Nielsen's remains one of the less predictable careers in American film acting. Famed, for years, for humorless, stentorian roles in films like Tammy and the Bachelor, Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure, this Mountie's son from Regina, Canada, was privately known to have a keen sense of silly humor, famously unleashed onscreen in the 1980 disaster spoof Airplane!. Since then, his movie and TV work have been almost exclusively confined to broad comedy. But having just wrapped up shooting on his upcoming film 2001: A Space Travesty, the actor is taking a break from his usual lucrative absurdity to return to the theater, and specifically to the role of Darrow.
Nielsen opens a U.S. tour of Rintels' portrait of the patron saint of American defense attorneys -- famed for his eloquence in the Leopold and Loeb trial, for the Scopes "monkey trial," for the Los Angeles Times bombing trial and for never losing even one of his more than 100 clients in capital cases to the death penalty -- with two performances, this Friday and Saturday, at the Orpheum.
The richly ironic question is, after all these years of screen buffoonery, will U.S. audiences be able to take Nielsen seriously? Even during his Canadian tour, which won him raves, the Vancouver Sun felt the need to frame its praise thus: "It's no joke. . . . Nielsen shines as Darrow!"
Surely, you say, audiences here will also be able to put aside, for the evening, the image of Nielsen the clown and focus on Nielsen the dramatic actor.
No doubt we can. And don't call him Shirley
Performances of Clarence Darrow: A One-Man Play are scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday, September 10; and 8 p.m. Saturday, September 11, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams. Tickets range from $37.50 to $60. For details call 6022627272 (Phoenix Civic Plaza), 480-503-5555 (Dillard's).