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Posted at 11:41 PM ET, 11/28/2010

Leslie Nielsen dies: "Airplane!" and "Naked Gun" funnyman was 84

By Emma Brown

I will always remember Leslie Nielsen as the man who made my father, a discerning amateur film critic with a weakness for silliness, laugh so hard and so long that he couldn't help but drool a little bit.

Mr. Nielsen, the white-haired actor who had a serious dramatic career before he revealed himself in "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun" as a talented comedian with a genius for deadpan delivery, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.

"Airplane!" -- released in 1980 -- was a runaway hit made by the team of Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, a disaster-movie spoof about the passengers and crew aboard an ill-fated aircraft. Mr. Nielsen played a straight-facedly incompetent doctor, who at one point asks a fellow passenger to take over from the sick pilots and fly the plane.

"Surely you can't be serious," says the passenger.

"I am serious," Mr. Nielsen says. "And don't call me Shirley."

Mr. Nielsen kept working with the Zucker brothers as the main character -- bumbling detective Frank Drebin -- of the 1982 television show "The Police Squad!" The show was cancelled in its first season, but Mr. Nielsen kept Lt. Drebin alive in "The Naked Gun" (1988) and later in the sequels "Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear" (1991) and "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult" (1994).

At one point, Lt. Drebin asks out a gorgeous younger woman (played by Priscilla Presley) and she demurs. "How about a rain check?" she says.

"Well," Mr. Nielsen's Drebin replies. "Let's just stick to dinner."

Leslie Nielsen was born on February 11, 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan, and grew up near the Arctic Circle in a tiny Canadian town of 15 residents.

After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, Mr. Nielsen went to New York where he found work as an actor in live television performances. He had appeared in hundreds of TV episodes and 50 movies by the time the Zucker brothers met him in the 1970s. They knew immediately that they had found their slapstick man.

"Leslie kept emitting gas in a very loud and embarrassing manner," Jerry Zucker told People magazine in 1982. "We just assumed he'd been to Mexico or something. Then we found out he has this little rubber gadget that makes these terrible noises. And we realized that what we had here was a 10-year-old dipstick parading around as a genteel 50-year-old."

The Zucker brothers said they couldn't imagine Mr. Nielsen in straight roles.

"We're amazed people ever took him seriously all these years, and it's quite disconcerting to see him in a heavy drama," Jerry Zucker told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. "Every time he appears in some scenery-chewing scene opposite Barbra Streisand, it plays like a comedy to me."

A full obituary will follow. Meanwhile, some of Mr. Nielsen's funniest clips have been collected in the video below (thanks to YouTube user Drebin31). Tell us what's missing in the comments section.

By Emma Brown  | November 28, 2010; 11:41 PM ET
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"and she *demures*" !?

Posted by: clh4 | November 29, 2010 12:20 AM | Report abuse

Before "Airplane!" redefined his career, Nielsen usually played suave characters imbued with a rakish sense of humor. Surprisingly, he was never tapped for spy roles, which usually require such a character.

I will always remember him as the "Swamp Fox" -- Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion -- an inspiring portrayal he turned in for Walt Disney in the early 1960s through three go-rounds of a mini-series. He was a lot more than just a silly comedian.

Posted by: threedy | November 29, 2010 12:30 AM | Report abuse

Leslie Nielsen was a classic act and a great comedian. Dude will be missed here in America. End of an era for comedy with his passing.

Posted by: Homunculus | November 29, 2010 2:10 AM | Report abuse

For me, two of his most memorable roles were (1) J.J. Adams, commander of the space ship that lands on the "Forbidden Planet" in 1956 and (2) his recurring role as a sgt. of the Royal Canadian Mounties in "Due South." Of course, who of the older generation will forget The Swamp Fox? Not only was he a dashing hero but he also had that great plumed hat! Was that a feather plume or a fox tail?

Posted by: nkdanger | November 29, 2010 2:49 AM | Report abuse

RIP Mr Magoo. Thanks for the laughs

Posted by: Osego | November 29, 2010 3:19 AM | Report abuse

RIP Funny Face! (or Swamp Fox, totally forgot about that one....)

Posted by: plugugly7 | November 29, 2010 4:05 AM | Report abuse

This man could be funny without being VULGAR, like today's comedians. A true comedian. R.I.P.

Posted by: rankcon | November 29, 2010 4:57 AM | Report abuse

The second clip in this compilation shows Capt Clarence Oveur, played by Peter Graves -- not Leslie Nielsen.

Posted by: oceans11 | November 29, 2010 5:23 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Nielsen grabbed my heart in the movie "Forbidden Planet". I instantly fell for his slightly bowed legs and serious facial expression. When the movie "Airplane!" was released, I saw his comic side. I cried when he and Dorothy were married on "The Golden Girls". Rest in peace, Mr. Leslie Nielsen. You provided us with great slapstick entertainment.

Posted by: skinfreak | November 29, 2010 5:27 AM | Report abuse

It should have been O.J.

Posted by: ComfortablyDumb | November 29, 2010 6:06 AM | Report abuse

I remember when he was under contract to Unioversla Studios and had a small role as a guard at a video table watching the fictional character, Alexander Mundy's residence, in one of the first three shows(possibly the pilot) of the series, "It Takes a Thief."

A lot of different roles and a very talented actor has passed. Unfortunetly, this final role is one we try, but can't avoid.

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | November 29, 2010 6:15 AM | Report abuse

I've seen "Airplane" so many time, I don't know how many times I have seen it. I can still, occasionally watch it now and see or hear things I missed before. What is going on in the backgrouns is often as funny as the main story line. Surely, you're kidding. No, and don't call me Shirley!

Posted by: theduck6 | November 29, 2010 7:06 AM | Report abuse

I loved that Dude. He made me laugh like crazy. R.I.P. Mr. Nielson.

Posted by: awfulexcuse1 | November 29, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

Leslie Nielson was a serious actor first? Actually, I'm glad I missed that part of his career. He was so incredibly funny.

I will miss you, big guy.

Posted by: momof20yo | November 29, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

Most people don't know that Nielsen's brother was second in command (Deputy Prime Minister) under Prime Minister Mulroney in Canada during the 1980s. Very influential politician in Canada.

Also, I believe it is RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force).

Posted by: wswail | November 29, 2010 7:28 AM | Report abuse

I'm partial to this scene (innuendo):

Posted by: foad1234 | November 29, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

The world is a poorer place today without Leslie Nielsen's smiling face.

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | November 29, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Do not forget the classic sci-fi move:

Posted by: sitspin | November 29, 2010 8:07 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget: He was the Captain of the Poseidon Ocean Liner on the original 1972 'The Poseidon Adventure'.

Posted by: PT109Boat | November 29, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

RIP, Mr.Nielsen. As with Georgetowner, "the world is a poorer place" without your smiling face--but heaven is "surely" ;) a livelier one.

Posted by: martymar123 | November 29, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

I appreciated the humourous Leslie Neslson who emerged in the 1980s, but I also liked his earlier roles. He was great in the sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet. I am sad to here he is gone.

Posted by: tommytunes | November 29, 2010 8:25 AM | Report abuse

"and she *demures*" !?

Posted by: clh4 | November 29, 2010 12:20 AM

Thank you !!! I almost choked on my coffee when I saw that. Paging the copy editor, paging the copy editor....

Posted by: ajsmithva | November 29, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I so enjoyed his brand of comedy - he made me laugh. Mr. Nielson you will be missed, but will live on in your classic movies that will continue to make us laugh.

Posted by: asmith1 | November 29, 2010 9:20 AM | Report abuse

He was truly an understated ICON of the American cinema.

Posted by: mrramoramo | November 29, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Seems like the video is more a tribute to movies which included Leslie Nielsen rather than a tribute to him (lots of quite amusing scenes in which he never appears). Among my favorites not included above:
"Thanks to you, this town is overrun with babboons!" (refering to police fumbling that smashes through the National Zoo)
"Isn't that the fault of the voters?"

Posted by: jesseallen | November 29, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for picking up on the typo! I think it's finally fixed.

Posted by: Emma Brown | November 29, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Thank you to a very good actor and a terrific comedian, who will be so missed. Rest in peace, Shirley.

Posted by: tma_sierrahills | November 29, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: kissaled | November 29, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"I have a message for you
from Vincent Ludwig."

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you! Don't fire the gun while you're talking."

Posted by: blasmaic | November 29, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

We saw a 4D movie at Busch Gardens (along the lines of Treasure Island) where Leslie played "Captain Lucky" who kept knocking out his fellow pirates. Classic, and the kids could watch!

I'll not forget the commercials with him in pink fuzzy slippers.

Thank you, Canada.

Posted by: mammam | November 29, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Rankcon wrote:

"This man could be funny without being VULGAR, like today's comedians. A true comedian. R.I.P."

How true. Most of today's "comedians" aren't worthy of the title.

Leslie Nielsen surely will be missed, though I wouldn't dare call him Shirley.

Posted by: jjlc125 | November 29, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

i love leslie...may you rest in peace

Posted by: rep1111 | November 29, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

i love you leslie...may you rest in peace

Posted by: rep1111 | November 29, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

This man's movies make my whole family laugh. He will definitely be missed.

Posted by: synchross | November 29, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

nkdanger asked if the hat Mr. Nielsen wore in Swamp Fox had a plume or a fox tail - I recall the song as:
"Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat. Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox is at..." One of my favorite Disney series...along with Scarecrow...
And I can't help cracking up every time I think of his cameo as the captain of the Poseidon, what a great way to telegraph that the movie was really a comedy from beginning to end!

Posted by: tcrimm3746 | November 29, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

"...he also had that great plumed hat! Was that a feather plume or a fox tail?"

Don't you remember the song his slave/sidekick Oscar (played by jazz singer Smoki Whitfield) was always singing?

Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Tail on his hat,
Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox at!
Swamp Fox! Swamp Fox!
Hide in the glen,
He runs away to fight again!

Posted by: threedy | November 29, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

The article alluded to Mr. Nielsen's role in Barbra Streisand's film "Nuts." I remember admiring that he had the courage to appear in a scene wearing only black briefs! And thank you to the commenter who mentioned "Forbidden Planet" in which a young Nielsen falls in love with an even younger Anne Francis. Sci-fi fans recognize "Forbidden Planet" along with "The Day the Earth Stood Still" as "serious" 50s sci-fi films that paved the way for such epics as "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the "Star Wars" trilogy.

Posted by: socaloralpleazer | November 29, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Leslie was joy to all his fans. He made us laugh -- hard. We will miss you...

Posted by: AdrickHenry | November 29, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

In your Tribute, you forgot the hilarious scene in Naked Gun where he destroys Gainsborough's Blue Boy and burns down a penthouse, and all the while the player-piano plays madly on.. He'll be missed!

Posted by: swimswimswim | November 29, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

I still cannot hear the national anthem without recalling Lt. Drebin's impersonation of Enrico Palazzo (sp?) , the opera singer who was to sing Spangled Banner at the beginning of the baseball game in Naked Gun. la-la-la-la-la-la-la

Posted by: MatterLaw | November 30, 2010 1:21 AM | Report abuse

Very talented and funny actor/artist. Rest in peace Mr. Nielsen.

Posted by: bikeboatski | November 30, 2010 2:47 AM | Report abuse

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