LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Canadian comic actor Leslie Nielsen, star of a string of madcap spoof movies including “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun,” died of complications from pneumonia in Florida on Sunday, a spokesman said. He was 84.
Nielsen is probably best known for playing the bumbling cop Lieutenant Frank Drebin in the “Naked Gun” franchise, but enjoyed a movie and television career spanning more than 60 years.
The spokesman said Nielsen died in a hospital near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, surrounded by his wife, Barbaree, and friends at 5:34 p.m. EST.
Born on February 11, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan, the son of a Canadian mounted policeman, Nielsen served stints as an aerial gunner in the air force and as a radio disc jockey before studying acting in Toronto and then in New York City.
He got his first big break in 1950 with a “Studio One” television appearance, and came to Hollywood in 1954 to star in the film “The Vagabond King” for “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz.
For the first 30 years of his career, Nielsen worked steadily in TV shows such as “Peyton Place” and “The Virginian,” and built a reputation for playing authority figures such as the captain of the ill-fated cruise ship in the 1972 feature “The Poseidon Adventure.”
But later generations got to know the silver-haired actor for his deadpan performances in comedies such as 1980’s “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” trilogy.
As Dr. Rumack in “Airplane!”, Nielsen delivered inane non sequiturs with a straight face. “Can you fly this plane, and land it?,” he asks a passenger. “Surely, you can’t be serious,” the passenger exclaims.
“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” Rumack replies.
“The Naked Gun” franchise had its origins in the short-lived 1982 TV show “Police Squad!” After it was canceled, creators Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker — who had previously worked with Nielsen on “Airplane!” — turned it into a feature packed with slapstick action and double-entendres.
Drebin, in a nod to Inspector Clouseau, delivered deadpan lines like “Nice beaver” as his girlfriend, played by Priscilla Presley, stood above him on a ladder clutching a stuffed animal. His character also beat up the Ayatollah Khomeini and scrubbed the birthmark from Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s head. The cast was rounded out by George Kennedy as Drebin’s partner, and O.J. Simpson as their hapless colleague.
In the 1991 sequel, “Naked Gun 2-1/2: The Smell of Fear,” the villain played by Robert Goulet, tells an unannounced Drebin he did not see his name on the guest list. “Nothing to be embarrassed about. I sometimes go by my maiden name,” Drebin replies.
The final film, 1994’s “The Naked Gun 33-1/3: The Final Insult” saw Drebin try to avert a disaster during the Academy Awards and go undercover in a penitentiary. An inmate asks where his prison number is. “It’s unlisted,” Drebin says. That film marked Anna Nicole Smith’s first big role.
Nielsen also appeared in the 1996 spy spoof “Spy Hard” as Agent WD-40, and in 1998’s “Wrongfully Accused,” a parody of “The Fugitive.” More recent acting roles included playing a buffoonish president in the 2003 Hollywood parody “Scary Movie 3” and its 2006 sequel. In the latter film’s most memorable sequence, his character unwittingly addressed gagging diplomats at the United Nations while naked.
But Nielsen also had a serious side. During the 1990s, he took to the stage in “Darrow”, a one-man drama about legendary “attorney for the damned” Clarence Darrow.
“I didn’t want to go ahead and be pegged for doing only comedy, although comedy is burgeoning,” he told Reuters in a 1996 interview. “I’d like to see how far I can stretch and keep on doing ‘dumb and stupid’ (comedy) and drama and if possible be accepted at both. There’s a line with an audience you can’t always cross over. Sometimes, they only want to see you being funny.”
Reporting by Dean Goodman and Sue Zeidler; editing by Jackie Frank and Todd Eastham