Leslie Nielsen has died.
Surely, you can’t be serious. Yes, the comedy great and “Airplane!” star passed away on Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of 84 after being treated for pneumonia.
And don’t call me Shirley.
It was lines like the above, delivered in Nielsen’s patented deadpan, that gave the dramatic stage and screen actor an unlikely comedic revival later in life.
After beginning his career in the 1950s as a matinee idol, taking on the roles of dashing heroes in films such as the sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” and the stalwart captain in 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure,” the Canadian-born actor switched gears in 1980 and took a chance with a slapstick disaster-movie spoof that would forever change his life.
Nielsen was at first reluctant to take on the role of the clueless Dr. Alan Rumack, but the white-haired, hilariously dopey MD became the comedic find of a lifetime, as the actor managed to steal the show in a movie packed with dozens of classic one-liners thanks to his impeccable timing and serious delivery.
It was an unlikely, but ultimately lucrative left turn in a long career that spanned more than 100 movies and 1,500 television appearances.
Born Leslie William Nielsen in Regina, Saskatchewan, on February 11, 1926, Nielsen signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force before turning 18 and trained as an aerial gunner during World War II, but never saw action. He tried his hand at radio and studied acting, landing his television debut in 1950 as part of the “Actor’s Studio” TV series. He spent the next several years bouncing around different TV shows, including “Lights Out” and “Tales of Tomorrow,” and working in a Broadway play before landing his film debut in 1956 in “Ransom!”
Even as his movie career blossomed, Nielsen kept returning to TV to play earnest heroes in shows like “Rawhide” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He continued bouncing back and forth between the big and small screens throughout the 1960s and ’70s, appearing in hit shows like “M*A*S*H” and “Barnaby Jones” while taking small roles in little-seen films such as “Project: Kill” and “Day of the Animals.”
By the late 1970s, he was on the “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat” celebrity-cameo circuit when producers/directors/writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker came knocking with “Airplane!” The slapstick film was not only a box-office success, but it recast Nielsen in a whole new light that the actor clearly relished. Following “Airplane!” he again stuck with the Zuckers for their six-episode 1982 “Police Squad!” TV series, in which he again spoofed a popular genre he had once played it straight in, police procedurals, giving the world the bumbling detective Frank Drebin.
He spent the rest of the 1980s mostly doing comedic cameos in films and spot appearances on series such as “227” and “Highway to Heaven.” Mining the “Police Squad!” vein once more, he hit paydirt again in 1988 with the movie spoof “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” in which he revived the Drebin character. A series of sequels followed in 1991 and 1994, but Nielsen would never again capture the comedic imagination as he did at his second career peak.
By the 2000s he was mostly seen in cameos in the “Scary Movie” franchise — including a spot in the upcoming fifth installment — and other spoofs such as “2001: A Space Travesty.”
What’s your favorite Leslie Nielsen line? Share it in the comments!