The Way of the Word

29. November 2010

RIP Leslie Nielsen

Born February 11, 1926, in Saskatchewan (Canada); died November 28, 2010, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, of pneumonia, at the age of 84.

According to his family, he died peacefully in his sleep.

It’s nearly impossible to list all the movies and TV roles he played in the course of his life. According to his Wikipedia page, he played in 100 movies and 1,500 TV programs, portraying more than 220 characters.

Can you say “Wow?” Then say, “Wow.”

Let’s face it: Nielsen was part of a very cool family. His father was a Mountie. His brother Erik was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s. His uncle was Jean Hersholt, a very famous silent film and radio actor of his time.

Nielsen actually credits his uncle as the inspiration to become an actor. Which he set about for after WW2, during which he was trained as an aerial gunner, but the war ended before he saw any action. After the war, he worked as a DJ and enrolled in the Lorne Greene (yes, that Lorne Greene) Academy of Radio Arts. While there, he received a scholarship for the Neighborhood Playhouse acting academy in New York.

He made his first TV appearance on an episode of Studio One, alongside Charlton Heston. Two years later, he had about 50 TV appearances to his credit. His feature film debut was 1956, in The Vagabond King, where he caught the eye of Producer Nicholas Hayfack, who offered him a part in the science fiction movie Forbidden Planet. The movie was a big hit in the 1950s, and lived on to be a classic of the genre. It led to more work, and Nielsen got to play both dramatic and romantic roles.

After he left MGM, he was all over the place. The next couple of years saw him on TV shows like Rawhide, Hawaii 5-0, Big Valley, The Virginian, The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, M*A*S*H… As a rule of thumb, you can almost say that if it was on TV, Leslie Nielsen was there. He also did a lot of movies.

I don’t know how he felt about it, but with 20/20 hindsight… He had a strong start with Forbidden Planet, but after leaving MGM his career didn’t really follow as strongly. He was lucky for an actor, he always worked. But nothing really stood out, he didn’t became a star.

Not until 1980. Not until Airplane!. (In my opinion, the funniest movie ever made.) Again, he played a supporting role in this comedy movie, and delivered one of the most memorable movie quotes of all: “Surely, you can’t be serious.” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” When the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrams, the men behind Airplane!, decided to bring their type of humor to television, they cast Leslie Nielsen as the main character for their TV series, Police Squad.  It ran for only 6 episodes in 1982. Nielsen’s character was a spoof of all the straight-laced police detectives of that era’s TV shows, a detective named Frank Drebin.

Nielsen, who had not worked in comedy outside of his Airplane! appearance, continued to do horror, drama, mystery and everything else. In 1988, the Zuckers decided to make a feature film based on Police Squad, and they knew they couldn’t do it without Frank Drebin.

The movie came out in 1988: The Naked Gun. If I need to say more, then you aren’t worth talking to. Anyway, The Naked Gun spawned two sequels, in 1991 and 1994, and made Nielsen into a comedy star.

On the downside, it typecast him: the characters he played after The Naked Gun were mostly thinly disguised Frank Drebin copies in spoofy of genres and popular movies: Father Jebedaiah Mayii in Repossessed (a personal favorite), a parody of the Exorcist movies. Dracula: Dead and Loving it. Spy Hard. Wrongfully Accused. 2001: A Space Travesty.  He played Mr. Magoo in the live-action version of the cartoon. Most of these movies were both critical and box-office failures.

In 1993, he published The Naked Truth, a Naked Gun-style absurdist novel pretending to be his autobiography.

He remained an active actor throughout his life. His last credits were Stonerville (2010) and the upcoming The Waterman Movie. Always busy, always working.

Since the 1980s, Nielsen’s image had become that of a clown, and he played that image to the hilt in his public appearances. However, a German journalist who interviewed him once wrote that at the beginning of the interview, Nielsen had been his standard absurd and silly persona. But once he realized that the interviewer wasn’t really interested in that, he became a well-spoken, well-informed, intelligent and thoughtful conversationalist. The Leslie Nielsen the world saw was not the real one. It was an act.

I was very sorry to hear of his death this morning. But he was 84, he was very good and successful at what he did, which was to make people happy, and he died peacefully in his sleep. A man can’t really ask for more.




  1. We’ll miss him.

    Comment by Dwight Williams — 29. November 2010 @ 20:00

  2. Yes.

    Comment by jensaltmann — 30. November 2010 @ 09:57

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