Leslie Nielsen, the Canadian-born actor who found an unexpected career boost after his deadpan comedic delivery in Airplane! (1980) died yesterday at the age of 84 due to complications from pneumonia.
Best-known for the immortal quip “And don’t call me Shirley,” Nielsen’s career began in live TV before making his big screen debut as a hungry reporter in the potent kidnapping thriller Ransom! in 1956. That same year, Nielsen nabbed the co-starring role of spaceship captain Adams in Forbidden Planet, and appeared in a handful of light films before returning to TV, where he remained almost exclusively for 20+ years, acting in series like Peyton Place (1965) or one-shot roles in a string of series (including the obligatory appearance in Canada’s blasted Littlest Hobo).
The odd film roles included westerns and dramas, not to mention Canadian tax shelter ‘gems’ such as City on Fire (1979) and Prom Night (1980), and yet during his ‘serious’ career phase he’s best remember as the captain of the luxury liner Poseidon, even though he’s dead less than a half hour into The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
That’s probably a reflection of his reliable, staid persona, something the makers of Airplane! sensed could be milked in the airplane disaster spoof that goosed the actor’s career, which yielded the short-lived cult series Police Squad! (1982) and the three Naked Gun spin-off films (1988-1994). One of his last serious roles was as a dead john who causes Barbara Streisand to fight for her freedom in the underrated Nuts (1987).
Nielsen’s final career phase encompassed voice work, TV, stage, and generally bad comedies (Mr. Magoo actually emits the stench of rotten potatoes from DVD players and TV sets), but if the waves of international reports reveal anything, his bumbling Det. Frank Drebin and plane doctor Dr. ‘Shirley’ Rumack were universally beloved. He wasn’t a great actor, but reliable, and often quite funny.
Also newly dead is 87 year old director Irvin Kirshner, whose career also began in TV and yielded a surprisingly short film output, often consisting of high-profile sequels and remakes.
Deliberate or not, he went from the dud S*P*Y*S (1974) to The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the best of the Star Wars films. That plum box office hit yielded the James Bond film Never Say Never Again in 1983 (a remake of 1965’s Thunderball), and the brilliantly loud and violent Robocop 2 (1990), after which directed an episode of Steven Spielberg’s dud series Seaquest DSV in 1993 before formally retiring.
His most critically acclaimed films are probably his first: The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964), based on Brian Moore’s novel, and The Flim Flam Man (1967) with George C. Scott as a snake oil salesman.
Mark R. Hasan, EditorKQEK.com