Leslie Nielsen RIP

Acting and comedy legend dead at 84

Leslie Nielsen RIP

by James White |
Published on

Get ready to dig out your copy of Forbidden Planet, Airplane! or the Naked Gun movies to watch in tribute: Leslie Nielsen has died at the age of 84.

Born in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in 1926 to a Danish father and a Welsh mother, Nielsen got inspiration for his career partly from his uncle, Jean Herhsolt, who had found fame as the star of a long-running radio and TV series.

Nielsen enjoyed the sort of varied career most actors would love. He got his start in the theatre, winning a scholarship to New York’s respected Neighbourhood Playhouse while studying acting in Toronto, but while he knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up, he worried about being seen as a clueless Canadian. "I couldn't refuse, but I must say when you come from the land of the snow goose, the moose and wool to New York, you're bringing every ton of hayseed and country bumpkin that you packed,” he told the Boston Globe in 1994. “As long as I didn't open my mouth, I felt a certain security. But I always thought I was going to be unmasked: 'OK, pack your stuff.' 'Well, what's the matter?' 'We've discovered you have no talent; we're shipping you back to Canada.'”

Stage work led to TV, with his first appearance on the small screen chalked up as a 1948 episode of anthology drama series Studio One, which saw him share the screen with Charlton Heston.

Through what has since become known as the Golden Age of TV in the 1950s, Nielsen would snatch numerous roles, working on nearly 50 live shows in 1950 alone. But two early film roles saw him rise to more prominence, playing Thibault d’Aussigny in Michael Curtiz’ The Vagabond King, which in turn led to him auditioning for a leading role in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. Though Nielsen jokingly recalls it more for the tight uniforms than its Shakespearian subtext, the movie had a huge impact on his career, winning him a contract with MGM and making him a bona fide leading man of the big screen.

A slew of films followed until his dissatisfaction with the studio system saw him leaving his contract and working briefly for other companies before taking the lead in Disney’s 1950s TV series The Swamp Fox, about the American Revolutionary hero. More TV and a few more dramatic movies followed before the big left-turn of Nielsen’s screen career arrived with 1980’s Airplane!

Despite appearing in few comedic roles in his earlier career, Nielsen proved to be an adept straight-faced comedian, delivering the sort of dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in an ordinary disaster movie, with just enough of a twist to make the lines hilarious.

The film’s writing/directing team of Jim Abrams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker realised they had a winner on their hands, recruiting Nielsen to play detective Frank Drebin in Police Squad!, which did for cop dramas what Airplane! had done for disasters spectacle. Though the show was quickly cancelled, the show spawned the Naked Gun trilogy, which continues to be both a quote-generating factory and a high watermark for spoofs that still holds up today.

Since then, he’s cropped up in any number of parodies, but has never seemed to hit the same level. It hasn’t stopped him working, however, and he’s continued taking roles in films, on TV, in adverts and providing narration for a wide range of projects from kids’ cartoons to documentaries.

One of his best-loved jobs was working for Paul Haggis when the writer/director was executive producer of mismatched buddy comedy cop show Due South, in which he channelled his father by playing a Mountie.

“I'm afraid if I don't keep moving, they're going to catch me,” he told the Vancouver Sun in 2007. “I am 81 years old and I want to see what's around the corner, and I don't see any reason in the world not to keep working. But I am starting to value my down time a great deal because I am realizing there might be other things to do that I am overlooking.”

No one could ever describe Nielsen as overlooking anything. He died in Florida from complications of pneumonia with his wife and family around him. The world just got a little less funny.

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