Today, the 11th of February, 2021 would’ve been Leslie Nielsen’s 95th birthday. This is an article I’ve actually been meaning to write for a few years now, but it just kept slipping down my ever growing list of an increasing backlog. Still, as a way to say happy birthday to and remember one of the all time great funny men, I thought I’d finally finish this up and get it published.
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada on the 11th of February, 1926. Leslie Nielsen’s father was reportedly an abusive man. Often beating both Nielsen’s mother and his two brothers, along with Nielsen himself. Wanting to escape his slap-happy childhood, when he turned seventeen, Leslie Nielsen the Royal Canadian Air Force, despite being legally deaf. Nielsen had to wear hearing aids since he was a young child.
“You know it’s very difficult to be an actor, and to have people depending on you to say the right line, at the right time, and to not be able to hear your cues! I can’t tell you how many times I would’ve had to have said What? if I didn’t have my hearing aids. So my hearing aids are a life saver, and they allow me to practice my craft.”
– Leslie Nielsen
While in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Nielsen trained as an aerial gunner during World War II. After the war ended he enrolled at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto to study acting. It was while studying in Canada when he received a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York. Here, Leslie Nielsen studied theatre and music before landing his first TV appearance on an episode of the anthology show Studio One in 1950.
Through the early fifties, Leslie Nielsen was cast in many small parts as handsome extra and bit part player. He also narrated a few documentaries and commercials just to bring in some much needed cash. However, he wanted more and dreamt of being a big name Hollywood leading man. In 1956, Nielsen landed a small part in his first feature film The Vagabond King. The film was a flop but the producer on the film, Nicholas Nayfack, took a shine the the young and good looking Leslie Nielsen and offered him an audition for a sci-fi film that Nayfack was working on next, Forbidden Planet. Of course Nielsen got the part and the film went on to be a hit too.
In fact, Forbidden Planet (a sort of Shakespeare’s The Tempest… In space!) has been cited as the forerunner to ground-breaking TV show, Star Trek and the birth of real sci-fi entertainment. So great the film was and more importantly, so much liked and impressive Nielsen was that he was given a contract to work at MGM. After several years of bit parts and struggling as an actor, Leslie Nielsen was making a name for himself. Through the mid-fifties, Nielsen made more films for MGM Ransom!, The Opposite Sex, and Hot Summer Night. None of which were big hits and Nielsen started to become a bit jaded with the films he was being offered and even doubting himself as an actor. He landed the lead role in the romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor from 1957 from Uniserial Pictures (where he was borrowed from his MGM contract), which did get some positive reviews and still seen today as a pretty good flick. Leslie Nielsen began to realise that perhaps it was MGM who where the problem and not him. Still, MGM had an epic of a film coming up and one that Nielsen very much wanted to be in, Ben-Hur. He auditioned for the role of Messala in the 1959 flick and didn’t get it. By now, that contract with MGM has ended, which left Nielsen free to work elsewhere… So he did.
Leslie Nielsen found himself working for Disney on the 1959 TV miniseries, The Swamp Fox. Being put off by movies the last few years and now finding TV work so much more fun, Nielsen gave up on trying to be a big Hollywood leading man and settled on a career in TV instead. He began to appear in numerous TV shows in the sixties like, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (based on the film), The Virginian, and The Wild Wild West. Over the years, Leslie Nielsen very much became a character actor on TV and kept popping up in supporting roles, never landing a lead. He was pretty much back where he started in the early fifties, small and secondary parts, no leads, only now on TV instead of film.
The thing was, Leslie Nielsen could really act, he was a fantastic serious/dramatic actor, good looking in his youth too. He just wasn’t being offered the parts he could really get his teeth into and prove just how good an actor he was. Then, he landed a role that could’ve proven to be a huge door opening for him. Leslie Nielsen secured a lead role in the 1969 TV show The Bold Ones: The Protectors. He played Deputy Police Chief Sam Danforth, a tough, no-nonsense, straight talking cop with a drive to rid his city of crime. This was gritty drama, a genre that Nielsen was really bloody great at. Sadly, the show only lasted for seven episodes and the big leading break he was striving for never came.
In the seventies, Leslie Nielsen was back playing smaller parts. Appearing in one of the greatest TV shows of all time, Columbo in 1971. Plus, he began to appear in a few movies once more too… especially the popular disaster movies of the decade like 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and City on Fire from 1979. In fact, it was the smaller roles in those disaster movies that would finally make Nielsen the household name he eventually became…
It was the late seventies, two writer brothers, David and Jerry Zucker, along with writer Jim Abrahams (collectively known as Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker… or just ZAZ), all had a zany sense of humour. The trio had a success with the hilarious The Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977, and they wanted to follow up on it with another off the wall comedy. But, they wanted to remake the little known but very serious 1957 disaster flick, Zero Hour! and turn it into a film with their unique brand of humour. That remake was 1980’s Airplane! and playing perhaps the most memorable character in the entire film was Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack.
He was hired for this offbeat comedy because he was such a great serious actor, because of those roles in the disaster flicks of the seventies. ZAZ wanted, not known, but recognisable faces in their film to help sell the fact they wanted people to think that Airplane! had the look and tone of a serious disaster flick. The jokes would do the work while the actors just acted. It was this serious take on comedy that really worked and helped to make Airplane! such a huge hit. No matter how silly the situations in the film got, no matter how stupid some of the lines were, Leslie Nielsen was dead straight in his performance. Just as a quick aside, here’s a video comparing Zero Hour! to Airplane! so you can see how much the two films are similar:
It was also that deadpan approach to humour that led to Nielsen landing a lead role in a new cop show on TV, but unlike his previous starring role in a cop show with The Bold Ones: The Protectors, which was a heavy drama, this would be a comedy. Created by ZAZ again, Police Squad! saw Leslie Nielsen play Sergeant Frank Drebin (a role created just for Nielsen), detective lieutenant of the titular Police Squad! Just like Airplane! being a silly take on the serious disaster movie genre, so to was Police Squad!, but for police TV shows. However, unlike Airplane!, Police Squad! wasn’t a big hit. In fact, only six episodes were ever filmed and of those, only four originally made it to air before the show was cancelled by the ABC network in America. Though the last two episodes were eventually aired. Nielsen just couldn’t get a break and soon found himself struggling to find a lead role. As for why Police Squad! was cancelled? I’ll let Leslie Nielsen explain himself:
“We thought it was gonna be one of the biggest hits of the season, and we realised after it had been on for four [episodes]. It was pulled off [the air] in America because the ratings were not high, they got worse and worse. It’s the kind of humour that doesn’t belong on television, on the small screen because you had to watch it. [Tony] Thomopoulos, who was the head of programming at ABC said ‘it didnlt make it because you had to watch it’. What he meant was, you had to pay attention to it.”
– Leslie Nielsen
It was true too. The trouble was that back then, people didn’t really watch TV like they do now. The TV was just something that would be on in the background while you did something else. The humour in Police Squad! relied on your eyes being transfixed because there was so much going on. Visual jokes, jokes in the background, jokes on signs, jokes any and everywhere. You eyes worked overtime watching an episode of Police Squad! because each one was so tightly packed with so many jokes and jokes within jokes that you would miss most of them if you didn’t sit and actually watch. What worked on the big screen with Airplane! with a captive audience in a cinema, just didn’t translate to the small screen with Police Squad! as it played in the background while you did the ironing, despite being just as (if not) funnier overall.
So, Nielsen was back at square one again (again), with just getting smaller roles on TV and in movies. One such role I’m saving for last. Anyway, Paramount Pictures got the VHS distribution rights to Police Squad! and released all six episodes in 1985. The tapes became a smash hit and Paramount soon realised how popular the show really was, they approached ZAZ with an offer to bring the show back… somehow. Then in 1998, we got The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, a film version of the cancelled TV show. Of course, Leslie Nielsen was back as Frank Drebin and it was also his first lead role in a movie for over thirty years too. While The Naked Gun still had that ZAZ humour and Nielsen’s brilliant deadpan delivery of the jokes, it also showcased something that neither Airplane! or Police Squad! did before it. It allowed Leslie Nielsen to show off his slapstick comedy too. The Naked Gun became a massive hit, far bigger than Airplane! in fact. At sixty-two years old and after decades of struggling, Leslie Nielsen was finally a lead a worldwide hit movie. After that, studios were commissioning parody films specifically to have Nielsen starring in them and the parody movie craze of the nineties was born.
The sequels, The Naked Gun 2 1⁄2: The Smell of Fear and Naked Gun 33 1⁄3: The Final Insult help cement Nielsen as a genuine Hollywood funny man legend. He’d always pop up on chat shows around the globe armed with his favourite joke, a simple fart machine, which he would sound off in the middle of an interview just to make the audience and himself laugh. By the time the third Naked Gun film was released, Nielsen was sixty-eight years old. An age when people retire and take it easy, but Leslie Nielsen was enjoying himself too much to retire, appearing in more films, making millions of people around the world laugh. Some of his flicks were popular, but they never got to the level of the Naked Gun trilogy. The starring roles began to dry up, but Leslie Nielsen still appeared in the parody film genre that made him famous right up to his death in 2010, aged eighty-four.
He struggled to make a name for himself for decades. He tried serious drama, which he was amazing at, but there were just too many good looking men doing the same thing around the same time, so Leslie Nielsen never really stood out. Yet, it was that seriousness of his acting that eventually led him to be loved worldwide for his comedy. All thanks to the trio of ZAZ who saw that potential in the actor when so many others were overlooking his unique talents as an actor and comedian.
Oh, and as for that earlier smaller role of Nielsen’s that I said I was saving until last? It’ from the all time classic horror anthology flick, Creepshow. Leslie Nielsen played Richard Vickers, a rich, slick and charismatic guy who discovers his wife is having an affair. He tracks down his wife’s illicit lover and well… Let’s just say that for me, this is the best Nielsen has ever been. He’s sick, pure evil and still a bad guy you can’t help but fall in love with. For someone so damn funny, he could be even more sadistic and I love it. My all time favourite Leslie Nielsen role.
There never will be another Leslie Nielsen.
I’m afraid if I don’t keep moving, they’re going to catch me. I’m eighty-one years old and I want to see what’s around the corner, and I don’t see any reason in the world not to keep working. But I am starting to value my down time a great deal because I am realizing there might be other things to do that I am overlooking.
– Leslie Nielsen