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Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010

Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010 (photo)

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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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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