As you may have heard, Leslie Nielsen died yesterday at the age of 84 — a ripe old age, to be sure, but we still mourn his passing. Nielsen was an insanely prolific actor (with 100 movies and 1,500 TV shows under his belt), and while he began his career with serious roles in films like The Poseidon Adventure, he became a cult hero to most of us when he branched into comedy. Specifically, slapstick parodies.
There was something about his ability to spout the silliest lines in a deadly serious tone, as well as going full-fledge into physical comedy without regards to his dignity that endeared us to him. Nielsen was like a dirty older uncle who would always have you in stitches even as your parents rolled their eyes and sighed heavily.
He launched into comedic superstardom by latching on to the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker train, starting with Airplane!, where his cameo more or less stole the show — and don’t you ever, EVER dare to call him Shirley!
And although people perhaps know him best as Lt. Frank Drebin of the Naked Gun trilogy, it’s less well-known that Nielsen’s Drebin began as a TV character in the short-lived (we’re talking six episodes) 1982 Police Squad! show. Between the series and the films, Nielsen’s stock in comedy took off, and we suddenly had an embarrassment of hilarious lines to emulate.
While Airplane! and Naked Gun would be the capstones of his career, Nielsen never stopped making comedies, even when they were total stinkers (Dracula: Dead and Loving It) or one-note jokes (Spy Hard). He enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the latter Scary Movies, earning praise for his roles in 3 and 4, which hopefully encouraged a new generation of filmgoers to check out his previous flicks.
In any case, he’s a cult hero, and deserves a 21-arm fart salute in his honor.
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