Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1926, Leslie Nielsen discovered acting through his half-uncle, Jean Hersholt, a radio actor known for his work on the long-running series Dr. Christian. Nielsen moved to New York on a theater scholarship and made his first TV appearance in 1948 on an episode of Studio One alongside Charlton Heston.
Nielsen initially acted in dramatic roles on TV, appearing in almost 50 live programs in 1950 alone, and dramas such as Ransom!, The Opposite Sex and sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet, considered the forerunner of Star Trek. Before forsaking drama to doctor the food-poisoned and save the Queen/world, Nielsen appeared in the all-star disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, in which he played the captain of a luxurious ocean liner suddenly struck by a tsunami at sea. Though Nielsen’s character gets the axe in act one, the film gained acclaim at the Oscars that year, with seven nominations and the award for best original song.
Nielsen’s comedic breakthrough came in 1980, when he landed the role of discombobulated Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, a spoof of Zero Hour!, Airport and other travel films. Directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker claim they chose Nielsen for the role thanks to his ability to play "a fish in water," stating, "You could have cast funny people and done it with everybody winking, goofing off, and silly... we wanted people to be oblivious to the comedy." And brilliantly oblivious he was. With his portrayal of the absurdly absent-minded Rumack, Nielsen crafted the bumbling-fool-in-charge role that he would go on to perfect in the TV series Police Squad!, The Naked Gun Trilogy, and (despite what the scathing critics said) Mr. Magoo.
Nielsen appeared in over 100 films and 1,500 television programs over the span of his career before his death this weekend at the age of 84. To honor this comedy king, here are some of our favorite Nielsen moments.
Dir. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (1980)
"Can you fly this plane, and land it?"
"Surely you can't be serious."
"I am serious... and don't call me Shirley."
Considered Nielsen's trademark comedic line, Airplane! is filled with similar slapstick laughs. The film follows Ted Striker, an ex-fighter pilot left afraid of flying after a traumatic incident during "the war." In order to regain the love of his life, Striker decides to conquer his fear and board a flight on which she is a stewardess. But when several spoiled fish dinners render the pilots incapacitated, Striker and the colorful crew are forced to take matters into their own hands.
Robert Hays, Julia Hagerty and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar start alongside Nielsen in this spoof on the disaster and travel film genres. The film was voted the 10th-funniest American comedy on AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs list in 2000, and ranked 6th on Bravo's 100 Funniest Movies.
George A. Romero (1982)
"And now for something completely different!" Written by Stephen King, this horror-comedy-anthology film consists of five short stories adapated from the EC comic books of the 1950's. Nielsen stars in the segment entitled "Something to Tide you Over," a story about a coldblooded, wealthy husband who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover by burying them up to their necks at the beach below the high tide line. Richard is then haunted by his seaweed encrusted victims when they return from the dead as zombies. Completely different indeed, but a lasting favorite of horror fans nonetheless.
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (1980)
Nielsen's next project with Abrahams and the Zucker brothers was this TV series spoof of police dramas from which The Naked Gun fims would be adapted. Nielsen introduced us to Detective Frank Drebin, an accident-prone officer who never fails to leave a wake of unintentional destruction in his efforts to fight crime.
In 2008, Frank Drebin was selected by Empire Magazine as one of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time.
While Police Squad! was cancelled after just six episodes, the show had already managed to gain a strong cult following. This led to three film adapatations of the series, which included: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.
In this trilogy, Nielsen revives his role of Detective Frank Drebin in order to simultaneously prevent and bungle criminals' plans to assasinate Queen Elizabeth II, kidnap the national energy policy scientist to President George H. W. Bush, and bomb the Academy Awards. If anyone can do it, it isn't Frank.
The Golden Girls Finale
Dir. Lex Passaris (1992)
Since I must admit I'm no GG expert, the following impassioned recollection is brought to you from our TFF colleague, Jessica Lacombe:
To me, Leslie Nielsen’s most important role came in form of Lucas Hollingsworth, Blanche Devereaux’s uncle on Golden Girls. In the (two part) finale of the series, Blanche forces Dorothy to babysit “Uncle Lucas” while she goes out in search of a one-night stand. Lucas and Dorothy proceed to go on an abysmal date to the equally unfortunately named Don’s Crab House, only to realize that their misery has united them.
The two plot their revenge against Blanche, in the form of their sudden love and engagement. (For those whose fingers are not on the pulse of G.G. re-runs, the notion that Dorothy, “the Yankee,” would go on to be “Aunt Dorothy” at the Hollingsworth Manor was enough to knock the dew off of Blanche’s honeysuckle.) They planned to keep up the ruse long enough to teach Blanche a lesson, except Lucas and Dorothy do fall in love.
It was Leslie’s character who would provide the fairy tale ending for Dorothy, our main Golden Girl, who after more than a handful of losses against the universe, had earned a win. In this case, it was in the form of Lucas, her intellectual equal with a penchant for pranks. To quote Rose: “It’s like something out of a 40s movie...’Strong, handsome, daring’—and now she’s got a man!
On that note, we leave you with some final laughs with Leslie:
RIP, our friend. You will be missed.