“Rendezvous At Big Gulch (Terror In The Neighborhood)” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 7/1/1982)
By the time the late Leslie Nielsen told his Airplane! co-star Robert Hays not to call him “Shirley,” the Canadian-born actor was a three-decade veteran of stage, radio, film, and television. As Nielsen describes in an interview on the Police Squad! DVD, his partnership with ZAZ worked so well because the four collaborators operated on the same comic wavelength; this was something David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker detected during the production of Airplane!—though, to Nielsen, the additional attention he received from his writer-directors initially came off as a nerve-rattling scrutiny. “I thought, you know, if they watch too much, they’re gonna find out I’m a fraud.” The interview segues to the next topic before Nielsen can dig any deeper into this bit of self-deprecation, but it implies that the future Police Squad! star applied a certain pragmatism to his career circa 1979. Airplane! was just another job for a working actor who’d been through the revolving doors of live television anthologies and ’70s cop dramas, only occasionally finding places where his steely resolve and booming diction translated to more than a one-off role.
Police Squad! episodes like “Rendezvous At Big Gulch (Terror In The Neighborhood)” suggest Nielsen was applying those talents in the wrong places all along. Viewed in tandem with that special-feature interview, the episode also suggests that the actor recognized the deadpan humor of the second-string heavies and commanding officers he’d previously played well before he accepted Frank Drebin’s gun and badge. When Nielsen digs into a Police Squad! gem like “I’m the locksmith. And, I’m a locksmith,” he’s demonstrating more than a comic actor’s commitment to a laugh—he’s investing years of reciting unintentionally funny words with the same levels of solemnity. There’s a lot of television and film history packed into Police Squad!’s six episodes, stemming not only from all the pop culture ZAZ soaked up in the Milwaukee suburbs, but also from the years and years of TV and movie productions in which Nielsen actively participated.
Having previously piloted rocket ships to the stars and helmed luxury ocean liners, Nielsen ably dives in to Drebin’s latest undercover assignment: Posing as a small-business owner in order to break up a shakedown operation represented by thugs Leo and Rocky (Robert Costanzo and John Ashton, respectively, the latter of whom would learn a decidedly catchier definition of “Shakedown” thanks to Bob Seger’s contribution to the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack). In true Police Squad! fashion, it’s not the “what” or “why” of Leo and Rocky’s “protection” racket that’s played for laughs, but the “how,” as the two character actors play the “It’d be a shame if anything were to happen… ” angle as they would on any other cop shop—before spraying A.N. Abandoned Locksmith Shop with a ludicrously wide spray of machine-gun ammo and a single rock. The exaggerations occur around the edges of the story, which comes complete with its own cat-cradling mastermind and a chance for Drebin to play Robin Hood to a terrorized neighborhood. The tactics employed by the wonderfully, one-dimensionally evil Dutch Gunderson and his goons give Nielsen the chance to elevate one of the show’s stupidest (though gloriously so) gags with his gravely serious act: Shooing away a farmhand who’s mistakenly brought his bull to A.N. Abandoned’s, due to an assumption based on the busted window.
But while Frank is fully invested in the replication of keys and the delivery of deadbolts (though nowhere near as much as Norberg, who takes to the assignment with a palpable glee), his police work nearly suffers due to a recurrent blind spot. When Dutch’s femme fatale drops by to order 50 duplicates of her apartment key (one for Frank, 49 for the Chicago Bears), all manner of innuendo flies over the lieutenant’s head. Her failed come-ons are a clever inversion of a familiar film-noir trope, but they also speak to one of the funniest angles of Frank’s character—that of a white-haired Boy Scout. He’s such a do-gooder, so committed to staying on the straight and narrow, that he misses even the most blatant of sexual suggestions—even when he’s the one responsible for the suggestions, as he is in a literal game of telephone later in the episode. It’s a perfect note for Nielsen to play, as his main, “just below simmering” setting loses some of its humor when the character is legitimately hot and bothered. (Applied to the first Naked Gun film: “Nice beaver”=hilarious; full-body condoms=not so much.) The thicker Stella lays it on, the less Frank understands—and the funnier the scene becomes.
Where “Rendezvous At Big Gulch” starts to lose steam is in its callbacks to previous episodes, which reprise successful gags without much variation. For some of these jokes, ABC’s decision to delay this episode until the summer of 1982 would’ve helped replenish the sense of surprise—particularly the return of the squad’s shortest member—but rewatching the series in shorter succession, it’s dispiriting that ZAZ didn’t do more with them. It’s not as if the show has resigned itself to grimly churning out the same jokes in different places, though: Johnny’s network of information is opened up by the revelation that the drawers under his shoe-shine seats serve as filing cabinets; elsewhere, the rear projection of Frank’s regular crosstown drive plays backward, requiring the lieutenant to throw his car in reverse and monitor traffic out the back window. But there’s still a lot of fresh material and conventions to be spoofed, whether it’s Dutch’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld-style introduction (undone by having Al Ruscio duck into frame to deliver the scene’s exclamation point) or the cop’s mapping of Leo and Rocky’s criminal activities, which Ed helpfully illustrates are concentrated at a cluster of push pins in the middle of the map.
But none of that silliness works without the stark contrast of Norberg’s enthusiasm, Leo and Rocky’s legitimately menacing presence, or Frank’s duty-bound dedication to closing the case and assuring that ballet classes in the neighborhood can carry on without the threat of violence or the need for an undercover security detail. On the set of Airplane!, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker paid especially close attention to an actor they thought could share in their vision of straight-faced buffoonery. Little did that actor know, but taking something so funny so seriously would ultimately define his career.
- The episode has the most fun with static props like Ed’s map, placing sets of Florida Keys, Francis Scott Keys, Honkeys, Turkeys, and a pot roast behind the desk at A.N. Abandoned’s. The gag acts like a diagram of the ideal ZAZ scene: Start out with a simple joke, work toward more conceptual territory, then pile on top of that concept until “pot roast” is the only logical conclusion.
- Police Squad!’s finest: The part that’s easy to forget about the “I’m a locksmith” scene is the joke that comes immediately after that line: Dutch opens up a desk drawer—as if to reach for a gun—and files away his cat. It isn’t until he opens a second drawer—which contains a small dog—that he pulls a weapon on Frank.
- Internal affairs: If the lack of surprise doesn’t sully the intercom/dwarf officer switcheroo, then the lack of a desk in the shot certainly does.