Leslie Nielsen: 'Shirley, he will be missed'
Leslie Nielsen, once a Hollywood leading man, he found stardom as comedic actor. Leslie Nielsen starred in 'Airplane,' 'Naked Gun,' and 'Mr. Magoo.'
Despite decades spent playing sober commanders and serious captains, Leslie Nielsen insisted that he was always made for comedy. He proved it in his career's second act.Skip to next paragraph
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"Surely you can't be serious," an airline passenger says to Nielsen in "Airplane!" the 1980 hit that turned the actor from dramatic leading man to comic star.
"I am serious," Nielsen replies. "And don't call me Shirley."
The line was probably his most famous – and a perfect distillation of his career.
Critics argued that when Nielsen went into comedy he was being cast against type, but Nielsen disagreed, saying comedy was what he intended to do all along. "I've finally found my home – as Lt. Frank Drebin," he told The Associated Press in a 1988 interview.
Nielsen came to Hollywood in the mid-1950s after performing in 150 live television dramas in New York. With a craggily handsome face, blond hair and 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter) height, he seemed ideal for a movie leading man.
Nielsen first performed as the king of France in the Paramount operetta "The Vagabond King" with Kathryn Grayson.
The film – he called it "The Vagabond Turkey" – flopped, but MGM signed him to a seven-year contract.
His first film for that studio was auspicious – as the space ship commander in the science fiction classic "Forbidden Planet." He found his best dramatic role as the captain of an overturned ocean liner in the 1972 disaster movie, "The Poseidon Adventure."
Behind the camera, the serious actor was a well-known prankster. That was an aspect of his personality never exploited, however, until "Airplane!" was released in 1980 and became a huge hit.
As the doctor aboard a plane in which the pilots, and some of the passengers, become violently ill, Nielsen says they must get to a hospital right away.
"A hospital? What is it?" a flight attendant asks, inquiring about the illness.
"It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now," Nielsen deadpans.
It was the beginning of a whole new career in comedy. Nielsen would go on to appear in such comedies as "Repossessed" – a takeoff on "The Exorcist" – and "Mr. Magoo," in which he played the title role of the good-natured bumbler.
But it took years before he got there.
He played Debbie Reynolds' sweetheart in 1957's popular "Tammy and the Bachelor," and he became well known to baby boomers for his role as the Revolutionary War fighter Francis Marion in the Disney TV adventure series "The Swamp Fox."