Monday, November 29, 2010


Everyone has a short-list of celebrities they admire, would like to grow up to be like, to become friends with, or simply meet as one might visit a national landmark. For me, Leslie Nielsen was very much on the short-list. I'd written him some letters, and we finally happened to be at the same event. I'm glad to say it wasn't a "great moment," it was better than that; it was a nice moment. He was just a nice, natural, easy-going person and fun to talk to. I could appreciate him like an uncle, a favorite teacher or the family doctor…someone to respect, admire, but who was down to earth and "a regular guy."

Is there anyone who didn't like Leslie Nielsen? Who doesn't remember him with fondness? Depending on your tastes, and when you grew up, he was your hero as Disney's Swamp Fox, or as Commander Adams in "Forbidden Planet," and for girls, the ideal boyfriend via "Tammy and the Bachelor." He was the deadpan doctor of "Airplane!" and the stalwart if inept Frank Drebin of "Police Squad" and the "Naked Gun" movies.

Leslie somehow made a bizarre turn from genial Disney hero, mild leading man and stalwart astronaut to one of the most inexplicably hilarious stars in comedy…doing much more than "playing it straight." He delivered lines in a funny way, and as he aged, his bent good looks helped put that comical spin on them. In "Airplane" (1980) he turned a dumb gag into a memorable one: "Surely you can't be serious." "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley." After many more spoof films, he was comfortable with his new fame as a comic actor, and confidently turned up on talk shows to have a laugh and surprise people with an inappropriate fart noise courtesy of a concealed rubber bladder in his hand.

I have a hand-written letter from Leslie in which he expressed great humility for having fans that appreciated his work, and for those who stuck with him "during the slow times," or the times when the critics were less than kind (as they were for some of the "Airplane" knock-offs he made that spoofed horror films, Mr. Magoo, etc. etc.) He was a solid working actor most of his life. Those in the business knew they could depend on him for all kinds of roles…from a one-handed ex-Civil War general on "Wild Wild West" to a lecherous producer in the Carroll Baker version of "Harlow." He was in "Nuts" with Barbra Stresiand, "Poseidon Adventure," and all kinds of TV roles (from "Murder She Wrote" to "Golden Girls"). He used his fame to mount a one-man stage show as Clarence Darrow. He also narrated documentaries for "National Geographic," and was wonderfully charming in the obscure made-for-TV "Chance of a Lifetime" a romance co-starring Betty White. There must be some people out there who remember his first TV police series, "The New Breed," although only real Leslie fans would've heard of "The Bold Ones."

He was subtle and a bit "offbeat" I suppose. He was not quite as dangerous as a leading man should be, as cartoony as an outright movie clown should be, or as forceful a personality as a "star" should be. What he was, was a great guy. Leslie Nielsen. He was working almost to the end. At age 84, after a few weeks in the hospital with pneumonia, he died peacefully on a Sunday afternoon. Yesterday. He usually signed autographs with a few extra words added: "Luck and laughs."



jimmy said...

RIP Leslie. His comedic genius will certainly be missed, the guy always get me laughing hard! Everyone remembers him in the Naked Gun movies, which were great. I also remember him for his small role in Surf Ninjas, one of my favorite childhood movies.

He probably got to Heaven, saw God, and said "I just want you to know, good luck, we're all counting on you"

Ill Folks said...

Hi Jimmy, Thanks. That last line gave me a laugh.

Anonymous said...

Here in Britain, Leslie will always be remembered for Lt Frank Drebin. He became a much loved cult figure for that.

It is interesting to note how he smoothly found a new niche in comedy - he had an absolute natural talent for it since he never failed to make me laugh with his voice, mannerisms and expressions. "Police Squad" just might be the funniest comedy series to come out of America. Still holds up a treat and comical to see ol' Shatner in the "special guest star" role in one episode! Shame it only lasted for 6 episodes so the "Naked Gun" movies were hugely appreciated.

He'll definitely be much missed and I greatly enjoyed reading this tribute, learning from somebody who actually did meet him that he was great guy. He sure gave me many laughs over the years and will always do so.