Leslie Nielsen, the comedian whose sight gags and one-liners in cinematic farces such as “Naked Gun” and “Airplane!” had U.S. audiences rolling in the aisles during the 1980s and ‘90s, has died. He was 84.
Nielsen died yesterday of pneumonia after two weeks in a hospital near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his agent, John S. Kelly, told the Associated Press.
“Just in this last 48 hours, the infection has gotten too much,” his nephew Doug Nielsen told Canadian radio station CKNW. “He just fell asleep and passed away.”
The silver-haired, Canadian-born comic was among a crop of Hollywood actors who found success in funny-man roles after decades of playing serious, no-nonsense characters. Along with Lloyd Bridges and George Kennedy, Nielsen boosted his profile with a switch to deadpan humor by sending up parts he had played in early dramas and parodying themes borrowed from other films.
Nielsen acted in more than 50 movies before he turned to comedy as Dr. Rumack in “Airplane!” (1980), a satire based on the 1957 film “Zero Hour” and the “Airport” disaster series of the 1970s. He followed up with a starring role in the “Naked Gun” trilogy (1988-94) as police Lieutenant Frank Drebin, who bumbled his way to success with sidekick Captain Ed Hocken, played by Kennedy, and love interest Jane Spencer, portrayed by Priscilla Presley.
“I’ve been called the Laurence Olivier of spoofs,” Nielsen said. “I guess that would make Laurence Olivier the Leslie Nielsen of Shakespeare.”
‘Don’t Call Me Shirley’
“Airplane!” was ranked 10th in the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 comedy films in 2000. Set on board a commercial plane whose crew and passengers have fallen ill from food poisoning, the movie produced numerous trademark one-liners. “Surely you can’t be serious,” the plane’s makeshift pilot says in one scene when asked if he can fly the plane. “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley,” Nielsen’s character replies.
The “Naked Gun” series raked in $216 million in gross revenue and the box-office takings were among the highest for a comedy in the past 30 years. The first installment follows Drebin’s absurd attempts to foil a plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II at a baseball game on her U.S. visit. The sequels centered on plots to kidnap a government scientist and to explode a bomb at the Academy Awards.
Slapstick scenes abound with Drebin obliviously disabling criminals as he enters a room, repeatedly knocking down first lady Barbara Bush and unintentionally squeezing the breast of a female dinner guest as he struggles with his lobster dish.
Nielsen, who carried a whoopee cushion to simulate flatulence during television interviews, had a minor role as President Harris in two of the “Scary Movie” horror-film spoofs in the past decade. The series was even more popular than “Naked Gun,” with gross revenue of $430 million for the four parts.
Leslie William Nielsen was born Feb. 11, 1926, in Regina, the capital city of Canada’s Saskatchewan province. His father, an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was of Danish descent and his mother was of Welsh ancestry.
Nielsen, one of whose two brothers later became Canada’s deputy prime minister, was raised in Tulita, Northwest Territories, before attending Victoria Composite High School in Edmonton, Alberta. At age 17, he trained as an aerial gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. Nielsen earned a degree at Lorne Greene’s Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto before moving to New York in 1949.
He won a scholarship to study acting under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York before Paramount Pictures offered him a contract in 1954. For five years, he appeared on live television programs such as “Tales From Tomorrow” and made his film debut in the drama “Ransom!” (1956). A starring role followed in the science-fiction movie “Forbidden Planet” (1956) and he played opposite Debbie Reynolds in the romance film “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957).
Nielsen appeared in the biographical “Harlow” (1965) and the disaster film “Poseidon Adventure” (1972), in which he played the captain of a sinking ship. He also had roles in the television series “Hawaii Five-O,” “M*A*S*H” and “Columbo.”
Known as a practical joker off the set, Nielsen got his break when “Airplane!” directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker sought serious actors who could adapt to slapstick, a style they later brought to television with “Police Squad!” (1982). The series introduced the character of Frank Drebin and earned his portrayer an Emmy nomination.
Nielsen, a naturalized U.S. citizen, remained a comedy actor after his success in the 1980s, landing roles in less-acclaimed spoofs such as “2001: A Space Travesty” (2000) and “Superhero Movie” (2007). He played more than 230 characters in his film-and-television career.
He published a fictional autobiography in 1993 to coincide with the release of “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.” The book, called “The Naked Truth” and co-written with David Fisher, included absurd factoids about the actor’s career as well as fake photographs of himself posing with other stars. An avid golfer, Nielsen also wrote “Leslie Nielsen’s Stupid Little Golf Book” and “Bad Golf My Way.”
Nielsen was divorced three times and married his fourth wife, Barbaree Earl, in 2001. He had two daughters -- Maura Nielsen Kaplan and Thea Nielsen Disney -- from his second marriage. He lived in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
His wife and two daughters survive him. Erik Nielsen, his brother and former deputy prime minister of Canada, died in September 2008.