- Associated Press - Monday, November 29, 2010

LOS ANGELES | 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.

“Surely, you can’t be serious,” an airline passenger says to Mr. Nielsen in “Airplane!” the 1980 hit that turned the actor from dramatic leading man to comic star.

“I am serious,” Mr. Nielsen replies. “And don’t call me Shirley.”

The line was probably his most famous - and a perfect distillation of his career.

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

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

Critics argued that when Mr. Nielsen went into comedy he was being cast against type, but Mr. 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.

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

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. He 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, 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.

It was the beginning of a whole new career in comedy. Mr. 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.”

He asked to be released from his contract at MGM, and as a freelancer, he appeared in a series of undistinguished movies but remained active in television in guest roles. He also starred in his own series, “The New Breed,” “The Protectors” and “Bracken’s World,” but all were short-lived.

Then “Airplane!” captivated audiences and changed everything.

Producers-directors-writers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker had hired Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Mr. Nielsen to spoof their heroic TV images in a satire of flight-in-jeopardy movies.

“Leslie was key to ‘Airplane!’ and perfect in the role. I look at his performance, and it was very flawless,” Jerry Zucker said Monday, adding that there could be no better delivery of Mr. Nielsen’s “Shirley” line.

“We cracked up during shooting, then cracked up again during dailies. He really got what we were doing and he loved it,” he said.

After the movie’s success, the filmmaking trio cast their newfound comic star as Drebin in a TV series, “Police Squad,” which spoofed the cliches of “Dragnet” and other cop shows. Despite good reviews, ABC quickly canceled it after only six episodes.

“It didn’t belong on TV,” Mr. Nielsen later said. “It had the kind of humor you had to pay attention to.”

The Zuckers and Mr. Abrahams converted the series into a feature film, “The Naked Gun,” with George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson and Priscilla Presley as Mr. Nielsen’s co-stars. Its huge success led to sequels “The Naked Gun 2 1/2” and “The Naked Gun 33 1/3.”

His later spoof movies - none as successful or as acclaimed - included “Wrongfully Accused,” Mel Brooks’ “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” and “Spy Hard.”

Although movie spoofs have existed since the silent era, the films Mr. Nielsen made with the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team re-energized the genre, and even a small appearance by Mr. Nielsen was sought after and played up by such parodies as the “Scary Movie” films, “Stan Helsing” and the Spanish movie “Spanish Movie.”

As a measure of how popular and iconic Mr. Nielsen had become by the end of his career, film buffs’ message boards and Twitter feeds Monday were filled with RIPs and riffs off his best-known lines.

At noon Monday, “Leslie Nielsen” was the second-ranked “trending topic” on Twitter, trailing only “Cyber Monday.”

Alan Sepinwall at Hit Fix embedded a clip from a baseball-game scene late in the first “Naked Gun” movie and wrote “I am no longer able to sing our national anthem at baseball games without substituting some of the lyrics Frank Drebin comes up with while impersonating opera star Enrico Palazzo.”

Avant-garde critic Michael Sicinski tweeted that “I just want to wish Leslie Nielsen good luck. We’re all counting on him. (R.I.P.).” Catholic critic Steven Greydanus at the Arts & Faith discussion board wrote, “God willing, he’s dead and loving it.”

c Victor Morton of The Times contributed to this report.


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