Leslie Nielsen, star of Airplane! and The Naked Gun series and a man capable of infusing even the stupidest line of dialogue with deadpan comic gravitas, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia. He was 84.
Nielsen was a Canadian-born actor who found some success playing standard dramatic hero roles in Hollywood productions, such as the unflappable captains of the doomed ships in Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure, and even as a romantic lead opposite Debbie Reynolds in 1957’s Tammy And The Bachelor. In the 1960s, when his hair began to turn white to match the seriousness of his face and sternness of his voice, Nielsen began to take on even more roles of authority—playing the lead in the 1961 cop drama The New Breed and the chief of police in 1969’s The Bold Ones: The Protectors.
Then, in 1980, Nielsen took that credibility he’d amassed from nearly 30 years of playing people with integrity and turned it inside out to play Dr. Alan Rumack in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker disaster movie spoof Airplane!, investing the most ridiculous lines of dialogue with a delivery that was serious as a heart attack. Nielsen had the film’s most lasting exchange, one that’s made it all but impossible to use the word “surely” in conversation ever again.
The collaboration with the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team proved so successful that the directors created a whole new project written especially for him: Police Squad! cast Nielsen back in the role of a cop, Detective Frank Drebin, in a show that translated the ZAZ style of comedy to television, once again using Nielsen as an archetypal straight man oblivious to the constant stream of gags going on around him. It was brilliant, critically acclaimed, and canceled after six episodes, due to its failure to find an audience who could appreciate a good fake freeze-frame gag.
But fortunately, ZAZ and Nielsen tried again, reviving Frank Drebin for The Naked Gun film series and officially turning Nielsen into a comic leading man. In the original 1988 film and its two sequels, Nielsen was a more recognizably goofy figure, often stumbling into Clouseau-like slapstick setpieces, such as his epic destruction of Ricardo Montalban’s office, or an extended pratfall that ends with Drebin lying on top of the Queen of England. However, once again it was Nielsen’s deadpan delivery that really sold the film, whether he was complimenting Priscilla Presley on her beaver or handling crowd control.
The Naked Gun would spawn two official sequels, but more importantly, it would dictate the rest of Nielsen’s career. He went on to star in numerous Naked Gun-style spoofs such as Spy Hard, Repossessed, Dracula: Dead And Loving It, 2001: A Space Travesty, and Scary Movie 3 and 4, as well as the live-action cartoon adaptation Mr. Magoo. But even though most of these were terrible, it was hard to fault Nielsen for doing them: He always seemed to be having a blast with his late-career renaissance and kept gamely plugging away in that same spoof genre right up until last year’s Stan Helsing and Spanish Movie. It’s not getting caught in the gears of a combine or having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, but goofing around is also a pretty good way for a man to die.