Surely few actors made such a notable career for themselves by keeping a straight face in the face of such absurd and hilarious gags and one-liners than did Leslie Nielsen, but please don’t call him Shirley.
While fans of his later work might not know it, Nielsen spent much of his earlier career playing quite unfunny leading and supporting roles including the sci-fi classic FORBIDDEN PLANET and numerous appearances on TV series from the 1950s though the ’80s. It might have been impossible to imagine that the stalwart and doomed captain of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE would become a movie star in an outrageous parody of airborne disaster films, but Nielsen’s standout 1980 performance as Dr. Rumack in AIRPLANE! led to a whole new phase of the silver-haired actor’s career and life.
His comedic reputation and resume were emblazoned on pop culture when Nielsen returned to television to fight crime as Lieutenant Frank Drebin in the deliriously daffy POLICE SQUAD series. Nielsen reprised his role as the dimwitted detective in three NAKED GUN feature film sequels, also starring in several other similarly parodic movies of lesser success. His trademark non-reaction to the wildest, most absurd punchlines and comic situations conjured by the likes of Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker made such rapid-fire parodies a staple of comedy cinema history throughout the 1980s and beyond.
The 84-year-old actor died near his home in Fort Lauderdale from complications due to pneumonia, yet as long as movie fans old and new continue to quote films, Leslie Nielsen will live on forever. FilmEdge closes our tribute to this hilarious deadpan comedic actor with his quasi-inspirational speech as Dr. Rumack . . . words to live by, or not:
The last thing he said to me, “Doc,” he said, “some time when the crew is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to get out there and give it all they got and win just one for the Zipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Doc,” he said, “but I won’t smell too good, that’s for sure.”
If the show biz motto is to leave ’em laughing, Leslie Nielsen sure did.