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Posted at 1:04 PM ET, 11/29/2010

Surely Leslie Nielsen can't be gone! Tribute to an American classic

By Alexandra Petri


All together now: He is gone, and stop calling me Shirley. Today we also lost Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back. This is the saddest I've been since I learned Pat Boone was still alive.

Leslie Nielsen was an American treasure. Like most American treasures, he was Canadian. In fact, his brother was a prominent Canadian politician who rose to become deputy prime minister.

He began his career in serious films, including Forbidden Planet and Poseidon Adventure, but he won our hearts in Airplane!, the best movie ever named for a way of getting from one place to another, including Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Sunset Boulevard, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Its most memorable quotes can be found here.

IMDB describes Nielsen's trademarks as "Delivering sophomoric punchlines with a deadpan expression," "Whoopee cushion" gags," and "appearing oblivious to everything that's happening around him." But there was so much more to it than that.

Leslie Nielsen had the same magical quality that makes cats so entertaining: excess dignity. He was silly, but he was silly with a gravitas that bordered on the sublime, whether starring in the Naked Gun franchise as Lt. Frank Drebin, or in Airplane! in his comedic breakout role as Dr. Ruback ("Surely you can't be serious!" "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley!").

Other credits included "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" (as Dracula, Dead and Loving It), and "Mr. Magoo," as Mr. Magoo. He even had a cameo in the Scary Movie series as President Baxter Harris.

How to commemorate a man like this? Stare at a photo gallery? Google his memorable quotes? I would deliver a sophomoric punchline, but without his trademark deadpan, I don't think it would land. Wander around making sad "surely" references? In fact, today's hidden casualties are all the people named Shirley who are going to be confused. "Shirley, we'll all remember Leslie Nielsen!" "Why are you singling me out?"

Now, in his wake, a modern tradition continues -- that when any great and popular person dies, a misspelled version of his name becomes a trending topic on Twitter. Leslie Nielson is fine, guys. And I don't know who Leslie Nelson is, but, oof. Really?

He may be misspelled. But, surely, he will not be forgotten. And in case you worried you might, here are a few suggestions for remembering Leslie Nielsen:

  • Name your child Shirley. Whenever Shirley says anything, shout, "Shirley, you can't be serious!" Sure, Shirley might grow up confused and filled with crippling self-doubt after a few repetitions of this.
  • Try to watch one of his movies without laughing. This is impossible, but that's not important right now.
  • Tweet your favorite #nielsenline for the BlogPost. "You take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan."

By Alexandra Petri  | November 29, 2010; 1:04 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, Worst Things Ever  | Tags:  America, Leslie Nielsen  
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Leslie Nielsen: It's the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.

Jane: Goodyear?

Leslie Nielsen: No, the worst.
Amen to that!
And thanks for Sharon.

Posted by: divtune | November 29, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

"Poseidon Adventure" was hardly the beginning of Leslie Nielsen's career! I remember he was my sister's first Hollywood heartthrob when he starred in "The New Breed" on TV in the early 1960s...

Posted by: Kathy8 | November 29, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Memories of the man bring a grin to my face.

In Handel's Messiah, there is a chorus, "Surely, he has borne our griefs". In order to correct the diction of the chorus . . . you guessed it. . . I stopped them and told them to "stop calling me Shirley."

Mr. Nielsen, we're going to miss you.

Posted by: GaryD3 | November 29, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

"Leslie Neilsen died in hospital today".
"What was it?"
"A big building full of patients, but that's not important."

I fear, due to this terrible news, I may develop a drinking problem.

Posted by: ttwiggle | November 29, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I used to be with a woman who admired Leslie Nielsen. Oh, I loved her, but she had her music. I think she had her music. She spent 300 days a year on the road with the Chicago Male Symphony and Chorus, but I don't remember her playing an instrument or even being able to carry a tune. One year I gave her a harp for her birthday. She asked me what it was.

Leslie Nielsen, a man for all seasons, but especially the first four. RIP.

Posted by: jbritt3 | November 29, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

"Who are you and how did you get in here?"

"I'm a locksmith. And I'm a locksmith."

Thanks for all the laughs, Shirley.

Posted by: hisroc | November 29, 2010 11:06 PM | Report abuse

When I was a kid, I remember my siblings and I watching Police Squad! on TV. I never lauged so hard until I re-watched the first episode on the web tonight.

Leslie was a hero of mine and will be missed by many. Thanks for the laughs my friend - you will be missed.

Posted by: ParkViewRob86 | November 29, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

I never understood why AIRPLANE! made the American Film Institute's list of 100 all-time best comedy movies but NAKED GUN did not.

Posted by: MatterLaw | November 30, 2010 1:32 AM | Report abuse

Im starting to hate this year now i mean leslie nelson was one of my best comics form naked gun and seems 2010 is taking all the greats like gary Coleman and now this guy.

Posted by: andy78 | November 30, 2010 8:18 AM | Report abuse

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