"I used what he gave me later in life because he gave me respect."
—Actor Leslie Nielsen reflects about a teacher who made a difference
Leslie Nielsen is best known as a wacky comedian who has played leading roles in slapstick movies. But few people realize that Nielsen spent much of his youth growing up in Alberta.
What was it like growing up in the dirty thirties in Alberta? "Austere and cold, yet happy when I think of the small town I lived in," observes Nielsen. "I'm grateful that's where I spent those formative years. As corny as I thought it was then and how much I yearned to get out of it, when I look back now, I'm really glad that's where I spent my time."
The small town was Thorhild and Nielsen attended a one-room school house from Grade 5–9. A few years ago he returned to Thorhild looking for his old school. "There it was, the white clapboard school house. I went inside and the memories started to stir. I saw underneath the white clapboard logs, the original log cabin that had been covered over."
Among his most vivid memories is Grade 4 at McKay Avenue School in Edmonton. He speaks fondly of his teacher Mr. Stockwell. "I've never forgotten him. He is forever printed in my mind. I got a letter from his wife and from his son. I called them when I was in Edmonton [in 1997] doing the Darrow play [about the lawyer Clarence Darrow] to reaffirm again that what I said, I meant from the heart. I used what he gave me later in life because he gave me respect. He paid respect to me. He treated me like a regular human being. So in later life of course, that helps you. It helps you go through those lack-of-confidence periods," he says.
One the funniest moments Nielsen remembers was in Mr. Stockwell's class when Nielsen gave a speech in front of the class. He told the following story.
"I had been playing with a buddy of mine. His name was Jimmy Mayor. We were kicking a football at the garage door. He was about to kick the ball and I had a big rock. As he was running toward the ball to kick it, I gently tossed that rock. It knocked the ball away and stayed right where the ball was. He kicked the rock. I thought it was wonderful timing, beautiful precision on my part and a wonderfully funny sequence, although Jimmy didn't think it was so funny. I remember telling this to the class and I was laughing so hard that I could hardly tell anybody what it was. Finally I did get it out. I remember to this day Mr. Stockwell's face. He was just beaming, chuckling and laughing. He was laughing at my laughter. I've often thought about that time because I was so open and so very free in front of an audience. Then in later years, I became so inordinately shy that it was something I had to overcome to continue with my work as an actor. It's taken a long time."
Watching Nielsen perform in off-the-wall films, it's hard to believe that he was shy in high school. "I took drama but I was too frightened to get up in front of the class to do anything, even say hello," he says. Nielsen graduated from Victoria High School in Edmonton. When asked what he has taken away from those days in school, Nielsen chuckles and says, "I always sit down whenever I can. They really made us sit down all the time in the classroom so it's always stuck with me." When he finished school, Nielsen gradually broke free of his shyness. "I've always been looking to be wacko and dumb and stupid. Doing Airplane and Police Squad and all the Naked Gun sequences, I finally had a licence to be really dumb. My appearance seems to present me as a gentleman and as an authority figure and as somebody who knows what he's talking about. So expectations were very high."
Nielsen, who is 72, is one of three boys in the family. His brother Erik was a member of parliament for 30 years and served as deputy prime minister during the first term of the Mulroney government. His brother Gordon, who died last year, was a member of the Vancouver City police.