‘Naked Gun,’ ‘Airplane’ actor Leslie Nielsen dies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - Leslie Nielsen had the somber demeanor and stone-serious face that were just right for dramatic roles. They proved even better for comedy.

“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.

Nielsen, the dramatic lead in “Forbidden Planet” and “The Poseidon Adventure” and the bumbling detective in “The Naked Gun” comedies, died on Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.

The Canada native died from complications from pneumonia at a hospital near his home, surrounded by his wife, Barbaree, and friends, his agent John S. Kelly said 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,” said Kelly.

Comic actor Russell Brand took to Twitter to pay tribute to Nielsen, playing off his famous line: “RIP Leslie Nielsen. Shirley, he will be missed.”

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.

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.

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