Nielsen lauds Darrow at Law School

He may not be Clarence Darrow, but, despite what he’ll have you believe, Leslie Nielsen is no Frank Drebin either.

That became apparent during a recent question-and-answer session held with the actor at the Penn Law School. The Oct. 25 event was a day after Nielsen’s Irvine Auditorium performance of “Clarence Darrow,” a one-man show.

The session, entitled “The Law as Theater,” was moderated by Theatre Arts Lecturer Rose Malague and Law Professor Peter Huang.

Nielsen has roots in dramatic theater but is nonetheless best known for his comic acting in movies such as “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun,” as well as television shows such as “Police Squad,” where he originated the notorious Frank Drebin character. Nielsen kept the audience entertained with quips; for instance, when Malague asked, “What does it take for you to walk in the same shoes of a real historical figure?” Nielsen responded, “The most important thing you have to find out is the shoe size.”

Nielsen augmented his humorous answers with information on the work of Darrow, whom he referred to as a “champion of the legal profession,” adding, “I don’t think there is a better role model for anyone to follow than Clarence Darrow.”

Nielsen became interested in the role of Darrow after reading his rhetoric — “Impossible to read and not be moved,” Nielsen said. He often answered questions with long anecdotes about Darrow or his trials, at one point becoming so carried away in a story that he was forced to ask, “What was the question again?”

The audience, made up largely of Law School students and undergraduates, asked questions ranging from the serious to the silly. They asked which of Darrow’s trials engaged Nielsen the most and they asked how closely Nielsen’s actions mirrored those of Drebin’s — to which Nielsen replied, “I’m just as dumb and stupid as Frank Drebin is.”
Not all audience members agreed. Adam Lubow (C’03) said he might have believed it before seeing the play, but not afterwards. Nielsen seemed “very involved and … knew very much about the topics.” Micah Liben (C’03) said Nielsen was lucid and intelligent. “He came across as very knowledgeable. I really enjoyed it.”

Originally published on November 11, 1999