The Golden Age of Hollywood

Handsome leading man Laslie Nielsen, with 150 television credits and star of classic films FORBIDDEN PLANET and the POSEIDEN ADVENTURE, passed away quietly at 84. Nielsen is best remembered for his later career as a deadpan comic actor in the AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN films.

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Comment by M.T. Fisher on November 30, 2010 at 10:46am

Leslie Nielsen disproved the adage that American lives have no second acts. After decades as a rather stolid, unexciting leading man in genre pics like "Forbidden Planet" (1956) and "The Plainsman" (1966), Nielsen inserted his serious, authoritative persona into the parody-based comedies of the Zucker brothers and enjoyed a highly successful second act in films like "Airplane" (1980) and especially the "Naked Gun" series (1988, 1991, 1994), as well as "Scary Movie 3" (2003) and "4" (2006). The key to the silver-haired leading man's success was his deadpan delivery and seeming obliviousness to situations rife with site gags and slapstick comedy. There was simply no one like him and people of all ages responded to his empty-headed persona.

The son of a Royal Canadian Mountie, Nielsen was born on Feb. 11, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He spent his early years living in a remote post near the Arctic Circle where his father was stationed, but returned to civilization to spend his teen years at Victoria High School in Edmonton, Alberta. After high school, he did a year of service with the Royal Canadian Air Force and moved to Calgary, where he landed a job as a disc jockey and radio announcer. He fell in love with performing and sought his first professional training at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, a school founded by the future "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973) star who was then a well-known radio news broadcaster in Canada. In the late 1940s, Nielsen was accepted into the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School in New York City, where he studied under Sanford Meisner and began appearing in regional theater.

Tall and broad with a booming baritone and bright blue eyes, Nielsen had it easy breaking into television, though he would later admit that he had been so self-conscious of his humble background that he fabricated the serious persona he assumed a professional actor ought to have. In any event, that persona proved to be a steady meal ticket and Nielsen landed dozens of roles in the live TV dramas of the day like "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958), "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1961) and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (NBC, 1955-1964). In 1954, he moved to Hollywood and signed a deal with Paramount Pictures, enjoying his first brush with fame playing the lead spaceship commander in the sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet" (1956). He played the occasional romantic lead in "The Opposite Sex" (1956) and the first of the Debbie Reynolds series "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957), but generally stuck to manly, military roles and gun-slinging cowboys in "The Sheepman" (1958) and "The Plainsman" (1966) and "Beau Geste" (1966).

On the small screen, Nielsen had a recurring role on "The Virginian" (NBC, 1962-1971) before he was cast in a starring role as a deputy chief of police in the urban police drama "The Bold Ones: The Protectors" (NBC, 1969-1970). Following the show's untimely demise, he was cast in the pilot of "Hawaii Five-O," but when the show was picked up, he failed to make the cut. Nielsen appeared in the TV film "The Aquarians" (NBC, 1970) before joining the era's "disaster film" trend with a role in "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972). He played a cop in the TV film "Brink's: The Great Robbery" (CBS, 1976), a military agent on the run from involuntary chemical experimentation in the big screen thriller "Project Kill" (1976), and remained generally prolific with guest spots on shows like "M*A*S*H" (CBS, 1972-1983) and "The Streets of San Francisco" (ABC, 1972-77).

In 1980, writer-director Jerry Zucker's vision of taking actors known for their unshakable seriousness and surrounding them with ludicrous site gags meant a career turning point for the 54-year-old Nielsen. He was cast alongside fellow stoics Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges in the uproarious Zucker- Abrahams comedy "Airplane!" (1980) which parodied the "disaster film" trend and also included heavy doses of pop culture send-ups. As a doctor aboard a doomed commercial flight overcome by food poisoning, Nielsen gave a flawlessly deadpan delivery of quotable dialogue that spoofed his stolid screen persona and proved his impeccable comic timing. The film was a box office hit as well as critical success, earning a Golden Globe nomination and a place in history as the American Film Institute's 10th "Funniest American Movie of All Time." But despite the unveiling of his previously unseen talent, he was not yet considered a comedic actor, so resumed his career with a pair of horror films, including "Prom Night" (1980) and "Creepshow" (1982).

The Zucker-Abrahams team came to Nielsen again in 1982 with a script for a half-hour comedy spoof of the popular Quinn-Martin style police dramas of the 1960s and 1970s. Nielsen was cast as bumbling detective Frank Drebin of "Police Squad" (ABC, 1982) and earned an Emmy Award for his brilliant contributions to the detail-packed, ceaselessly funny show which was cancelled after only six episodes. Revered for his second great performance, Nielsen countered suggestions that he was being cast "against type" with the suggestion that during the first 30 years of his career he had been cast against type; that he was actually a closet comedian.

However, for six years he was still only tapped for more action drama roles and TV films until the Zucker-Abrahams folks came calling in 1988 with a feature adaptation of the "Police Squad" premise. For "The Naked Gun - From the Files of Police Squad!" (1988), Nielsen reprised his role as Frank Drebin and a comedy film franchise was born. This time Nielsen had a full 90 minutes of screen time immersed in pratfalls and bad puns - to say nothing of hilariously bad driving - and the result was wildly successful hit with both critics and audiences.

With his latest hit, Nielsen was transformed into the go-to-guy for parodies. He was tapped by filmmaker Bob Logan to star in an "Exorcist" (1973) spoof "Repossessed" (1990), but Nielsen's attachment alone was not enough to make the weak send-up a success. But the next year, the dream team delivered another hit with "The Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear" (1991), which found Lieutenant Drebin attempting to head off a Washington energy lobby conspiracy. Nielsen had a guest appearance on the series finale of "Golden Girls" the following year, as the man who wins Dorothy (Bea Arthur's) heart, and followed it up with the lackluster kids offering "Surf Ninjas" (1993). Nielsen released a mock autobiography which claimed, among other things, several Oscars and an affair with Elizabeth Taylor. Further banking on his reputation, he made several mock golf instructional videos including "Bad Golf Made Easier" (1993) and "Bad Golf My Way" (1994). That year he also starred in the capper "Naked Gun 33-1/3: The Final Insult" (1994) however, David Zucker had vacated the director's chair and the series had run its course - both creatively and due to the pall cast by the murder trial of the film's co-star, O J Simpson.

Beginning in 1994, Nielsen returned to his Canadian roots with an entertaining recurring role as Canadian Mountie Sgt. Buck Frobisher on the cult TV favorite "Due South" (CTV, 1994-99). He took another stab at kiddie comedy with a starring role in "Rent-a-Kid" (1995) and went on appear in Mel Brooks' "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" (1995). The vampire send-up was a flop so he took spoofing into his own hands as the executive producer of "Spy Hard" (1996), which paled in comparison to his Zucker-Abrahams collaborations but nonetheless, did moderately well at the box office. Nielsen's hapless klutz might have been an inspired choice to play the live action adaptation of animated oldster "Mr. Magoo" (1997), but that kids' film and his follow-up action film parody "Wrongfully Accused" (1998) both fizzled. Adopting another bumbling detective persona, Nielsen starred in "2001: A Space Travesty" (2000), an obvious reference to the Kubrick classic but whereas Kubrick's was considered one of film history's best, this was among the worst.

The silver-haired star was back at the top of his game when David Zucker tapped him to appear as the paranoid (and at one point, almost entirely naked) President of the United States in the amusing horror spoof sequel "Scary Movie 3" (2003). Nielsen revived his doofus President Allen for the even more popular "Scary Movie 4" (2006) - the inevitable sequel - in which everything under the sun was given the David Zucker treatment. Nielsen made a rare appearance in the well-received dramatic indie "The Music Within" (2007), though only a few festival audiences were able to appreciate this very different performance. That same year, he lent a comedic edge to the Discovery Channel medical documentary series "Doctor*ology" (Discovery, 2007). Nielsen was back to his old tricks in 2008's moderate parody hit "Super Hero Movie," which was produced by Zucker and written and directed by "Scary Movie 3" and "4"'s Craig Mazin. The team was slated to return to theaters later that year with "Scary Movie 5" (2008).

Leslie Nielsen died from complications of pneumonia at the age of 84 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Comment by M.T. Fisher on November 30, 2010 at 8:58am
Chuck, go to

There's a tribute to Neilsen's umpiring scene.
Comment by MothGirl Wings on November 30, 2010 at 1:41am
I thought he was so handsome.....
Comment by Abdullah aka Chuck on November 29, 2010 at 5:44pm
I posted earlier in the TV group about my favorite NIGHT GALLERY episode where Leslie played an arrogant braggart and was quite a good performance. The old expression rings true" Dying is easy, that's hard!" People think that playing straight through the wackiness of his later comedies was easy and he could do nothing else...just not true!
Comment by Dan Day, Jr. on November 29, 2010 at 4:31pm
Let's not forget Nielsen's role in FORBIDDEN PLANET. And I remember a "Bonanza" episode in which Nielsen played a lawman who went crazy and took on his own town. Leslie Nielsen was NOT a mediocre actor.
Comment by M.T. Fisher on November 29, 2010 at 11:49am
I liked his villianous turn in The Sheepman.
Comment by Sue Lee on November 29, 2010 at 11:06am
I have a screen test on my "Ben Hur" DVD of Leslie Nielsen and an Italian actor (name forgotten). They are acting the scene, early in the film, between Ben Hur and Marsala when they first meet up again after years apart (Marsala has just been appointed Tribune). It is also the scene where they shoot javelins onto a beam, to see who can be the best marksman. I regard this scene as one of the greats in US film history - the acting (particularly by Stephen Boyd) is simply superlative. What panache and style and stublety Boyd had! Anyway, the screen test between Nielsen and this Italian actor shows what happens when you give a script to 2 very mediocre actors!! I used this screen test to teach highschool students about assessing acting when learning about film reviews. Nielsen was a fun actor, but there wasn't really much to what he did. I think he had a good life, though, and would look upon it as a "good run". Vale Leslie.
Comment by Ktrek on November 28, 2010 at 11:47pm
I enjoyed several of his films. I wouldn't say he was a great actor but he was entertaining enough. RIP Mr. Nielsen!

Comment by Robert ''Ricky'' Nunez on November 28, 2010 at 10:26pm
Even on the short lived POLICE SQUAD series from 1982 . Airplane is a modern classic now. RIP.
Comment by Abdullah aka Chuck on November 28, 2010 at 10:16pm
I will always remember the hysterical laughter my oldest son let loose the first time he saw the umpire sequence of the first Naked Gun film. He was a tremendous entertainer!

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