According to breaking reports, Leslie Nielsen has passed away in Florida, where he was hospitalized for pneumonia. The veteran character actor and funnyman was 84 years old, and his death brings to a close one of the great reinventions in modern film.
Here’s a short interview with his nephew, confirming the details.
One of the reasons I’m glad I grew up in an era where the theatrical experience was still the main way to see a film is because of the memories I have of certain films when they played originally. Seeing “Airplane!” in a movie theater in 1980 was one of those great audience moments for me. People don’t react to comedies like that anymore, and part of it is that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker changed the way film comedy worked, and their style of shotgun-blast silliness has been so thoroughly absorbed by the mainstream that it doesn’t have the same impact. “Airplane!” blindsided the audience, and it was amazing to sit in that theater and ride those waves of laughter. I must have seen it theatrically at least a half-dozen times while it was out.
It was a particularly brilliant move on the part of the filmmakers to cast Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack in the film. Nielsen was at that point a regular guest star on every TV show in production, and seemed to be settling into that career the way so many older actors do. He was appearing in films like “Day of the Animals” and “Viva Knievel!” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” but this is a guy who had already played something like 80 speaking roles by that point, and who had been a leading man during the 50s.
His work in “Forbidden Planet” is probably the most familiar for genre fans, but he was a familiar face on live television drama, in early shows like “The Untouchables” and “Rawhide” and “Tales Of Tomorrow” and “Suspense.” He was one of those utilitarian actors who played a little of everything over the years. There was a period where he was almost exclusively used as bad guys, tough guys, menacing brutes.
Casting him in “Airplane!” was brilliant precisely because of that history of his. He was serious, a familiar face who was the very model of onscreen authority, and corrupting him by putting the most absurd words in his mouth but asking him to play them just as straight as everything else in his career was the exact right choice. Because Nielsen didn’t play the joke, he made everything funnier.
For my money, his best comedy work is the original six-episode run of “Police Squad!” on ABC. Either that or the black underpants he wore in “Nuts” when he beat the crap out of Barbara Streisand. I’ll go with “Police Squad!”, I think, because it felt like the perfect balance of broad absurdity and deadpan obliviousness. When it aired on television, the show failed miserably. Yet when they made the decision to try again on the bigscreen, the “Naked Gun” films went on to be major hits for Paramount. Nielsen was reinvented as the comedy guy, starring in more spoof films like “Dracula Dead and Loving It” and “Repossessed.” While I’m not crazy about much of his later work, once he started to play the comedy instead of playing against it, there was such goodwill built towards him that it’s hard to genuinely dislike anything he did. He was one of those people who always seemed to appreciate just what a wonderful accident his later career was, and he seemed to enjoy every bit of it.
I’ve spoken to many people who worked with him over the years, and everything I’ve ever heard about him was that he genuinely improved any set he was on. He was a consummate professional and a gentleman, and he leaves behind a lot of work that is worth discovering. Anyone who could play the oozing unctuous menace of his work in “Creepshow” and who could also play the warm charm of Lt. Frank Drebin was very special, indeed, and he will be greatly missed by friends and family and fans around the world.