon.

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Nielsen’s character?

“Richard Dix, or Marshal Dick Dix,” he said with Drebinesque gusto. “It’s another one of those derring-do law enforcers who is not quite aware he’s as dumb and stupid as he is but who continues, through incredible accident or luck, to save many a life and, in this case, the world.”

The working title is “The Big Bang No. 3: A Space Travesty.”

“Of course,” Nielsen said, “People say, ‘What happened to ‘The Big Bang’ No. 1 and 2?’ I have to tell them, ‘We didn’t like No. 1 and 2 so we went on to 3.’ ”

* Leslie Nielsen stars in “Clarence Darrow” on Friday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. 8 p.m. Also 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $35-$50. Available only at the Cerritos Center for Performing Arts ticket office or by calling (800) 300-4345 or (562) 916-8500.


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