Canadian character actor and comic icon Leslie Nielsen passed away last night in a hospital bed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the company of family and friends. He was eighty-four.
Hailed by Roger Ebert as “the Olivier of spoofs,” Nielsen was best known for his work in genre parody films like Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. But his body of work as an actor includes much more than just satirical send-ups of disaster flicks or police procedurals. Nielsen made his first television appearance on CBS’s dramatic anthology series Studio One (created by Canadian director Fletcher Markle) in 1948. From there he’d go on to appear in over one hundred films and more than 1,500 television shows, ranging from straight drama to sci-fi to high-concept spoofery.
Born in Regina in 1926, Leslie Nielsen chased the acting bug to Toronto, where he enrolled in the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts. While enrolled there he earned a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, a move that would kick-start his sixty-plus-year career in film and television. (Nielsen would later appear alongside Greene in the 1985 HBO/CBC mockumentary The Canadian Connection, which poked fun at the idea of Canadian stars like Nielsen conspiratorially working to undermine the United States by taking over its media.) Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Nielsen appeared in everything from episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the 1956 Shakespearean sci-fi hit Forbidden Planet to 1972’s all-star action-adventure The Poseidon Adventure and the 1979 Canadian disaster epic City on Fire.
But Nielsen’s big break would come in 1980 with a supporting role in the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker comedy Airplane!, a spoof of movies just like The Poseidon Adventure and City on Fire (as well as Airport and Zero Hours). Airplane! had Nielsen playing his straight-man persona for big laughs. In a film defined by wanton zaniness, Nielsen was the sombre oaf whose seriousness would refract all the absurdity surrounding it. (Witness: “Surely you can’t be serious?” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”) Nielsen would go on to mine this formula in the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker-produced TV series, Police Squad and its three Naked Gun spinoff films, which cemented his status as the tin god of cinematic satire and silliness.
Nielsen’s name and the infinite permutations of his goofy, instantly genial face would become so associated with the idea of cinematic send-ups that he was offered roles in all manner of sub–Naked Gun lampoonery: from Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It to the Bond spoof Spy Hard; from direct-to-video fare like 2001: A Space Travesty to a series of wacky golf instructional videos (Nielsen was an avid golfer). Even these offerings were buoyed by Nielsen’s inherent likeability, and the sheer fun of watching him bungle heroically through whatever picture he found himself in. And anyway, the failings of these later offerings are attributable less to Nielsen himself than to their botched conception, their misguided recalibration of the studied aloofness Nielsen perfected in Airplane! and the Naked Gun films, which derived their humour from the nerdy cinephilic knowledge of genre conventions. This is what makes them seem downright austere in comparison to contemporary inheritors of their legacy, like Epic Movie and Vampires Suck, which hinge too crucially on lowest common denominator gross-out gags.
Nielsen would return to Toronto frequently, be it in his capacity as host of the 1986 and 1991 Genie Awards, or to shoot principal photography for the 2002 Paul Gross comedy Men With Brooms, in which he played the estranged father to Gross’s curling badboy. The film would go on to gross over four million dollars, making it one of the most successful English-language Canadian films ever produced with a Telefilm subsidy. (Perhaps more importantly, the charming Canuck comedy has gone on to inspire a number of at-home drinking games.)
Nielsen’s memory is preserved less by the ritual imbibing of Men With Brooms fans, or by his star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, or standing as an Officer of the Order of Canada, though, than by the history of comedy, Canadian and otherwise, that followed him. Not only would his success pave the way for other Canuck funnymen like John Candy, Eugene Levy, Jim Carrey, and Mike Myers, but his legacy hangs heavy over all manner of cinematic spoofs. He may be gone, but he can’t be forgotten.
Whenever a police officer in a film comedy reaches for his pistol and finds only a rubber chicken, Leslie Nielsen will be there. Whenever a comic straight man stumbles into an impeccably oblivious double entendre, he’ll be there. Whenever a pair of ga-ga eyes pans down the curves of a buxom bombshell blonde only to land on a pair of uncharacteristically hairy legs, he’ll be there. Whenever a nun swears or smokes or smacks a woman in the face, he’ll be there. Whenever the trappings of one or another cinematic genre are poked, prodded, or playfully high-fived, he’ll be there.
And whenever some maladjusted movie geek gets a big laugh at a family reunion after flatly demanding that he not be called “Shirley,” Leslie Nielsen will be there.