Leslie Nielsen, baseball and the Mariners made for a comedy classic
Leslie Nielsen's death last weekend, at age 84, reawakened memories of his masterful performance, as well as the Mariners' rather incongruous appearance in the film, "The Naked Gun."
Seattle Times baseball reporter
YouTube Video | Leslie Nielsen in "The Naked Gun"
Jay Johnstone was a Seattle Mariner for one day. One at-bat, if you want to get technical. Surely, if you are of a certain age, you know where I'm going with this.
Yet that lone cinematic plate appearance — batting right-handed, no less, despite being a left-handed hitter during a 20-year major-league career — immortalized Johnstone in comedy history. Even if he did strike out while looking at three pitches.
And, I promise, I'll quit calling you Shirley — to cross-reference another classic Leslie Nielsen movie.
In the climactic baseball scene of "The Naked Gun" — for my money, the funniest part of the funniest movie ever filmed — Johnstone was the leadoff hitter for the Mariners in their completely nonsensical game with the California Angels that served as the backdrop for inspired lunacy.
If you've seen the 1988 movie, you know what happens. Nielsen, as Lt. Frank Drebin, has infiltrated the game as the plate umpire. His mission is to frisk every player to find out which one is involved in a plot to assassinate the queen of England, who is attending the game.
In the process, of course, all hilarity breaks out, from Nielsen's moon-dancing strike calls, to the players' wives spitting tobacco juice en masse, to a six-person broadcast booth (including Dr. Joyce Brothers), to a highlight video featuring a Bengal tiger at second base. And much more that defies easy description.
Nielsen's death last weekend, at age 84, reawakened memories of his masterful performance, as well as the Mariners' rather incongruous appearance in the film (more on that in a moment).
On a nostalgic mission, I reached not only Johnstone, who treasures both his celluloid and real-life interaction with Nielsen, but also umpire Joe West, whose three-week stint working on the film provided a lifetime of memories.
"All those years he was a drama queen ... he told me that if he knew it was this much fun playing comedy, he would have gotten out of drama 10 years ago," Johnstone recalled of Nielsen. "I found him a fascinating, intriguing guy — unlike the stupid person he plays in the movie."
West, who moonlights as a country and western singer, has a picture of himself with Nielsen, co-star Priscilla Presley and Hank Robinson (who plays another umpire in the movie) hanging in his house next to one of Merle Haggard.
"That's right up in the hierarchy," West laughed. "Leslie was just a good old boy. He really got a kick out of having a good time. You hate to lose him. George Jones has a song: 'Who's Going to Fill Their Shoes.' No one's going to fill his shoes."
When West showed up for the shoot at Dodger Stadium (which was passed off as Angels Stadium in the movie), he heard Nielsen practicing his warbling, bungled version of the national anthem ("Lots of bombs in the air"). He said to himself, "What have I gotten myself into?"
"I said, this is horrible. I knew it was a comedy, but that was terrible," West recalled. "I thought, no one would watch this. The way it was depicted in the film was hilarious, of course."
The inclusion of the Mariners in "The Naked Gun" is a story in itself. At the time, mind you, they were as far off the national radar as a team could be. In a group discussion on a DVD version of "The Naked Gun," producer Robert K. Weiss and director David Zucker discussed how the M's ended up being in the movie.
"I remember when we did this picture, the studio said, 'You will never get real baseball teams,' " Weiss says. " 'No one's done it.' Which is all I had to hear. We actually made a deal and we got the Angels and the Mariners. Of course, the Mariners were nothing then. They made us take the Mariners to get the Angels. We had to take the expansion team."
Asked by the moderator if they had to pay, Weiss replied, "They actually gave us, like, 200 season tickets to the Mariners' games, which was the equivalent at the time of 20 cents. Or worth 20 cents. We gave them away to charity.
"We wanted to use the Brewers. They wouldn't let us. Go figure. But we were able to use real teams. Otherwise, you have to make up fake teams and it would take a whole level of reality away, which as you know is so important to this picture."
Johnstone had actually played three seasons for Seattle — the Seattle Angels, a Class AAA team housed at Sicks Stadium — in 1966-68, while in the Angels' organization. He wound up winning two World Series rings while playing for eight different major-league teams — none of them the Mariners.
Always known as a free spirit, Johnstone didn't hesitate when Zucker called to see if he'd like to be in the movie. He wasn't the only big-leaguer — Reggie Jackson had a key role, and former Mariner Todd Cruz had a bit part as one of the ballplayers. Ernie Banks's son was the technical adviser on baseball, not that the movie is noted for its verisimilitude.
"It took six hours to film eight minutes," recalled Johnstone.
At one point, while Nielsen is patting him down between pitches, Johnstone made a quip — he can't remember what he said — that cracked up his fellow actors.
"Zucker said, 'Cut, cut, no lines!' " Johnstone recalled. "I said, 'But it's funny.' He said, 'I don't care. No lines.' " They had to re-shoot."
Johnstone's most memorable moment came when his backswing hit Nielsen's mask, sending him careening back to the screen.
"The first time," Johnstone said, "I didn't hit him hard. He said, 'No, you've got to hit me. I want it to look real.' So I cranked it up and whacked him. That's what Leslie wanted, to make it look real."
As for batting right-handed, Johnstone said it was requested to facilitate the camera angle.
"I said, 'OK, because it's the movies.' "
West, meanwhile, was actually the third choice for the movie, after veteran umpires Lee Weyer and Ed Montague. He said he negotiated a raise from $1,000 to $3,000 a week, but that with residuals still coming in, he has made in the neighborhood of $80,000 from the film over 20-plus years.
West also forged a lifetime friendship with Robinson, and got to partake in one of the movie's funniest scenes, when Nielsen gets in a jawing match with another umpire and ejects him. West's lone line is, "You can't throw an umpire out."
"I remember seeing the movie with my buddies in North Carolina when it came out," West said. "One guy, a neighbor I used to go hunting and fishing with, didn't stop laughing from the first scene until the end."
Similarly, Johnstone remembers viewing the movie for the first time in a theater, "and it was nothing but laughter."
Nielsen, baseball and the Mariners — what more can you ask from a movie?
"I've met a lot of people in life that like to have fun and do crazy things," Johnstone said, "but Leslie is at the top of the list."
Surely, that is the truth.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.