Acting great Leslie Nielsen, the deadpan man who made us laugh, passed away yesterday evening at age 84 from pneumonia. His film and television career spanned an impressive 60-plus years, and his legacy is one that spans numerous genres, most notably drama and comedy. Ask someone from my generation about Leslie Nielsen, and they’ll remember the serious doctor from the hilarious Airplane! movies or bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin from the irreverent Police Squad! television series and Naked Gun movies. Ask someone from my parents’ generation about Nielsen, and they will just as easily invoke dramatic fare like the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, Hot Summer Night or Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure. I recently watched Nielsen play a sinister character in Creepshow (I hadn’t seen the film in years) as well as a married business executive besieged by both a female stalker and a low-level employee who wants to steal his identity in the pilot episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller (1960).
Nielsen’s dramatic work came as a revelation to me as a young adult since I grew up with his funny roles in Airplane! and other comedies, but it makes total sense. In his farcical, post-Airplane! roles, the twice Emmy-nominated actor frequently played characters who were serious even when surrounded by absurd situations, or who delivered ridiculous or bizarre lines that unintentionally cut against the drama being played out, and such dichotomies made his performances stand out. I recall when Nielsen hosted Saturday Night Live back in 1989. During his opening monologue, he discussed his approach by performing a line from a movie as he would in a drama, then right after offering the comedic version of that line, which was delivered in exactly the same way. And the audience laughed. He joked that he didn’t get why it was so funny. But the humor was quite evident.
Whether he was chasing evil in the slasher classic Prom Night, exploring other worlds in Forbidden Planet or parodying the Prince of Darkness in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Nielsen was fun to watch, even when he really was being serious. He was a smart, witty performer and reportedly a very nice human being. He will be sorely missed.