Leslie Nielsen of ‘Airplane!,’ ‘The Naked Gun’ is Dead at 84

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CHICAGO – One of the funniest lines Leslie Nielsen ever uttered wasn’t in one of his spoofs. In his role as doomed Captain Harrison in ‘The Poseidon Adventure,’ Nielsen is facing the huge wave that will eventually capsize the boat, and as an stern aside says, “by the way, Happy New Year.” A star, comically inadvertent, was born. Leslie Nielsen died yesterday at the age of 84.

Leslie Nielsen in a Late Career Role in ‘Scary Movie 3’
Leslie Nielsen in a Late Career Role in ‘Scary Movie 3’
Photo credit: Dimension Films

Leslie Nielsen was born and raised in Canada, but studied to be an actor at the New York Neighborhood Playhouse under Stanford Meisner. His height and good looks made him a natural to play stoic hero types, as he did in his first major film, “Forbidden Planet” (1956). For the next two decades he worked steadily in TV and occasionally films, portraying the same straight arrow solemnity that he established in the beginning.

Nielsen was working TV on “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” when the Zucker brothers (David and Jerry) and Jim Abrahams called him to take on the part of Dr. Rumack in the legendary “Airplane!” (1980). Memorably intoning such “serious” lines as “Don’t Call Me Shirley,” Nielsen repurposed his career at the age of 54, and for the rest of his life would portray comic roles.

’Police Squad!’ Starring Leslie Nielsen
’Police Squad!’ Starring Leslie Nielsen
Photo credit: Paramount Television

He next took on the role of Lt. Frank Drebin in the short-lived cult TV show “Police Squad” (which in itself was a direct take-off on the Chicago based drama “M Squad,” with Nielsen taking the Lee Marvin role) and that morphed into a series of three films in the “Naked Gun” series, providing late career work to Priscilla Presley, George Kennedy and O.J. Simpson.

After the last Naked Gun film wrapped in 1994, Nielsen coasted for the rest of his career on the comic reputation that he had developed in Airplane! and The Naked Gun, but the standards of these films weren’t as strong, and his last ten years were spent playing mostly comic bit parts (”Scary Movie 3,” “Superhero Movie”).

Nielsen passed away yesterday from complications due to pneumonia, and is survived by his fourth wife, Barbaree, and two daughters from his second marriage.

The willingness of Nielsen after Airplane! to go in another direction and create comic success when most actors his age are (in his words) “playing grandfather,” is his great legacy. Surely, the second act of his career is one of the great show business stories, and in that context he probably wouldn’t mind being called Shirley.

Source material for this article came from imdb.com.
Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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