No... you're right, Ed. A parachute not opening... that's a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine... having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that's the way I wanna go! (Frank Drebin - The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad - 1988)
In the end it wasn't anyway near as glamorous. Leslie Nielsen
would succumb to "complications from pneumonia"
whilst asleep at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, aged 84. A good innings, and a fulfilled life. My earliest memory of
Nielsen is from his short segment in Creepshow (1982)
, the George A. Romero
anthology movie based on those cruel EC Comics I presume I caught on a late night t.v. re-run in the early 90's. It was certainly before I became aware of his more famous comedy work. In Creepshow he played a wealthy and horrifyingly cold-blooded asshole who unmercifully buried Ted Danson
- an early childhood role model for me from Three Men and a Baby and Cheers, up to his neck on a beach - securing a painfully slow death for screwing his wife, whom he also buried at the same time. Nielsen was so sadistic, so inhuman - it wasn't enough to kill the adulterous pair in this cruel manner but he also went to the effort of putting together t.v. screens in front of them so they could watch each other perish. Sick!
But I doubt that
Nielsen is the one he will be remembered for - but personally it was always the role that I most associated with the silver-haired actor, just because of how effective he was as a chilling bad guy. I don't think I ever got over it and my involuntary reaction to seeing Nielsen on screen, even in the gentlest of horror's, was to panic. Ultimately, neither will Nielsen's most remembered role be his early Captain Kirk-esque space commander in Forbidden Planet (1956)
, where he helped shape what would become the the archetypal sci-fi hero of the 50's and beyond. He was a respectable captain, with a measured screen authority whose orders you would follow, unquestionably and unreservedly. He did this role a thousand odd times on the small screen before Forbidden Planet, but nothing ever with as solid material as what was put in front of him then. And looking back... wasn't he so impossibly young and handsome?
Of course being handsome and straight-laced, was part of the problem. Nielsen appeared in dozens of live t.v. shows in the years up to Forbidden Planet, and he struggled to make himself stand-out and be indistinguishable from the rest of the good-looking, serious leading men stock. This problem would continue in his early film work after that seminal sci-fi classic which had put him somewhere on the radar. Good turns in Fearful Decision (1956)
, a worthy thriller with a rubbish title where he starred opposite Glen Ford
(that film was later remade in the 90's by Ron Howard and Mel Gibson as Ransom!),
all in-conceived remake of Cukor's classic The Women in The Opposite Sex
(1956), and as a playful rom-com leading man in Tammy and the Bachelor
(1957), would mostly go unnoticed.
For the most of the 60's, he was a steady t.v. actor in shows such as early decade show The New Breed
(as a hard-nosed detective in a show that was cancelled way too soon) Disney's mini-series The Swamp Fox
, Peyton Place
and Dr. Kildare
among others. He briefly had moments of genius but in truth he was constantly working, putting in routine and reliable turns on the small screen with the odd big screen turn of note. I'm thinking of films like The Poseidon Adventure
(1972), The Kentucky Fried Movie
(1977) and City On Fire
(1979) or a personal favourite - Project Kill
(1976)... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bZ7VUbjrYE Neilsen's life of course changed forever in 1980 with what was supposed to be a modest spoof comedy by the name of Airplane!
, but his unexpected deadpan performance as Dr Rumack elevated the film into something more entirely. Here was a very familiar face to audiences, for years the 'go-to guy' for guest slot appearances on t.v. who had become adept more recently as the 'bad guy of the week' roles (Kojak, Ironside
and he appeared twice on Columbo)
and now here he was, acting/talking seriously and with authority that he always had but the words coming out of his mouth didn't make sense anymore. They were at both hilarious and absolute nonsense. He seemed to be the only character not in on the joke and it was funny. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0A5t5_O8hdA The casting of Nielsen, by then in his mid 50's and what he must have thought was his twilight years, in this freeing, scene-chewing role was a genius move on behalf of writer-directors Jim Abrahams
and Jerry Zucker
- and it gave them a movie. Then came Police Squad
on ABC... and you could see he had something that worked and he wasn't going to miss the opportunity. We would never take him seriously again.
Police Squad would eventually become the Naked Gun
films for Paramount and by God if they didn't fill a Sunday afternoon. He had found his calling and his constant paycheck that would keep him working until the day he died. For his latter day sins he became the character who no longer was the only guy who wasn't in on the joke, but the only character who was and found them funny. Repossessed
(1990 parody of The Exorcist), Dracula: Dead and Loving It
(1995), Spy Hard
(1996), Wrongfully Accused
(1999) and those Scary Movie
sequels. Did he sell out? Probably... but you always got the feeling that he had put in the graft decades earlier and he deserved it. He could have easily gone to a retirement home but here he was, still making jokes, and although the filmmakers weren't making them to the quality they were previously... he always gave each script a fare shake.
Nielsen was born in 1926 is Saskatchewan, Canada. He bowed out at 84 years old.