RIP: Leslie Nielsen
Farewell, Leslie Nielsen, one of the finest straight men to ever deliver a line. The Canadian comedian died Sunday afternoon of complications from pneumonia. The announcement of Nielsen’s death was made Sunday by his nephew, Doug Nielsen, who went on to say that his uncle had been admitted to a Ft. Lauterdale, Florida, hospital nearly two weeks prior. Over the past few days his condition worsened, and he died with his wife Barbalee and family by his side. He was 84.
Although Nielsen’s career spanned six decades, he’s probably best known for his collaborations with the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, notably his starring roles as Dr. Alan Rumack in the 1980 comedy Airplane! and as Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun series and its precursor, the TV series Police Squad!
Born 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan, Leslie William Nielsen was a Royal Air Force pilot and disc jockey before venturing into acting. His big break came in 1956 with his role as Commander John J. Adams in the successful science fiction film The Forbidden Planet. Nielsen signed a contract with MGM and went on to star in several other films before landing the lead role opposite Debbie Reynolds in the popular 1957 romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor and a more serious role in the 1972 disaster film The Poseidon Adventure. Nielsen also had over 1,500 television appearances, playing various roles on such popular programs as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Virginian, Hawaii Five-O, and the lead role of Francis Marion in the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox.
But the Nielsen we all know and love is the comedian—Airplane! was ranked by the AFI as the 10th funniest American film, and the exchange, “Striker: ‘Surely you can’t be serious!’ Rumack: ‘I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley,’” will remain as one of the greatest movie quotes, ever. Nielsen’s deadpan delivery and facial gymnastics were highlights of ‘80s comedy, and most of my generation can recite (and will, often unprovoked) Airplane! and The Naked Gun by heart. Nielsen’s career waned somewhat in the ‘90s with critically maligned films such as Mr. Magoo, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and Wrongfully Accused (up yours: Spy Hard was awesome), but Nielsen continued to find work both on screen and on the stage with his one-man show Darrow, based on the life of attorney Clarence Darrow, and was working right up to his death.
So, again, farewell, Leslie—you will be missed (and it goes without saying that when I first heard the news from Shannon, I instantly replied, ‘Surely you can’t be serious’—somewhat tactless, but I think Leslie would have appreciated that). What are some of your favorite Nielsen moments?