Hit Squad

Jim Colucci

Police Squad flopped 30 years ago, but its star and creators had the last laugh

In the spring of 1982, movie producers Jim Abrahams and brothers Jerry and David Zucker decided to bring their successful brand of big-screen parody to television. After the big box office of their film Airplane! two years earlier, the trio cast one of that film’s breakout stars, Leslie Nielsen, as the lead of their hotly anticipated new half-hour comedy. And sure enough, Police Squad turned out to be … a pretty resounding failure, actually. Until six years later, when it ended up spawning one of Hollywood’s most triumphant comeback stories.

SHADES OF GRAY

The three began to hone their unique style of humor by making short films in the Zucker family basement in Milwaukee. After college, they opened the comedy showroom Kentucky Fried Theater in Madison, and eventually relocated to Los Angeles. On stage, the partners combined showings of their short films with live action sketches. The gags they devised—often involving stern authority figures like politicians or newsmen, clueless to the chaos breaking out around them—would show up in their later work, including their first film, 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie.

“During the 1950s and early ’60s, every show or movie was literally and figuratively in black and white,” says Abrahams. “There were good guys and there were bad guys, with no shades of gray. In Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, families had rules and everybody obeyed. But what Dave and Jerry and I had in common was this sense that those shows didn’t really reflect real life. We realized, ‘You don’t really have to take this stuff seriously.’ ”

In their work, the three parodied the self-serious films and shows of their formative years. They acquired the rights to the 1957 suspense film Zero Hour and, by making fun of it scene by scene, turned it into Airplane!

ENTER FRANK DREBIN

For their first foray into TV, they remembered the hard-boiled 1957–60 Lee Marvin cop drama M Squad, tracked down copies of six episodes and handed them off to their Police Squad writers to spoof. As a direct nod to earlier detective programs like CBS’ Barnaby Jones, where an announcer would herald the week’s guest star, Police Squad did the same—except the latter show made sure to violently rub out said big-name guest within the opening credits. Florence Henderson, for example, died in a hail of bullets in her kitchen while frying up some Wesson chicken.

Police Squad trafficked in slapstick and silly wordplay, as it morphed Marvin’s macho Detective Frank Ballinger into Nielsen’s clumsy Detective Frank Drebin. Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker stocked the show with the sight and sound gags that have always been their hallmark: Voiceovers wouldn’t match the words on screen. And each of Police Squad’s six episodes ended with the cops all smiling in a freeze frame—in at least one instance, allowing the criminal to steal the key to his handcuffs and escape.

TV SO GOOD, YOU ACTUALLY HAVE TO WATCH IT

Police Squad’s plethora of puns and pratfalls filled every corner of the screen—and ironically may have doomed the show in the ratings. In the early ’80s, David Zucker theorizes, TVs were too small to fully convey the show’s magnificent madness. The series was canceled after its initial six-episode run; network executives surmised that Police Squad was so detailed, audiences disliked having to watch the show so closely.

As the show ended its run, “we actually had mixed emotions,” Abrahams remembers. Whereas Airplane! had been written and then refined over years, TV had a demanding weekly production schedule. “With Police Squad, we were in over our heads, and ended up accepting jokes in Weeks 5 and 6 that we wouldn’t have accepted in Week 1,” he says.

Nielsen, however, wished Drebin could stay on the beat, and continued to nudge the producers to think about bringing the concept to the big screen. Finally in 1988, the actor got his wish, as Paramount greenlit what turned out to be a high-grossing movie trilogy. “When [the retitled] Naked Gun was a hit, it was very vindicating that we could say that from our failed TV series came these hit movies,” Zucker remembers. “I can’t think of any other time that has happened, or was even attempted.”

Today, with Police Squad available on DVD from CBS’ vast library and viewable on big flat screens, audiences can fully appreciate a series that was in many ways ahead of its time. “Along with Airplane! and [their 1984 spy spoof] Top Secret!Police Squad has somehow lingered,” says Abrahams. “So I guess whatever those jokes were, they had an enduring quality. And each of the three of us feels lucky when we hear that the show stays with people.”

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