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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.