Leslie Nielsen remembers Alex Stockwell
A veteran of more than 100 movies and over 1,500 television appearances, Nielsen was born in Regina, the son of an RCMP officer. He spent his earliest years living in Fort Norman near the Arctic Circle. When he was five the family moved to Edmonton where he and his brothers enrolled at McKay Avenue School.
He recalls the atmosphere inside the imposing stone building. “My brother Gordon got the strap for whistling in the hallway. One time I stopped a fight outside, and the principal, a withered hawkish man, didn't believe me. My good turn was turned into a crime. He strapped me based on his disbelief.”
Another teacher he describes as a four-foot-eleven-inch terror. “I was eight years old and spending my time dodging bullets,” he says.
These men made a haunting impression on the actor, who would hone a reputation for portraying manly authority figures. “Teachers are not supposed to be disciplinarians. They are supposed to maintain discipline.”
The observation is apt. Times have changed and teachers are no longer authoritarians. Good teachers delight in children and foster their talents. So they are not surprised to hear about the type of man who was Leslie Nielsen's remarkable teacher.
Alexander Stockwell, who taught Grade 4 at McKay Avenue School in the 1930s, was a kind, inspiring man with a twinkle in his eye.
“He genuinely liked me,” Nielsen remembers.
“I can't really say why he had such an effect on me. But I have a burning impression of him. I can see his face. He'd call on students and I'd jump up. There he was at the side of the classroom with a big smile.”
“I didn't know him outside of school but one time he was at South Side swimming pool. He said, ‘Hello Leslie, how are you?' He was aware of me and I felt proud to be around him.”
At the end of Grade 4 the Nielsen family moved to Thorhild, a village about 50 miles away. There, Nielsen was crammed into a single classroom housing Grades 5 through 8.
But Stockwell's inspiration lingered. “He must have had an influence on my school and career choices or I wouldn't have such a strong impression of him,” Nielsen remembers. “He got a kick out of me and liked my humour.” Perhaps Stockwell could foresee Nielsen's comedic talents.
Nielsen regrets that he did not stay in touch with Stockwell.
“Today, I'd look for him to tell him what a wonderful man he was. He was dear to my heart. I only had him for one year and I feel blessed by good luck. Those were austere times.”
After high school Nielsen made his way into show business in a Calgary radio station. He studied at Lorne Greene's Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto and received a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s he played dramatic roles on television and in film. Then, in 1980, his career was born again.
In the low-budget comedy Airplane! Neilsen played a deadpan doctor on a plane in jeopardy, and audiences went wild. In 1988 he created the role of Frank Drebin, a monumentally inept police lieutenant. With Drebin – the anti-hero of The Naked Gun and its sequels – Nielsen became one of the most recognized comedians of the day.
But Nielsen is no bumbling dolt.
Among the characters he has portrayed is Clarence Darrow, the American civil-rights lawyer. Nielsen appeared as Darrow in a one-man play in the US, Britain and Canada. The play chronicles some of Darrow's most famous cases, including the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), in which schoolteacher John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution – made illegal by a statute passed that year in Tennessee.
“We must all pay attention to education in this era,” Nielsen believes. Practising what he preaches, he has long supported the National Academic Games Project in the US. The games encourage children to out-think each other in mathematics, language arts and social studies. Kids construct and solve problems, playing individually and in teams.
The project is the invention of Nielsen's close friend Robert Allen, winner of several outstanding-teacher awards in California, and his brother Layman Allen, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
“Developing profound thinking and reasoning skills can be fun,” says Nielsen. “I once saw a competition of 10 inner-city schools. They were doing math for almost five hours. You should have seen the enthusiasm. Members of the winning team carried their teacher to the bus on their shoulders, chanting, ‘We are number one! We are number one!' It's vivid.”
These days Nielsen also devotes time to his second career as a loafer/golfer. “I have no goals or ambition,” he says. “I do, however, wish to work enough to maintain whatever celebrity status I have so that they will continue to invite me to golf tournaments.” To this end he has put out several silly videos and books on golf, designed to make bad golfers feel better.
In the first of these he articulates his philosophy that golf is a game that can be taught.
“Unfortunately,” he concludes, “it cannot be learned.”
Leslie Nielsen stars in the upcoming feature film, Music Within. Nielsen was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame in 2001 and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Alexander Stockwell spent 36 years as a teacher and principal in the Edmonton public school system. He passed away in 1963 at age 63.