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Leslie Nielsen, The 'Airplane!' And 'Naked Gun' Actor Who Started Out Serious

Entertainment | February 11, 2021

Left: Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen in 'Forbidden Planet.' Right: Nielsen and Jeannette Charles in 'The Naked Gun.' Sources: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images; IMDB.

Leslie Nielsen's legacy rests on Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies, but the late comedy genius spent over two decades as a serious actor before finding himself in the zany world of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker productions. For years, the classically handsome leading man played it straight to great success. Pictures like Forbidden Planet, Tammy and the Bachelor, and The Poseidon Adventure” all leveraged his matinee-idol good looks and trustworthy aura.

For younger readers it's hard not to imagine him making a hilarious remark but for many years Nielsen was a very serious actor. (Twitter)

Then, three decades into his Hollywood-star-worthy career, it made an abrupt change. He went from Jack Lemmon to Jack Black. “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” movies spotlighted an uproarious side of Neilsen most people never knew existed.

Three filmmakers, Jim Abrahams and brothers David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, saw the funnyman beneath the serious veneer. "They spotted me for what I truly was, which was a closet comedian," Nielsen said. "Ever since Airplane! began they would come over and knock on the door of the closet and say 'Leslie come on out and play.' "

Leslie Nielsen Is From The Great White North. The North Part Of It

Thankfully, Nielsen found "Airplane!" and the "Naked Gun" trilogy. (IFC)

Perhaps the most unlikely aspect of Nielsen’s life was its beginning. He was born and raised just 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, a son of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. As he put it, “There were 15 people in the village, including five of us. If my father arrested somebody in the winter, he’d have to wait until the thaw to turn him in.”

“Like a midget at a urinal, I was going to have to stay on my toes,”

In order to venture out in the real world, Neilson joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and became a gunnery sergeant. Eventually, he scored a radio job in Calgary despite being legally deaf, which eventually led him to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York.

Leslie Nielsen Cut His Teeth On Early '50s TV Dramas

"Can't you make a guess in less than two hours?" (Thegaurdian)

In New York, Nielsen earned dozens upon dozens of credits on early-'50s anthology TV shows like Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, Armstrong Circle Theater and Kraft Theater. Enough people saw his dashing face and credible acting to cast him as the star of Forbidden Planet (1956). The high watermark for sci-fi in the ‘50s, the film was like a Lost In Space or Star Trek long before those shows came about. 

Truth hurts. Maybe not as much as jumping on a bicycle with the seat missing, but it hurts.

Despite getting his big break, Nielsen felt it held him back from other projects. “It’s the reason I was never asked to do Star Trek or The Twilight Zone for TV. I carried too much baggage with me from that movie.”

Nielsen Played The Straight Man Oblivious To The Chaos Around Him

The world would have been a lot less funny without Neilson's late career comedic turn. (Amazon)

For years, Neilsen toiled away on dramatic roles in both movies and television before the Zucker Brothers cast him in the disaster parody, Airplane! The idea was to flip Neilson’s known serious persona for comedy’s sake. Of course, once he was on set, the Zuckers along with every member of the cast and crew realized what a hoot Neilsen was and how comfortable he was in a comedic setting.

Like a blind man at an orgy, I was going to have to feel my way through.

As David Zucker recalled, “He had that little fart machine of his, so that every time he was interviewed on a show or something—and in real life—he would be talking with a straight face, and then he would appear to be farting. That’s just what he liked to do." Nielsen liked to brag that he fake farted everywhere from an elevator in Japan to the White House.

Following 'Airplane!' Nielsen Stayed Busy With Comedy After Comedy

The man made for comedy found his way eventually. (wikimediacommons)

After his wildly successful appearance in a comedy, the typecast coin completely flipped. Neilsen went from only being cast in serious dramatic roles to only playing completely ridiculous characters. The naked guns movies which employed the most outlandish titles ever, “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988),“The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear” (1991), and “The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” (1994) cemented him as the most unlikely comedic legend ever.

I like my sex the way I play basketball: one-on-one with as little dribbling as possible.

He continued to appear in a long line of funny movies and even wrote an ebullient autobiography, Naked Truth. In it he cheerfully shared his life full of Academy Awards, an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, and a rehab stint to recover from a “dopey-joke addiction.” As Neilson looked back on his career, he realized, “It’s been dawning on me slowly that for the past 35 years I have been cast against type and I’m finally getting to do what I really wanted to do.” Upon his death in 2010, he even used his headstone to get in one last jest.  

Tags: Airplane! | Comedy | Forbidden Planet | Leslie Nielsen

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!