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Leslie Nielsen:
A Remembrance

If there is a beloved comedy icon of the 1980s and 90s, it’s Leslie Nielsen. His turns as the Doctor in Airplane! and as Lt. Frank Dreben in Police Squad! and The Naked Gun movies made him an oft-quoted comedic inspiration to two generation of comedy geeks. Nielsen died on Sunday at the age of 84.

While most will remember him for his comedy, he was a serious dramatic actor starting in the early 1950s after brief stints in both the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

He first fell into the arts world by becoming a DJ and enrolling in the Lorne Greene School for the Radio Arts. He took to acting and started to appear on television, a habit he would keep up for decades. His appearances on shows like Studio One had him appearing alongside some of the legends of the era, including Charleton Heston and Marilyn Monroe. He would star in Disney’s The Swamp Fox mini-series, a classic piece of television history.

IN the 1950s, Nielsen began to act in film, starting with Ransom and The Vagabond King in 1956. It was another 1956 film that would be his most geek-relevant. Nielsen played Commander John J. Adams in Forbidden Planet, arguably the most important science fiction film of the 1950s. His performance was pitch perfect and many point to him as the actual drive behind the film, and his interplay with co-star Anne Francis was fantastic. I always thought he carried the film all by himself.

Many of his other films in the 50s and 60s were pretty forgettable, save for the WWII film Counterpoint, but he would shine as Captain Harrison in The Poseidon Adventure.

Nielsen first worked on a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movie uncredited in Kentucky Fried Movie, a send-up of just about everything directed by John Landis. When the ZAZ crew made Airplane!, they cast Nielsen as Dr. Rumack.

This was Nielsen’s first big comedic role, and he was deadpan perfect, a trademark he would keep throughout the next twenty years. His classic line “…and don’t call me Shirley” has been quoted again and again and again.

The ZAZ combo then cast him in Police Squad, a take-off on the Quinn-Martin cop shows that were so popular in the 1970s, and many of which Nielsen had guest-starred on. It was cancelled after only 4 episodes (2 more are on the DVD), but ZAZ then made three movies in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad series.

Nielsen would become the icon of the joke machine gun satires that would follow, including showing in up in the Scary Movie franchise as the President of the United States. Every surrealistic comedian and deadpan delivery specialist of the last twenty-five years took something away Leslie Nielsen’s performances in the ZAZ films.

The story I’ll always remember, largely because my friend Tol always tells it to me every time I run into him, was how Leslie Nielsen was advertised at a convention in LA in the late 1990s. He had actually never been contacted and the guys who put the con together had advertised a dozen stars who they had never actually contacted and absconded with the gate.

When folks checked into the convention center, they were told by the folks who were working on the convention that no one was there and they weren’t sure who was coming. Someone got in touch with Leslie and he agreed to come down and chat with the fans for the afternoon, sign autographs and take pictures.

Then, when one of the organizers peeked in, he lit into him for his dishonesty and apparently it worked as they refunded much of the fans’ money and even paid some of the stars who they had advertised.

Such was the power of Leslie Nielsen.

Chris Garcia

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