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celebrity news

Leslie Nielsen: Two careers in one lifetime

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Monday, November 29, 2010

As the celebrity columnists, entertainment reporters and bloggers of media write their obituaries of actor Leslie Nielsen, there are two roles being mentioned in nearly all of their pieces: his turn as the Captain of the Earth starship that ventured to the Forbidden Planet in 1956, and his play as a straight, no-nonsense doctor delivering double-meaning lines in 1980's Airplane! And here I am, writing my own piece about the death of Nielsen and agreeing with the others in my chosen profession: these were the two most important roles in Leslie Nielsen's life. Depending upon which side of the generational gulf that you were born into, your own mental picture of who Leslie Nielsen was as a leading man can be about as widely different as it can get.

Nielsen had the good looks, square jawline and affirmative voice of a leading man, and as such he got those roles. In the 1950s he worked as a guest star on dozens of TV procedural and drama shows like Hallmark Hall of Fame, Lights Out, Love Story and the dramatically titled Justice. But then in 1956, Nielsen took his first leading man role in a movie playing the commander of a spaceship sent to a distant and dangerous world. While Forbidden Planet included many of the 50s tropes that we laugh at today, with its lacy, leggy female love interest for Nielsen's Commander Adams to fall in love with, it also presented some of the better, more cerebral ideas found in science fiction movies of the day. As such it became a classic of its genre and remained a favorite of sci-fi fans until the appearance of Star Wars in 1977 and a reimagining of the way sci-fi movies were presented.

The popularity of Forbidden Planet gave Nielsen an opportunity to top several other movies but none could solidify his box office bankability. In the 1960s he went back to making guest appearances in popular TV shows, with the most steady work offered by playing a recurring character in the serial drama Dr. Kildare. The constant television work made him a recognizable face to television viewers, and occasionally he would get a role in a movie playing someone in some power or looked up to in society, like the captain of the doomed cruise ship in The Poseidon Adventure.

And then in 1980 the Zucker brothers arrived and turned movie comedy on its head. Cast as Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, the Zuckers banked on the serious and leading man image that Nielsen had been presenting to audiences for 25 years and then turning those expectations upside-down. Part of what worked so well with Airplane! was the Zuckers' ability to cast heroic, leading men in the same parts that they would play if the movie were an action film or a drama, but to have them deliver their jokes as nonchalant as they could. Airplane! was a huge hit but what the public was just learning was that the movies had finally given Nielsen the role that he always wanted to play, that of the joker out to prank you and make you laugh at the same time.

The Zuckers recognized Nielsen's comedic talent and gave him the chance to do it weekly on the short-lived series Police Squad! Back in the 1980s, when a TV series got cancelled it was unheard of for the show to be given a second chance as a movie (that is, unless your show was called Star Trek) but somehow, someway, the Zuckers convinced Paramount to bankroll a Police Squad! movie. It was a big hit, and that movie cemented the second career that Leslie Nielsen was to have.

Nielsen and the Zuckers followed up with two more Police Squad! movies before the showman went on to capitalize on his new identity as a comedian. Several other comedies employed Nielsen as a buffoonish lead like his Police Squad! Frank Drebin character -- Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Spy Hard, Wrongfully Accused come to mind -- but all of these movies failed to capture the genuineness that the Police Squad! movies had, as well as the appreciation of the box office.

One aspect of Leslie Nielsen that I admire is that he never let go of his Canadian roots. He had a brother who was at one point the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, and he also took a recurring role as a Mountie on the TV show Due South. In the Canadian media interviews and talk shows that I saw him on, he would shine about his love for being a Canadian just as brightly as pranking the interviewer with his whoopie cushion gag.

Leslie Nielsen passed away today at the age of 84, and in the Twitter stream of consciousness the online journalist people that I follow are reminiscing and appreciating the way he entertained us by recalling one of his lines from Airplane! or The Naked Gun films. Deep down inside our hearts I think we believe that he would like for it to go this way.

mckracken
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Posts: 965
Posted: 6 years 47 weeks ago

"surely you cant be serious!!!"

"YES, I am.. and dont call me Shirley!"

gone with the wind Frank Drebin... we love yah!