Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen

11 February 1926–28 October 2010

After a long, prolific but largely undistinguished career in film and television, the veteran Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen emerged as a surprise comic star in the late 1980s with the Naked Gun film series. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid-1950s after a spell in live TV drama, he was cast initially as the square-jawed hero, playing Commander Adams in the sci-fi adventure Forbidden Planet (1956) and Debbie Reynolds’s Southern beau in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), before television brought him modest fame as Disney’s Revolutionary War fighter The Swamp Fox (1959-61).

Years of playing authority figures followed, with Nielsen most famously taking an early bath as the ship’s captain in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). His grey-haired gravitas inspired the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team to cast him as the wilfully literal Dr Rumack in 1980s disaster spoof Airplane (his famous retort to Ted Striker’s “Surely you can’t be serious?” – “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley” – was enough to earn him immortality, surely). His urbanely vengeful husband in Creepshow (1982) suggested an untapped talent for menace, but following the short-lived TV series Police Squad! (1982), which showcased his deadpan delivery, its highly popular film spin-offs – The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), The Naked Gun 2½ : The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994) – made him a star.

Built on the comic disparity between Nielsen’s patrician mien and his skill with exuberant slapstick and straight-faced sight-gags, his success as Lieutenant Frank Drebin led Roger Ebert to christen him “the Olivier of spoofs”. Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), Spy Hard (1996) and Mr Magoo (1997) failed to repeat his earlier success, but Nielsen remained a beloved public favourite, his Presidential cameos in the otherwise mediocre Scary Movie 3 (2003) and Scary Movie 4 (2006) a fond reminder of spoof’s heyday.

Kate Stables

See also

Scary Movie reviewed by Kim Newman (October 2000)

Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me reviewed by Xan Brooks (August 1999)

Last Updated: 14 Feb 2011