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

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.

Full of sight gags and bad puns, "Police Squad!" was canceled by ABC after a handful of episodes in 1982 - but not before winning over critics and snagging a best actor Emmy nomination for Mr. Nielsen as the hapless Drebin, who solved cases by accident if at all.

"Audiences love Leslie," David Zucker once told an interviewer. "He looks so dignified and serious, and yet he betrays such insecurity, such a fumbling quality."

Mr. Nielsen was seemingly impervious to his own gags, maintaining a perfect poker face even when telling a murder victim's widow: "Sorry to bother you at such a time. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead yet."

Mr. Nielsen blamed the cancellation of "Police Squad!" on the medium, and it seems he was right - Frank Drebin's big-screen resurrection in "The Naked Gun" (1988) was a box-office hit followed by two successful sequels: "Naked Gun 2 1/2 : The Smell of Fear" (1991) and "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult" (1994).

"Mr. Nielsen is again splendid," New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote of the second installment. "A little bit pompous, immaculately groomed, but always as vulnerably as a man who is unaware that he is walking around without any trousers."

With a supporting cast including O.J. Simpson and Priscilla Presley as Jane, Drebin's love interest, the "Naked Gun" movies embraced bathroom humor, physical comedy and wordplay with "an unexpected sophistication," wrote Times film critic Janet Maslin.

"Can I interest you in a nightcap?" Presley's Jane asks.

"No thank you," Mr. Nielsen's Drebin replies. "I don't wear them."

Leslie William Nielsen was born Feb. 11, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan. He grew up near the Arctic Circle after his father, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was posted to a tiny town in the Northwest Territories.

Mr. Nielsen's uncle was renowned actor Jean Hersholt, after whom an honorary Academy Award for humanitarian work is named.

Mr. Nielsen joined the Royal Canadian Air Force after high school and then found his way to Toronto and New York for acting lessons.

In 1950, his first year as a professional actor, he landed dozens of live-television appearances. Six years later, he got a break as a spaceship captain in the sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet."

Mr. Nielsen went on to appear in hundreds of television shows and dozens of movies, earnestly playing roles that would later provide him fodder for parody - including as a police officer in the 1969 NBC series "The Bold Ones" and as the skipper of a doomed ocean liner in "The Poseidon Adventure," a 1972 disaster flick.

When the Zucker brothers met Mr. Nielsen in the 1970s, they knew they had found their slapstick man.

"Leslie kept emitting gas in a very loud and embarrassing manner," Jerry Zucker told People magazine in 1982. "We just assumed he'd been to Mexico or something. Then we found out he has this little rubber gadget that makes these terrible noises. And we realized that what we had here was a 10-year-old dipstick parading around as a genteel 50-year-old."

Mr. Nielsen joined an "Airplane!" cast including other veterans of television drama, including Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, who were not known for their comic impulse.

In order to be funny, "the movie had to appear to be a straight movie," David Zucker told the Times in 1988.

After his turn toward comedy, Mr. Nielsen continued to seek belly laughs, appearing in Mel Brooks's "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" as well as installments of the "Scary Movie" series and "Spy Hard," a sendup of James Bond films.

Mr. Nielsen also wrote a spoof memoir, "The Naked Truth," in which he recalled his marriage to actress Michelle Pfeiffer, a romance with Liz Taylor and other experiences he made up.

His first three marriages - to Monica Boyer, Alisande Ullman and Brooks Oliver - ended in divorce. Survivors include his fourth wife, Barbaree Earl; and two daughters from his second marriage, Maura and Thea. His brother Erik Nielsen, a former deputy prime minister of Canada, died in 2008.

Mr. Nielsen said he had been typecast as a dramatic actor because people took him seriously. It was something about the way he carried himself, he said. In time, he took himself seriously as well.

It was madcap detective Frank Drebin who offered an escape.

"I realized that I was as dumb and stupid as that guy I was playing, and it was a great feeling," Mr. Nielsen said in 1996. "Frank set me free."

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