Leslie Nielsen, star of Police Squad, Naked Gun, and Airplane!, died Sunday at the age of 84.
Mr. Nielsen was much loved and fondly remembered for the many laughs the above films brought to generations of American theatergoers, but his legacy is older and more eclectic than many fans may realize. His acting career began with a television appearance 1948, from which he built a diverse portfolio as a talented, serious actor. But it was his turn as Dr. Rumack in the 1980 comedy Airplane! that introduced him to the comedic genre upon which he would establish three decades of celebrity status. The film, itself a parody of Zero Hour!, cast stars who would essentially be playing parodies of the dramatic characters for which they were previously known.
Mr. Nielsen's small but important role in that movie produced what the American Film Institute deemed the 79th top quotation in American cinematic history:
(Other Airplane! stars who passed away this year include Peter Graves [Capt. Clarence Oveur] and Barbara Billingsley [the jive-speaking passenger]. As Lisa Hoover put it: I hate you, 2010.)
Two years later, Mr. Nielsen cemented his transition to the genre and his status as a comedic powerhouse when he landed the leading role in Police Squad!. In this short-lived television series, he maintained his ability to deliver one-liners with a timing and tone that packed as much punch as any buildup:
Though the show lasted only six episodes, it spun off three feature-length films, something accomplished by not even the likes of Get Smart! or Firefly. Mr. Nielsen went on to play the lead in further spoofs such as Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Spy Hard, and Wrongfully Accused, and appearing in other comedies including Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie.
It was just this past Thanksgiving Eve that my girlfriend and I finished watching the complete Police Squad! on DVD. As it aired before she was born, she'd never heard of the show but immediately cottoned to it, riveted to catch every rapid-fire joke and subtle gag. It didn't take us long to decide that we had to give this set as a Christmas gift to introduce even more people to this brief, overlooked, yet valuable contribution Mr. Nielsen made to comedic history. We never expected that he would so soon be a part of history himself, making it especially poignant to discover there will be no more adventures of Frank Drebin.
As the optimistic Wil Wheaton: Leslie Nielsen's in a better place. "A better place? What is it?" A construct to help cope with grief, but that's not important right now.
3 thoughts on “Surely You Can't Be Dead, Leslie Nielsen”
Airplane! was the first thing I saw him in, I remember watching it on RCA video disc, without parental permission of course. It was Police Squad!, however (and later the first Naked Gun movie) that really hit with the laughs for my friends and me.
Sad to see.
In addition to his acting ability, Nielsen was highly adept at making realistic "palm fart" sounds with his hands and those who know him say he loved to do this in a crowded elevator followed by a sheepish "pardon me".
Note that Irving Kirschner, who directed The Empire Strikes Back, also died.
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