Comedy star Leslie Nielsen dies at 84

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LOS ANGELES | Leslie Nielsen, who traded in his dramatic persona for inspired bumbling as a hapless doctor in “Airplane!” and the accident-prone detective Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun” comedies, died on Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.

The Canadian-born actor died from complications from pneumonia at a hospital near his home at 5:34 p.m., surrounded by his wife, Barbaree, and friends, said his agent, John S. Kelly, in a statement.

“We are saddened by the passing of beloved actor Leslie Nielsen, probably best remembered as Lt. Frank Drebin in 'The Naked Gun' series of pictures, but who enjoyed a more than 60-year career in motion pictures and television,” Mr. Kelly said.

Mr. 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 height, he seemed ideal for a movie leading man.

Mr. 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.”

He became known as a serious actor, although behind the camera he was a 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Nielsen deadpans.

When he asks a passenger if he can fly the plane, the man replies, “Surely you can’t be serious.”

Mr. Nielsen responds: “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

Critics argued he was being cast against type, but Mr. Nielsen disagreed.

“I’ve always been cast against type before,” he said, adding comedy was what he’d really always wanted to do.

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