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Leslie Nielson is Clarence Darrow -09/29/1999

Written for the stage by David W. Rintels. Based on “Clarence Darrow for the Defense,” by Irving Stone. Cast: Leslie Nielsen. Producer: Don Gregory. Lighting Designer: David Meredith.

Marquee Performance.

September 28 and 29, 1999. Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Leslie Nielsen has played a lot of authority figures in his long career on stage and screen. Doctors, lawyers, spaceship commanders... Even God on one TV show.

But after “Airplane!” in 1980, Nielsen’s roles started to tip toward comedy more and more. Since then, he has tripped and pratfallen through a series of movies as a bumbling cop or a bumbling spy, even doing Mr. Magoo a few years ago.
So perhaps this year’s tour with “Clarence Darrow” was intended to get Nielsen more in touch with his serious dramatic side.

Or maybe Nielsen just wanted to showcase Darrow, the larger-than-life lawyer who defended the little guy, crusading against intolerance and the death penalty. Darrow’s brand of mythic hero doesn’t seem to crop up anymore. Especially in the legal world.

If resurrecting Darrow is the purpose of this tour, if Nielsen decided that he might as well use his “Naked Gun” fame for the public good, more power to him.
This one-man show, written by TV scribe David W. Rintels, is simply structured and simply staged.

It comes off not as a series of dramatic scenes, and certainly not as a recreation of Darrow’s famous trials. “Clarence Darrow” is more of a memory piece, as if you were meeting up with Darrow himself in his later years, and you asked him to tell you something about his life.

And so he sketches his childhood in a few lines, relates briefly how he came to Chicago, and how he began to defend common laborers and their leaders, like Eugene V. Debs and “Big Bill” Haywood. He continues to raise “his voice against injustice and oppression,” facing a trial where he himself is the defendant (for alleged jury tampering), touching on the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial among other cases.

The script contains a bit of his personal life, a little bombast, and some perfectly punctuated moments of humor, more genial than cynical. You get just a taste of the rich, beautifully woven words that swayed juries, most notably at the end of the play, when Nielsen closes with the poetry of Omar Khayyam. This is the poem about love that Darrow used to save Leopold and Loeb from hanging in what was then called “The Trial of the Century” (before the Lindbergh kidnapping and O.J. took the title in their turns).

Nielsen has a rich, orator’s voice and a slightly rumpled, folksy demeanor, making him very believable in the role, even if he is a good deal better looking than the real Darrow.

A few set pieces and lighting changes move him from the courtroom to his home and office, and that all works very well, too.

This is a quiet, eloquent show, not flashy or spectacular. And yet it makes its point, and reminds us of a man who, in his time, changed the world.

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