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Naked Truth Behind 'Naked Gun' : Direct From the Files of the Play Squad

December 02, 1988|NINA J. EASTON | Times Staff Writer

Producer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker--"ZAZ" to their closest friends--wrote the hit film "Airplane!"

They created the TV series and cult video favorite "Police Squad!"

They made the summer box-office disappointment of 1984: "Top Secret!" Now comes "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!"

What--beyond a passion for bad puns and exclamation marks--is the formula behind this threesome's success??!! (Except for "Top Secret!," which didn't do so well.)

It was time to investigate--even if it meant exchanging free "Naked Gun" publicity for some insights into their creative secrets.

Abrahams and the Zucker brothers work out of a sixth-floor office in West Los Angeles, behind a door marked "Millard E. Flausner, D.D.S." How-to dental flossing charts fill the walls of the waiting room. A visitor can even study--in detail--the progression of periodontal disease, from gingivitis to advanced decay.

"I'm surprised they didn't make me wear a hygienist's uniform today," says receptionist Leslie Maier. "They often do.

"I don't mind. Really."

Down the hall, to the right of Maier's desk, is the conference room where it all happens. To the left, is the '50s-style kitchenette, complete with basketball hoop, string and the telephone prop from "Top Secret!" (which didn't do very well at the box office).

In the conference room, there's a bulletin board plastered with 5-by-7 index cards which hold their top secret plot lines and gags. In the corner sits a TV and VCR; the ZAZ team spends a lot of time in front of the tube, mining old movies and TV shows for material.

David, the elder Zucker brother and the solo director of "Naked Gun," is at the head of a large oval conference table. On his left is his brother Jerry, who has the look of someone who cut short a promising career as a stand-up comic. On his right is Abrahams, the eldest of the three and a friend of the Zuckers since childhood. All three have just returned from touring college campuses to promote their new film.

Jerry tackles the first question: How did ZAZ settle on the title, "The Naked Gun"?

Jerry: I got asked that a lot of college campuses. I would just apologize profusely.

David: "Police Squad" was the original title. But Paramount was leery about having it confused with the "Police Academy" series. They didn't want to confuse anyone who wanted to see Steve Guttenberg for a sixth time. So they gave us a list of 20 other titles. We picked "Naked Gun" because it promised so much more than it could ever possibly deliver.

Jerry: We wanted to call it "Ronald Zhivago," but we didn't want it to get confused with "Doctor Zhivago." Then there was "BAM BAM BAM!". But David tested it out the way he does with all titles: He went to cocktail parties and said, "Oh yes, I just directed 'BAM BAM BAM!' " It just didn't cut it.

The decision to cast Leslie Nielsen as the star, Lt. Frank Drebin, was an obvious one: Nielson had created the role of Drebin in the TV series "Police Squad!" Likewise, the casting of Charlotte Zucker as Ricardo Montalban's secretary was understandable: She is the Zucker brothers' mother.

But how did they finally settle on Priscilla Presley as Nielsen's co-star?

Jerry: "We didn't want anyone that had done comedy before . . . We screened some episodes of "Dallas" and she seemed just perfect for it. Then we met her and realized she was also a really sweet person."

Jim: "And she was great--except for the day that Elvis showed up on the set."

Some of the material in "Naked Gun" is original. But mostly the ZAZ trio stole--from old movies, TV series, even their own show, "Police Squad!" Among the films they admitted pilfering from were "Dirty Harry," "Telefon," "Farewell, My Lovely," "Day of the Jackal"--"and some movies that are coming out next year," adds Jerry.

For example, in "Farewell, My Lovely," Charlotte Rampling glides sexily down the stairs under the unwavering stare of Robert Mitchum. Presley does the same scene, but trips.

"Day of the Jackal" gave them the idea for a plot line in which the Queen of England is the target of an assassin.

Jim: In that film there is an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, so we thought it would be a fun thing to have.

David: The queen is someone people know and care about.

Jim: And Charles de Gaulle is already dead.

Jerry: We didn't want to be redundant.

Nearly a dozen world leaders appear in "Naked Gun." Was ZAZ trying for some sort of broad sociopolitical statement?

Jim: I think what we were after was: "Just Say No."

Older by a couple years than either Zucker, Abrahams already had a successful career as a private investigator in Milwaukee before he gave up his company car--a green Ford Galaxy--to follow the Zucker brothers to L.A. The Zuckers still have a photo of Abrahams sitting, dejected, on a Pico Boulevard curb in front of the condemned building--once a drug rehabilitation center--they had leased for their "Kentucky Fried Theater" show.

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