Actor Leslie Nielsen Dies (And Please….Don’t Call Him ‘Shirley’)

Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun
Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun

Ok, that headline was just too easy a joke. However, it’s one that I think Mr. Nielsen would have appreciated. It’s become a classic comedy line from one of funniest films ever and was the point where Nielsen’s film career would forever be changed.

Beginning his acting career in the mid-50’s, Nielsen starred in the standard leading man roles that he seemed suited for. His most famous film from this period was sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet.

From there Nielsen worked consistently. He appeared in a whole range of different shows – Rawhide, Naked City, Peyton Place, The Man From Uncle, Barnaby Jones, The Love Boat. Plus, he was the bad guy in the notoriously awfull 1977’s Viva Knievel!

Anyone ever see that one?

You would always see this but he never managed that one break out role. One of his more popular roles was as the ill-fated ship captain in The Poseidon Adventure, but his character wasn’t around for very long in that one.

It wasn’t until Jim and Jerry Abrahams and David Zucker cast him as the doctor in their comedy spoof Airplane! that Nielsen made his huge mark in films.

Starring alongside other such notable actors known for more of their dramatic work such as, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, Nielsen’s deadpan delivery in such a crazy chaotic movie helped make it one of the biggest surprise hits of 1980. Sine then it has become almost universally hailed as one of the funniest films ever made.

Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley in The Naked Gun
Nielsen and Priscilla Presley

Nielsen stayed on the comedy track reteaming with the ZAZ team for their 1982 television cop spoof show Police Squad. It was praised by critics, but would only last for six episodes. However, Nielsen would reprise his role as Lt. Frank Drebin in the 1988 film version The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad. And the film would be a huge hit.

After decades of working in Hollywood major success finally shown on Nielsen in a role that could never been anticipated based on his background.

“I’ve finally found my home – as Lt. Frank Drebin,” he told the Associated Press in 1988.

As most movie lovers already know the film spawned two sequels and Nielsen became an unexpected face in comedy.

For the rest of his career Nielsen continued on the comedy track. Playing the lead or supporting characters in a seemingly neverending string of spoof films. Parodying everything from the The Exorcist to 2001 to The Fugitive to Dracula. He literally became the most strongly associated component in spoof films and was proud of it.

Of course Nielsen had an extensive and long career – hundreds of performances that I haven’t mentioned. But for me – and I suspect for most people – I will always remember him as Lt. Drebin. Along with his poker-faced performance in Airplane!

Shirley no one could have done those roles any better.

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