Great Character: Frank Drebin (“The Naked Gun”)

January 4th, 2013 by

This month’s Great Character theme: Cops. Today: Jason Cuthbert’s guest post features Frank Drebin from the 1988 comedy The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! [written by Jerry Zucker & Jim Abrahams & David Zucker & Pat Proft].

Like The Three Stooges and Clark Griswold (Vacation movies series), Lt. Frank Drebin is an uncoordinated protagonist from the slapstick comedy tradition that may not be the brightest star in the sky, but is lovable enough that you want him to keep soaring high – even when he slips, falls and crashes on a regular basis. The late comic actor Leslie Nielson (passed away in 2010) began wearing the police badge of bumbling cop Frank Drebin on television screens first, on ABC’s short-lived police parody series Police Squad! In 1982.

Even with only six episodes, two directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins), Police Squad! managed to garner two Primetime Emmy Award nominations – Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Leslie Nielsen and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for its creators David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker, also the core screenwriters, along with Pat Proft, of Drebin’s big screen debut in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! in 1988. The Naked Gun became a trilogy, David Zucker directing the first two and Peter Segal (Anger Management, Get Smart) handling the third, and remained in the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker satire world of hidden background gags and characters that take everything literally – just like their hit comedy masterpiece Airplane.

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! plot summary from IMDB:

Incompetent cop Frank Drebin has to foil an attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II.

The funniest thing about the mistakes that Frank Drebin continuously makes while fighting crime is that he doesn’t see them as mistakes. He is “just doing his job”, but with a basic case of good intentions/bad timing.  It’s hard to dislike a character when they are as completely oblivious to their own flaws as Drebin is.

FRANK: Wilma, I promise you; whatever scum did this, not one man on this force will rest one minute until he’s behind bars. Now, let’s grab a bite to eat.

Frank’s love life is also in jeopardy, due to his skewed version of common sense.

FRANK: Jane, since I’ve met you, I’ve noticed things that I never knew were there before… birds singing, dew glistening on a newly formed leaf, stoplights.

In order for Frank Drebin to be able to take a hint, you would have to write “hint” in big bright letters, and wave it right in front of his face – screaming the word “hint” into a bullhorn – along with its definition, of course.

FRANK: I’d known her for years. We used to go to all the police functions together. Ah, how I loved her, but she had her music. I think she had her music. She’d hang out with the Chicago Male Chorus and Symphony. I don’t recall her playing an instrument or being able to carry a tune. Yet she was on the road 300 days of the year. In fact, I bought her a harp for Christmas. She asked me what it was.

But these weaknesses become the strengths in the comedic writing department. We have been shown that Drebin really can’t tell the difference between a Shakespeare-in-the-Park theater performance of Julius Caesar and “5 weirdoes dressed in togas stabbing a guy in the middle of the park in full view of 100 people.” Therefore, when Drebin is placed in similar situations, we instantly anticipate that he is going to get kicked down a notch every time he is forced to “think” his way through a new problem – leading to even more situational humor that is visually hilarious.

Drebin’s unwavering deadpan demeanor makes his unjustified confidence even funnier. The more that he tries to help; the more help will be required in the aftermath to clean up his mess.

For his accidental charm, fearless motivation, and for being the cinematic spokesman for the “ignorance is bliss” association – Frank Drebin is a hilariously GREAT CHARACTER.

To understand Frank Drebin, you need to go back to this TV cop:

Sgt. Joe Friday as played by Jack Webb. Check out the delivery of his one-liner in this episode of “Dragnet”:

That was the key to Leslie Nielsen’s performance as Frank Drebin: Play everything totally straight, no matter how stupid or inane.

What do you think of Frank Drebin as a character? What are some of your favorite lines or scenes featuring Drebin? See you in comments to discuss.

Thanks to Jason (@A2Jason) for another great analysis.

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