Leslie Nielsen, the actor who took an unexpected mid-career turn from dramatic roles into comedy with the hit film Airplane!, died yesterday in hospital near his home in Ft. LAuderdale, FL from complications of pneumonia. He was 84.
For a good portion of his early career, the Canadian-born Nielsen specialized in dramatic and romantic leading roles, first in the television anthology series of the early 1950s and then in films. After an early breakthrough performance as the heroic Captain Adams in the 1956 science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet, upon which Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry would partly model his own Captain Kirk, Nielsen would turn in other memorable turns in such films as Tammy And The Bachelor, Beau Geste and The Poseidon Adventure.
When writer/directors Jim Abrams and David And Jerry Zucker began looking for an actor to play a doctor in their parody Airplane!, they turned to Nielsen. Instructing him to play the role as if it were a dramatic instead of comedic one, Nielsen’s Dr. Rumack was one of the hit film’s standout characters, in part due to his straitlaced delivery of lines like “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing- finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner” and “I am serious… And don’t call me Shirley.”
Abrams and the Zuckers were so pleased with Nielsen’s work that they brought him in to star as Lt. Frank Drebin in their cop series parody Police Squad for ABC. Although the show was canceled after just six episodes, it was resurrected for the successful three film Naked Gun series. Nielsen would also appear in other comedy films that would ape the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker deadpan style including Repossessed, Spy Hard and Superhero Movie. He would work with David Zucker on the third and fourth entry of the Scary Movie series when the director was called in to help revitalize the horror film parody franchise.