LESLIE NIELSEN DIES AT 84


FROM THE CANADIAN PRESS

LESLIE NIELSEN, the actor who went from drama to inspired bumbling as a hapless doctor in AIRPLANE! and the accident prone detective Frank Drebin in the THE NAKED GUN comedies, died on Sunday in Florida.

He was 84.

His agent JOHN S. KELLY said Mr. Nielsen passed away at a hospital near his home in Fort Lauderdale where he was being treated for pneumonia.

Mr. Nielsen’s nephew DOUG NIELSEN, who lives in Richmond, British Columbia, said his uncle had been hospitalized for the past 12 days and died in his sleep with wife BARBAREE EARL by his side.

LESLIE NIELSEN’S Canadian roots ran deep.

Though he eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen, his father was a Mountie and his brother ERIK NIELSEN served as an MP in the Yukon and as deputy prime minister in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government.

LESLIE NIELSEN was born FEBRUARY 11, 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan.

At age 17, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and trained as an aerial gunner.

After the war, he worked as a disc jockey at a Calgary radio station, then studied at a Toronto radio school operated by LORNE GREENE, who would go on to star on the hit TV series BONANZA. A scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse brought him to New York, where he immersed himself in live television.

Over the years, he made his mark in such classic programs as THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE FUGITIVE, PEYTON PLACE and COLUMBO. More recently, he appeared on the Canadian series ROBSON ARMS.

Mr. Nielsen also appeared in more than 100 films, including 1956’s THE OPPOSITE SEX (with JUNE ALLYSON and JOAN COLLINS), 1965’s HARLOW (with CARROLL BAKER), 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (with GENE HACKMAN), 1987’s NUTS (alongside BARBRA STREISAND and RICHARD DREYFUSS) and 2002’s MEN WITH BROOMS costarring PAUL GROSS.

DOUG NIELSEN said he and his own wife had enjoyed watching TAMMY & THE BACHELOR only two weeks ago. His uncle starred in that film in 1957.

“He was always a funny guy. When he started out he was a serious actor and then after Airplane the whole world changed for him.”

As a teen, the elder Nielsen had invited DOUG to visit him on film and TV sets in California, even encouraging him to become an actor. The nephew instead became a dentist — and his uncle would fly to Canada so DOUG could take care of his teeth.

“We loved him dearly and we’ll miss him and he was a good friend of mine – not just my uncle. I think that’s a tribute to him and his interests and just his warmth.”

DON McKELLAR, an acclaimed Canadian writer, filmmaker and star of the cartoon TV series ODD JOB JACK – which featured LESLIE NIELSEN in an episode – said Sunday that he only met the actor a couple of times but enjoyed working with him.

“He reinvented that funny straight man for his generation. You see some of that oblivious straight guy in Steve Carell and Will Ferrell.”

ROBSON ARMS producer BRIAN HAMILTON told The Canadian Press that LESLIE NIELSEN was a pleasure to work with — always keeping the atmosphere light with his mischievous sense of humour.

“He didn’t take himself, or anyone else, too seriously and he was someone who lightened the tone on sets constantly – even when we were under stress or a tight time frame. He was always the one to crack a smile and keep everyone in a light mood and frame of mind.”

On ROBSON’S second season, Mr. Nielsen played a crusty old ex hockey player who runs a pizza business while being stuck in a motorized wheelchair. Although he was the elder statesperson of the cast with an impressive history in the business, BRIAN HAMILTON said the actor – in his own unique way – soon put his coworkers at ease.

“Very quickly he gave us a sense of the kind of fun loving guy he was because he would walk up to a group and all of a sudden there would be this whoopee cushion going off and people would be cracking up.”

Mr. Hamilton stated that Mr. Nielsen inspired a generation of comic actors and writers and will be greatly missed.

LESLIE NIELSEN came to Hollywood in the mid 50s after performing in 150 live television dramas in New York. Tall, blond and arrestingly handsome, he seemed ideal for a movie leading man.

He first performed as the king of France in the PARAMOUNT operetta THE VAGABOND KING with KATHRYN GRAYSON. The film — he called it THE VAGABOND TURKEY — flopped, but MGM signed him to a seven year contract.

His first film for that studio was auspicious: as the space ship commander in the science fiction classic FORBIDDEN PLANET.

Unhappy with his roles at MGM, he asked to be released from his contract. As a freelancer, he appeared in a series of undistinguished movies.

“I played a lot of leaders, autocratic sorts; perhaps it was my Canadian accent,” he reasoned.

Meanwhile, he remained active in television in guest roles. Then AIRPLANE! captivated audiences and changed everything.

Until that point he had been known as a serious actor, although behind the camera he was a prankster. That was an aspect of his personality never exploited, however, until AIRPLANE! was released in 1980 and became a huge hit.

As the doctor aboard a plane in which the pilots and some of the passengers become violently ill, LESLIE says they must get to a hospital right away.

“A hospital? What is it?” a flight attendant asks, inquiring about the illness. “It’s a big building with patients. But that’s not important right now,” he deadpans.

When he asks a passenger if he can fly the plane, the man replies, “Surely you can’t be serious.” LESLIE responds: “I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley.”

Critics argued he was being cast against type, but the actor disagreed.

“I’ve always been cast against type before,” he said, adding comedy was what he’d really always wanted to do.

It was what he would do – the majority of the time – for the rest of his career.

Producers/directors/writers JIM ABRAHAMS and DAVID and JERRY ZUCKER had hired LLOYD BRIDGES, PETER GRAVES, ROBERT STACK and LESLIE NIELSEN to spoof their heroic TV images in a satire of flight in jeopardy movies.

After AIRPLANE’S success, the filmmaking trio cast their newfound comic star as Detective Drebin in the TV series POLICE SQUAD, which trashed the cliches of DRAGNET and other cop shows. Despite good reviews, ABC cancelled it after only six episodes.

JIM ABRAHAMS and the ZUCKERS converted the series into a feature film THE NAKED GUN, with GEORGE KENNEDY as LESLIE’S costar. Its huge success led to the sequels THE NAKED GUN 2 1/2 and THE NAKED GUN 33 1/3.

Between films he often turned serious, touring with his one man show on the life of the great defence lawyer CLARENCE DARROW.

LESLIE NIELSEN has stars on both Hollywood’s and Canada’s Walk Of Fame. He was named an Officer Of The Order Of Canada in 2002.

He was also married to MONICA BOYER (1950 – 1956), SANDY ULLMAN (1958 – 1974) and BROOKS OLIVER (1981 – 1984).

Mr. Nielsen and Ms. Ullman have two daughters: THEA and MAURA.

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