Reggie Jackson, Queen Elizabeth, Leslie Nielsen: How ‘The Naked Gun’ filmed the best baseball scene in movie history
“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”
Dodger Stadium had seen its share of oddities, all right.
One umpire ejected two others. A tiger mauled a base runner sliding into second base. An outfielder tried to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.
Only months before Kirk Gibson’s home run sailed over the right-field wall and into Dodgers lore in the 1988 World Series, a different kind of bedlam had engulfed Dodger Stadium.
Amazingly, everything went according to script.
Dodger Stadium served as the setting for the climax of “The Naked Gun,” a movie that Sports Illustrated described as the “Citizen Kane” of slapstick. The scene featured the Angels versus the Seattle Mariners in a showdown that would decide the lead in the American League West.
Never mind that the game was played inside Dodger Stadium, with a Los Angeles police detective serving as an undercover umpire after having bungled the national anthem while posing as a renowned opera singer.
“For the ramparts we watched … ah da da da da da da da,” Leslie Nielsen, portraying Lt. Frank Drebin, crooned after having karate-chopped tenor Enrico Pallazzo into submission in order to steal his tuxedo. “And the rockets’ red glare, bunch of bombs in the air!”
The hijinks have developed more than a cult following in the 30 years since the film was released. In 2003, SI listed the scene as its favorite from a non-sports movie.
“When you talk about ‘Animal House,’ you talk about ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ and ‘The Naked Gun,’ ” said recently departed Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a catcher for the Dodgers the year the film was released, “these slapstick comedies were classics.”
The executives behind “The Naked Gun” decided to showcase baseball for the movie’s third act because of the sport’s universal appeal. Of course, that meant the same creative forces behind the “Airplane!” movies also had free rein to lampoon every aspect of a national pastime with stuffy traditions.
“I think you could take any group of baseball fans,” executive producer Jim Abrahams said, “and in 15 minutes come up with a whole list of things about baseball that we take seriously that we don’t need to take seriously and poke fun at it.”
The movie parodied scoreboard highlight videos (featuring a confrontation between a base runner and a real-life tiger), the chewing-tobacco craze (managers, players and even the players’ wives spit freely) and ball-doctoring antics (a pitcher is allowed to stay in the game after Drebin finds no murder weapon but sandpaper, Vaseline and a power sander).
The scene centers on the earnest but blundering Drebin, who finagles his way onto the field while attempting to foil the assassination of the queen. Tipped off to the scheme before the game, Drebin begins his frisking of players by inspecting leadoff hitter Jay Johnstone’s uniform with a thorough pat-down.
“A little tight in the crotch,” Drebin notes before instructing the teams to play ball.
The first pitch triggers a long, awkward pause, both the batter and catcher staring incredulously at Drebin before he offers his verdict.
“Strike?” he says hesitantly.
The crowd’s rabid response sends Drebin into a strike-calling frenzy in which he rings up Johnstone well before the third pitch crosses home plate. Drebin breaks into a celebratory moonwalk that commences a montage set to Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” which remains part of the daily soundtrack of Dodger games.
“Everything we spoof, we love,” said writer-director-producer David Zucker. “We just went after every baseball cliché.”
The irreverence carried over to the broadcasters’ booth, where the all-star lineup included Curt Gowdy, Jim Palmer, Tim McCarver, Dick Vitale, Mel Allen, Dick Enberg and, just as you might have figured, psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers. The usually verbose Vitale was among the quietest on the set.
“I was in awe next to all of these Hall of Famers,” Vitale remembered.
Movie creators initially wanted to cast Gibson and the Dodgers playing in their home stadium along to the cadence of broadcaster Vin Scully. But Zucker said executives never heard back from Gibson and the Dodgers permitted only the use of their stadium because of concerns over being associated with an on-field brawl. A Dodgers spokesperson said neither Gibson nor Scully recalled being contacted about potential involvement.
Gowdy tells listeners on the broadcast that the game is being played at the Big A — now Angel Stadium — even though casual baseball fans can tell it was shot inside Dodger Stadium. Angel Stadium is shown only momentarily, in an establishing shot featuring its exterior. Adding to the hilarity, there’s also a shot of the interior of Wrigley Field.
“That was never an intentional joke,” Graham said, “it’s just that’s the way it worked out.”
Drebin eventually discovers that Angels right fielder Reggie Jackson — playing himself — has been programmed to carry out the evil plot.
Jackson, walking robotically as a result of sensory-induced hypnosis, fetches a gun from beneath second base while repeatedly uttering, “I must kill … the queen.” Drebin stops the outfielder only after a dart shot from his cufflinks strikes a woman in the upper deck, forcing her to fall on top of Jackson.
That leads to perhaps the movie’s most iconic line, after Drebin removes his umpire’s mask to reveal the face the crowd had seen botch the national anthem before the game.
“Hey, it’s Enrico Pallazzo!” a fan yells.
The USC Trojan Marching Band makes a cameo shortly thereafter when it stomps on the dead body of evil mastermind Vincent Ludwig, who had been run over by a bus and a steamroller only moments earlier.
“Oh, Frank, that’s horrible. That’s so horrible,” Drebin’s sidekick, Det. Capt. Ed Hocken, says while starting to bawl. “My father went the same way.”
Thirty years later, the visual and verbal gags still resonate.
“Today’s player, they’ll see that on a screen and they’ll laugh,” said Tim Mead, the Angels’ vice president of communications. “It transcends generations and it’s still funny because of the game.”
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