That stupid pun is probably what we remember best from the 1980 film Airplane! in which Nielsen played the doctor giving completely useless moral support to a stewardess and a passenger who are trying to land a plane after the crew has been struck down by food poisoning.
Airplane! was Nielsen's first comedy film, a glorious hour and a half in which the tall, distinguished-looking leading man, veteran of around 50 movies and an astonishing 1,500 TV films, as good as demolished his previous career and started all over again, heroically, at the age of 54.
To understand how successful Nielsen was in subverting his former screen image, try watching one of his earlier films, such as Forbidden Planet, with a straight face. In this 1956 film, Nielsen's Commander John J Adams is interplanetary corporate man - a typical representative of buttoned- down buttoned-up McCarthyite America.
After a lifetime of movies like Forbidden Planet, casting Nielsen in Airplane! was a stroke of genius, by the directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, ranking alongside that exclamation mark. The actor, though, deserves the credit for understanding exactly what the part needed and providing it in spades, even though it meant he would never make another serious movie as long as he lived. Nielsen played it absolutely straight, maintaining a look of utter conviction and sincerity - like a TV evangelist or minor politician - while talking absolute nonsense.
Nielsen's gift for this kind of deadpan performance, together with his trademark middle-America wardrobe of slacks and golf shoes, make him as distinctive a feature of the comic landscape of the past two decades as Chaplin's tramp was 70 years ago. How long before art-house cinemas programme Lieutenant Frank Drebin retrospectives?
Nielsen, of course, would find the concept ludicrous. In his spurious 1993 autobiography The Naked Truth, he claims to have received the "Nobel Prize for Good Acting", three years after it was given to Charlie Chaplin "post-humorously".
He says in his book that he decided to become an actor when, as a five- year-old, he went with his brothers to see the original Frankenstein.
"I learnt many of life's most important lessons from those Saturday morning movies," writes Nielsen.
"Never get involved in a showdown with a cowboy wearing a white hat. Never stand up on a battlefield and say loudly, `It's over. We won. Those cowards have gone.' And never trust a character whose head has to be bolted on."
One of those brothers went on to become deputy prime minister of Canada, according to Nielsen. But unlike much in the book - Nielsen's relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, how he discovered Steven Spielberg photographing weddings and bar mitzvahs - this turns out to be true. "My brother Eric," writes Nielsen, "was the big disappointment in the family. He was so smart, so talented, he had so much to give to the world, but instead he became a politician."
Not that Nielsen is without ideals of his own. He's a student and admirer of the famous liberal lawyer Clarence Darrow (defender of the Texan schoolmaster who taught evolution) whom he's been portraying in a one-man show in Los Angeles.
But Nielsen tends not to talk too much about that if he can help it, preferring instead to don his slacks and add sweetly and harmlessly to the gaiety of nations. In which there is a kind of heroism, surely.Reuse content