Monday, November 29, 2010

The Late Great Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen, who starred in such movies as Forbidden Planet (1956) and such television series as Police Squad, passed yesterday at the age of 84. The cause was complications from pneumonia.

Leslie Nielsen was born on 11 February 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan. His father was one of the Royal Canadian Mounted. One of his uncles was Danish actor Jean Hersholt. His early years were spent in Fort Norman, Northwest Territories. As Leslie Nielsen grew older, his family moved to Edmonton, Alberta so that his brother Eric could attend school there. It was in Edmonton that Mr. Nielsen graduated high school.

During World War II, shortly before his 18th birthday, Mr. Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was trained as an aerial gunner, but never served overseas. Gifted with leading man good looks and an incredible voice and inspired by his uncle Jean Hersholt, Leslie Nielsen decided to pursue acting. He began his career as a Calgary radio station, as a radio engineer, announcer and, as Stay Up Sam the All-Night Record Man, a DJ. He eventually enrolled at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts, afterwards earning a scholarship at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York City. He received more training at the Actor's Studio, also in New York City.

In 1950 Leslie Nielsen made his television debut in an episode of Actor's Studio. During the Fifties he would go onto appear in such shows as Stage 13, The Clock, The Magnavox Theatre, Out There, The Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, Lights Out, Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Web, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, The Untouchables, and Thriller. He made his film debut in 1956 in Ransom. The same year he played one of the leads, Commander John J. Adams, in the classic science fiction adaptation of The Tempest, Forbidden Planet. Mr. Nielsen's film career took off, and for the rest of the Fifties he would appear in such films as The Opposite Sex (1956), Hot Summer Night (1957), Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), and The Sheepman (1958). He made his only appearance on Broadway in Seagulls Over Sorrento in 1952.

In the Sixties Leslie Nielsen's career switched primarily to television. He was the lead in the short lived series The New Breed, a regular on Peyton Place, one of the leads on The Bold Ones: The Protectors, and the lead on Bracken's World.  He guest starred on such shows as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour, Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive, Wagon Train, Daniel Boone, The Defenders, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Ben Casey, The Loner, The Wild Wild West, Dr. Kildare, The Farmer's Daughter, Bonanza, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, and The Virginian. He appeared in the films Night Train to Paris (1964), Harlow (1965), Dark Intruder (1965), The Plainsman (1966), Beau Geste (1966), Gunfight in Abilene (1967), Counterpoint (1967), Rosie (1967), Dayton's Devils (1968), How to Commit Marriage (1969), Change of Mind (1969), and Four Rode Out (1970).

In the Seventies Leslie Nielsen guest starred on such shows as Monty Nash, Night Gallery, Bearcats, The Mod Squad, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones, The Streets of San Francisco, Hawaii Five-O, The Manhunter, Ironside, Kojak, Kung Fu, Cannon, Columbo, and The Chisholm. Mr. Nielsen continued to appear in movies, most notably as the captain in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He also appeared in such films as The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1971), Grand Jury (1976), Project Kill (1976), Sixth and Main (1977), and City of Fire (1979). It was in the Seventies that Leslie Nielsen began the shift from dramatic roles to comedic ones. In 1973 he made a rather comic guest appearance on the series M*A*S*H. In 1977 he made an uncredited appearance in Kentucky Fried Movie in the segment "Feel-O-Rama." His shift towards comedy would be complete with is appearance in the spoof Airplane, in which he played Dr. Rumack. His turn to comedy would effectively revitalise his career.

Indeed, in the Eighties he would appear for the first time as what may be his best known character, Detective Frank Drebin, in the short lived series Police Squad. The show only lasted six episodes, but garnered such a cult following that it inspired three movies: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988), The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991), and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994). He would also be one of the leads in the short lived comedy Shaping Up. He would guest star on such shows as Hotel, Ray Bradbury Theatre, 227, Murder She Wrote, Highway to Heaven, Father Dowling Mysteries, Who's the Boss, and Day by Day. He appeared in such movies as A Choice of Two (1981), Foxfire Light (1982), Wrong is Right (1982), Creepshow (1982), The Creature Wasn't Nice (1983), The Patriot (1986), Soul Man (1986), Nuts (1987), Home is Where the Hart Is (1987), Dangerous Curves (1988), and Repossessed (1990).

In the wake of the Police Squad/Naked Gun movies, Leslie Nielsen would star in a number of similar comedy movies from the Nineties onwards. He appeared in such films as All I Want for Christmas (1991), Surf Ninjas (1993), Digger (1994), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), Spy Hard (1996), Family Plan (1997), Mr. Magoo (1997),Wrongfully Accused (1998), 2001: A Space Travesty (2000), Camaflogue (2000), Kevin of the North (2001), Men with Brooms (2002), Scary Movie 3 (2003), Scary Movie 4 (2006), Superhero Movie (2008), Stan Helsing (2009), and Stonerville (2010). He guested on such shows as The Golden Girls, Herman's Head, Evening Shade, Due South, and Robson Arms.

With a voice trained in radio, throughout his career Leslie Nielsen served as a narrator on films and TV shows. Among the movies he narrated were The Battle of Gettysburg (1955), Threshold: The Blue Angels Experience (1975), and The Homefront. Among the various TV shows on which he served as a narrator were The Explorers and National Geographic Specials.

Although today he is best know as a comedy actor, we should perhaps remember that Leslie Nielsen began his career as a dramatic leading man. He was convincing as Commander Adams in Forbidden Planet, as well as Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion in the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour mini-series The Swamp Fox. Although he could easily play heroic figures or authority figures such as the Captain on The Poseidon Adventure, Mr. Nielsen's versatility went beyond such roles. Having begun his career playing leading men and heroes, he could also be a convincing villain, which he was in guest appearances on such shows as The Wild Wild West and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Leslie Nielsen could also play troubled characters, such as the Sheriff suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in the Bonanza episode "The Unseen Wound."

As talented as Leslie Nielsen was in dramatic roles, he had a definite gift for comedy. It was a gift that was actually put on display relatively early in his career, in the comedy Tammy and the Bachelor, although it would certain become more noticeable in the Seventies. Even before his historic appearance in Airplane, Mr. Nielsen displayed a gift for comedy in his guest appearance on M*A*S*H as the more than slight left of centre Colonel Buzz Brighton and in his cameo in Kentucky Fried Movie. Indeed, Mr. Nielsen had such a talent for comedy that he was able to build a whole career out of it, from Police Squad to Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Much of what made Leslie Nielsen so funny that he played even the most ludicrous character, particularly Detective Drebin, serious, delivering outlandish lines deadpan. It was a feat a lesser actor could not have accomplished. Although not often recognised as such in the United States, Leslie Nielsen was one of the greatest actors to emerge from Canada, an actor with a gift for both drama and comedy. Not many men were as a versatile an actor as Leslie Nielsen.


Anonymous said...

I've only very recently started to appreciate Leslie Nielsen's work. I confess, Tammy & the Bachelor is my favorite of his performances. (Call me shallow, but he was extremely handsome as Pete.) Of course, I saw quite a bit of The Swamp Fox as a kid too. It's my dad's favorite!

Leslie had a small role in the feature length pilot of It Takes a Thief, one of my very favorite shows. It's a nice comic bit as a baffled security guard that he did very well with.

Jim Marquis said...

My favorite line of his was in one of the Naked Gun movies. He's standing in front of an exploding fireworks factory and tells a crowd of onlookers "okay folks, let's move away, there's nothing to see here".

Terence Towles Canote said...

Emm, I pretty much grew up watching Leslie Nielsen. I loved The Swamp Fox and he guest starred on a lot of shows when I was a kid. And, of course, I saw some of his movies like Forbidden Planet and Tammy & The Bachelor when very young!

I remember that line, J., definitely one of his best!

Unknown said...

A big shock to me when I read it first at an online newspaper that he is not anymore physically with us. Surely he is with us inside our hearts. The best ever pokerface actor and deadly with his wits. Only I can wish is that Rest In Peace.