Leslie Nielsen wasn’t at the top of the list of actors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker wanted to play Dr. Rumack in “Airplane!” The way his career was going in 1980, he was lucky to make the list at all. On the DVD commentary for “Airplane!” Jerry Zucker says, “The casting director could not understand why we wanted to cast Leslie Nielsen. ‘Leslie Nielsen is the guy you cast the night before!'” That guy you cast the night before died of complications from pneumonia and a staph infection Sunday, after a career that was undistinguished in the best way possible. He’ll be remembered for his unlikely reinvention as a comedic titan after decades as a dramatic also-ran.
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1926, Nielsen always wanted to be an actor. At least that was the story he told in his “autobiography” “The Naked Truth.” “From my earliest memories,” he wrote, in a very silly book that reads like a ZAZ screenplay, “I’ve known precisely what my nietzsche in life was: To be an actor. It is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, with the possible exception of driving against traffic in the Indianapolis 500.”
Nielsen moved to New York City, studied at the Actors Studio, moved into television, and slowly worked his way into films. His best known “serious” role was in the 1956 sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” though — let’s face it — he gets upstaged by the robot. Mostly he made a lot of forgettable dramas and schlock. When disaster films came into vogue in the 1970s, he did those too, including playing the captain in “The Poseidon Adventure,” the part that gave him the slightest of casting edges for the disaster spoof “Airplane!”
Introduced asleep and wearing a stethoscope, Nielsen was reborn as the Zuckers’ muse. Now he was the guy upstaging others, never more famously than when replying to the line “Surely you can’t be serious!” with the immortal comeback “I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.” Though he was far from the biggest name in “Airplane!”, had far from the biggest part, the Zuckers knew they’d found a star. And though he parlayed the surprising box office success of “The Naked Gun” series into many parody vehicles without them, he was always at his best with the Zuckers. Their collaboration lasted over 25 years and remained strong until near the end of Nielsen’s life. He’s the unquestionable highlight of David Zucker’s two entries in the “Scary Movie” franchise, playing a President of the United States who makes W. look like George Washington. His joy, stumbling around the United Nations with no clothes on as his 80-year-old flesh flaps in the wind, is palpable.
Though everyone loves “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” series, not everyone appreciates Nielsen’s gifts. He’s been perennially dismissed as the “dumb guy” in those “dumb movies,” as if his work was almost anthropological in nature. But look at all the skills he possessed. He could deliver the silliest dialogue seriously and the most serious dialogue with a wicked comedic edge. He was an amazing physical comedian. He was believably tough in an onscreen fight. And he gave a double take like nobody else in the business. His was the burly, silvery face of masculinity and stupidity combined or, as some* have labeled Nielsen’s unique onscreen charisma, “masculinipidity.”
Movies like “The Naked Gun” are often deemed less important than more “artistic” films that have things like “plots” and “characters” and “less than three dick jokes.” And I’m not denying there’s a place in this world for “Battleship Potemkin” and “Tokyo Story.” But think about how many times you’ve watched those movies, and then think about how many times you’ve seen Leslie Nielsen’s films. How many times you’ve stumbled across “Airplane!” on television and gotten sucked in all over again. Or how many times you’ve quoted one of his signature lines (“It’s true what they say: Cops and women don’t mix. It’s like eating a spoonful of Drano; sure, it’ll clean you out, but it’ll leave you hollow inside.”). He wasn’t as acclaimed as Brando or Pacino, or as venerated as Hepburn or Olivier. But few in the history of movies gave more people more pleasure than Leslie Nielsen.
And now he’s gone. The Guy You Cast The Night Before is officially The Comedian Who Will Never Be Replaced.
*By some, I mean me.