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Leslie Nielsen's 5 Greatest Appearances

Comedy, sci-fi and horror: the late actor could do it all.

By Rob Vaux     November 29, 2010

Leslie Nielsen's 5 Greatest Appearances
© Mania/Robert Trate

In the 21st Century, we measure how beloved a performer is by the number of YouTube/Facebook homages created after his death. Judging by the outpouring of Internet spontaneity, Leslie Nielsen ranks among the most popular actors who ever lived. He never won an Oscar and he spent the bulk of his career in pay-the-rent TV guest appearances of the sort he would later lampoon, but few people generated more laughs with a shorter list of films than he. His deadpan delivery, unparalleled timing and onscreen befuddlement kept us in stitches time and again (even when the film in question stank like a sewer full of howler monkeys). He passed away from pneumonia over the weekend, but we’ll always have his work, which includes some very prominent genre films as well as four of the funniest movies ever made. As a memorial to this talented man who brought us all so many smiles over the years, we present Leslie Nielsen’s five greatest onscreen appearances.


#5 Creepshow

Nielsen had already found his second wind as a comedian when he appeared in George A. Romero’s horror anthology. As the jealous husband of a cheating wife, he plots a truly blood-curdling demise for her and her lover, only to find the tables turned in true E.C. Comics fashion. Nielsen applied his usual conviction to the role: creating a passionless, calculating figure who would happily bury his enemies up to their necks below the high tide line just to make a point. But it was his over-the-top terror that nailed Creepshow’s ghoulish sense of camp, and his final defiant shriek remains the film’s single most quotable moment.


#4 Forbidden Planet

Long before he told us to stop calling him Shirley, Nielsen flourished as a dramatic actor: never more so than in this high water mark for 1950s sci-fi cinema. As Commander J.J. Adams--stalwart leader of a military-grade flying saucer--he embodied the courage, moral conviction and penchant for romance that set the standard for future space studs like James T. Kirk. This space opera version of The Tempest continues to flourish for a number of reasons, but it wouldn’t have been the same without him to act as our guide.


#3 The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

Ironically, Nielsen’s most recognizable performance ranks only third on our list. Such was the comedic strength of this man when he really got going. As Frank Drebin, the eternally clueless, accident-prone Los Angeles detective-sergeant-lieutenant-whatever, he ruthlessly skewered every self-important do-gooder in every hackneyed cop show ever made. Even 20 years later, when those Law and Order boys stare grimly down at the corpse of the week, you can still hear Drebin in the background: reminding them that it’s fourth and fifteen and they’re looking at a full court press.


#2 Police Squad!

The success of the Naked Gun films remains a true show biz abnormality, since they arose from a TV show that absolutely no one saw. Cancelled after a mere six episodes, the original Police Squad remains a forgotten gem… largely thanks to Nielsen’s indelible presence. Here, he first established Frank Drebin as a menace to criminals and honest citizens alike: shooting first and asking incredibly goofy questions later. The show relied on a number of running gags (my favorite is the faux freeze frame at the end of each episode), but Nielsen made them seem fresh and new each time.


#1 Airplane!

To prepare for this, the ultimate pie-in-the-face to every disaster movie ever made, the filmmakers cast actors who appeared in their share of straight disaster films. Nielsen initially graced the genre as the ship’s captain in The Poseidon Adventure, delivering plot exposition in the heaviest and most gravitas-laden terms imaginable. He didn’t alter the technique one iota for Airplane! Indeed, his Dr. Rumack seemed even less in on the joke than the captain of the Poseidon. But that self-same obliviousness perfectly encapsulated the film’s sense of the ridiculous, creating a comedy masterpiece and allowing Nielsen to escape the made-for-TV stigma for good.




RIP Leslie. And thanks for everything.


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BIGGKIDD 11/29/2010 7:25:51 AM

RIP you will be missed some great funny movies on your resume.  Thank you so very much for making us laugh.

Wiseguy 11/29/2010 7:31:28 AM

Damn Rob that was quick work, kudos

I have vague memories of Police Squad but they're all funny. I need to check this out again, it's been years. I remember likening the series to Get Smart, lots of belly laughs

Just glanced through some of his credits, the cat appeared in pretty much every tv series popular during the 70's. My biggest surprise a while back was when someone told me he was the Capt of the Poseidon

Miner49er 11/29/2010 8:33:23 AM

A great Canadian export. Gonna miss the guy.

karas1 11/29/2010 9:31:32 AM

He also did a National Geographic special where he brought his comedy character to nature documentaries.  His comic surprise about all the creatures and plants which lived in his own backyard made nature documentaries entertaining in a whole new way.

CaptAmerica04 11/29/2010 11:03:54 AM

RIP Mr. Nielsen.

"This woman has to be gotten to a hospital."

"A hospital?  What is it?"

"It's a big building with patients in it, but that's not important right now."

Epic, sir.  You will be missed.

doublec 11/29/2010 11:09:49 AM


Great work on the quick homage.

arsepart 11/29/2010 11:30:12 AM

I loved leslie since i first seen him on airplane, i remember seein him on other stuff (poseidon etc). But he was born to play comedy deadpan roles, ( he himself when asked if he had been cast right for comedy roles, replied, maybe i was cast wrong for all my previous roles).  And when police squad was first run on tv, i watched every (allbeit 6) episode's, and even now watching them for the twenty twelth time i still see something new, either in the background, or just i line i've never put into the right context before.

Then there where the naked gun trilogy, which as comedy trilogies go, i would dare anyone to name a funnier one, that still holds relevant and undated, which still after a hundred watches, you see new stuff ( personal fave,, after about 20 watches of the naked gun 1, nielson is in his kitchen talkin to jane, and in the background on the fridge, u can see a moldy piece ov bread or cheese like breathing up and down) and they fails to grow old........me and my friends will owe alot to leslie for our humour, and they laughs and good times we spent together watching his films.......rest in piece, and "like a midget at a urinal...........i had to stay on my toes!'

heres my personal top 5.........no matter what top 5 any1 puts, you'll all be riight

5.....naked gun 3.........the face when he kisses the old woman is priceless!.....always wanted to find a screencap of it to put on a t-shirt, best face ever!

4......naked gun 2 1/2....Quentin Hapsburg: We'll be at the reception. Make sure nothing happens to him while I'm gone. Then, I want the pleasure of killing you myself.
Lt. Frank Drebin: The pleasure is all mine.
[Hapsburg nods, then frowns]

3......naked gun.......really too many classic quotes to name but here's a firm favorite...........drebin looking up a ladder at jane in a skirt..............drebin.....nice beaver!!...................jane.[ producing a stuffed beaver ].........thank you, i just had it stuffed.

2.......airplane.........struggled with this an #1 whether to flip flop, because this got him my No 1 films gig, but this is a personal top 5 soo meh!..........he has so many quotes in this too too be mentioned, but my personal fave is..............stuardess.....excuse me sir, are you a doctor..........nielson...[ sitting with a stethascope around his neck ]......yes, yes i am!

1.......police squad.......ive actually cried watching these, and i actually met my wife on yahoo with a screenname off an episode....lol........too many quotes but heres 1............drebin posing as a locksmith under cover, breaks into badguys house and gets caught..........bad guy......who are you, and how did you get in here.....................drebin........im a locksmith, and im a locksmith!



SarcasticCaveman 11/29/2010 1:46:23 PM

I love it that he "made an appearance" in Family Guy "Blue Harvest" just before Han blows up the final tie fighter..."I just want to tell you both, good luck, we're all counting on you."

3rdSBS6 11/29/2010 11:31:15 PM

I saw Airplane in the theater when it was released...I have been hooked on the man since...take care and make them laugh where ever you may find yourself (=

karas1 11/30/2010 3:19:35 PM

He also did a character on Due South and appeared in all 3 seasons.

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