Leslie Nielsen, serious actor who became a master of deadpan comedy, dies at 84

Leslie Nielsen in
Leslie Nielsen in "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" (Paramount Via Associated Press)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:52 PM

Leslie Nielsen, the white-haired actor who had a long career playing bland leading men and hyperserious authority figures before enjoying one of the great second acts of show business as a master of deadpan comedy in the films "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun," died Sunday of complications from pneumonia in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.

Despite his avowed personal fondness for the flatulence simulators known as whoopee cushions, Mr. Nielsen had a reputation for playing lawyers, ambassadors and other button-down, square-jawed types. Then came "Airplane!," a disaster-movie spoof about the passengers and crew aboard an ill-fated aircraft.

"I was always secretly yearning and hoping that some day I would get the chance to do a good comedy," Mr. Nielsen said in 1997. "And then it happened."

He was chosen to join the "Airplane!" cast by the filmmaking trio of Jim Abrahams and brothers Jerry and David Zucker, who knew Mr. Nielsen as a behind-the-scenes jokester.

Released in 1980, "Airplane!" was an immediate hit that reincarnated Mr. Nielsen as a comic star.

In one of the movie's memorable moments, passengers are stricken by a mysterious and violent illness. Mr. Nielsen, playing a straight-faced and incompetent doctor, says they must be taken to a hospital immediately.

"A hospital? What is it?" a flight attendant says, asking for a diagnosis.

"It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now," Mr. Nielsen says.

At one point, he asks a passenger to take over from the sick pilots and fly the plane.

"Surely you can't be serious," says the passenger.

"I am serious," Mr. Nielsen says. "And don't call me Shirley."

Recognizing Mr. Nielsen's new potential as a deadpan funnyman, the Zucker brothers tapped him to play the dimwitted detective Frank Drebin in their next project, a parody of television cop shows.

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