Leslie Nielsen, the veteran Canadian actor whose dead-pan humor was immortalized in “Naked Gun” and “Airplane”, died yesterday in hospital of pneumonia complications. He was 84.
Nielsen had been battling a staph infection at a Fort Lauderdale hospital for 12 days.
Nielsen’s nephew, Doug Nielsen, told Manitoba radio station CJOB: “Leslie’s been in the hospital with pneumonia now for a number of days, approximately 12 days and just in this last 48 hours the infection has gotten too much, and today at 5:30 with his friends and his wife Barbaree by his side he just fell asleep and passed away.”
Nielsen’s family released a statement confirming his death: “We are saddened by the passing of beloved actor Leslie Nielsen, probably best remembered as Lt. Frank Drebin in ‘The Naked Gun’ series of pictures, but who enjoyed a more than 60-year career in motion pictures and television.”
His mother, Mabel Elizabeth (née Davies), was a Welsh immigrant from Fulham, London, and his father, Ingvard Eversen Nielsen, was a Danish-born Constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Nielsen had two brothers; his older brother, Erik Nielsen (1924–2008), was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada during the 1980s.
Nielsen spent several years living in Fort Norman, Northwest Territories when his father was stationed there with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Ingvard was a strict disciplinarian who used to beat his wife and children, and that made Nielsen want to escape.
Following his graduation from Victoria Composite High School in Edmonton, at the age of seventeen, Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was trained as an aerial gunner during the latter part of World War II (but was too young to be fully trained and sent overseas). He briefly worked as a disc jockey at a radio station in Calgary, Alberta, before enrolling at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto.
He studied acting in Toronto and New York, where he appeared in several live television shows in the 1950s and narrated several documentaries and commercials, using his distinctive voice.
He garnered positive reviews as a serious actor in several films from the 1950s onward, including the science fiction film “Forbidden Planet” and the disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure”, but it took his role as a clueless Dr. Rumack aboard a troubled passenger jet in the 1980 disaster-spoof hit “Airplane” to launch his successful career as a comedic actor.
The clueless doctor with a patrician air inspired the makers of “Airplane!” to bring Nielsen’s newfound comedy schtick to the small screen with “Police Squad.”
Though that show lasted only four episodes before being canceled, it won Nielsen an Emmy nomination and his role as Lt. Frank Drebin was reprised in film with “Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad.” The film spawned two sequels, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and Naked Gun 33?: The Final Insult (1994). Naked Gun 2½ grossed more money than the original, with $86,930,400, while Naked Gun 33? grossed $51,132,600 in receipts.
This video clip shows some of the funniest moments from the Naked Gun trilogy:
The “Naked Gun” series of three movies cemented Nielsen’s popularity, who followed it up with other starring roles in spoofs that were poorly received and panned by critics including “Repossessed” (1990) and “2001: A Space Travesty” (2000, parodies of The Exorcist and 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively.
Even a leading role in a Mel Brooks comic horror parody, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, failed to generate much box office excitement, although it did gain somewhat of a following on its later release to video. Both 1996’s Spy Hard and 1998’s Wrongfully Accused, a parody of The Fugitive, received even more popularity on home video but were not-well received by critics.
His attempt at children’s comedies met additional criticism. Surf Ninjas (1993) and Mr. Magoo (1997) faced scathing reviews.
Nielsen’s first major slapstick success since The Naked Gun came in a supporting role in the 2003 Scary Movie 3. His appearance as President Harris proved popular enough for a second appearance in its sequel, the 2006 Scary Movie 4. In one scene in the film, Nielsen appeared almost fully nude, and one critic referred to the scene as putting “the ‘scary’ in Scary Movie 4.”
In his 1993 autobiography “The Naked Truth,” Nielsen lampoons himself by making up events in his life like winning two Oscars for best actor and having an affair with Elizabeth Taylor.
All in all, Nielsen appeared in over 100 films and 1,500 television programs over the span of his career, portraying over 220 characters.
Nielsen married four times: Monica Boyer (1950–1956), Alisande Ullman (1958–1973), Brooks Oliver (1981–1983) and Barbaree Earl (2001–2010, his death). Nielsen also had two children from his second marriage, Maura and Thea Nielsen.
He is survived by his wife Barbaree Earl Nielsen and two daughters, Thea and Maura, whom he had with Ullman, his second wife.
RIP Mr. Nielsen…you will surely be missed!