Leslie Nielsen spent years as a journeyman actor, a reliable but bland leading man on television and in films who would be best remembered now for his role as a space-ship captain in the cult science-fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956) had he not been cast in Airplane!, the hilarious pastiche of disaster movies that revealed a delightfully droll and unexpected flair for comedy and made him a major star. The American Film Institute lists Airplane! as one of the 10 best comedies, and in its list of 100 memorable quotes, at No 79 is the exchange in which Nielsen is asked, "Surely, you can't be serious?" and replies, "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." He said later: "I thought it was amusing, but it never occurred to me that it was going to be a trademark."
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1926, Nielsen was the son of a Danish-born constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and a Welsh mother who grew up in Fulham, London. One of his two brothers, Erik Nielsen, became Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s, but it was Nielsen's uncle, the celebrated actor Jean Hersholt, who inspired him to pursue an acting career.
After graduation from Victoria Composite High School in Edmonton he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, training as an aerial gunner, though he was too young to be sent overseas into battle. After the war he worked briefly as a radio disc jockey, and enrolled at the Lorne Green Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto before receiving a scholarship to study theatre and music at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where he also attended the Actors Studio.
In 1948 he made his television debut in a Studio One production that also featured a young Charlton Heston. Nielsen soon became one of the medium's prime actors, appearing in over 50 live shows in 1950 alone. "It was the tail end of the golden age," he said. "A time when the Tiffany's of film makers [MGM] was burying its head in the sand and trying to pretend that this new medium was not happening."
In 1952 he made his Broadway debut as a tyrannical petty officer in the drama Seagulls Over Sorrento. He made his film debut as a nobleman plotting against King Louis XI in the musical The Vagabond King (1955), which brought him a contract offer from MGM and a leading role in one of his most notable films, Forbidden Planet.
He was the commander of a space ship who lands on a mysterious island in space ruled by the mysterious Dr Moribus (Walter Pidgeon), whose bidding is done by an endearing mechanised creature ("Robby the Robot") and whose daughter (Anne Francis) has never seen another man. The story was inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest, and Nielsen recalled, "On the first day of shooting, the director Fred Wilcox said to us, 'This is a serious film and treat it like that.' It was all about the id or something like that. Who knows? The Trekkies today regard it as the forerunner of Star Trek. I just had to wear a tight uniform and make eyes at Anne Francis."
In 1956 he also played in the thriller Ransom, as a policeman helping Glenn Ford and Donna Reed to regain their kidnapped child, and he was the colourless producer-husband of June Allyson who allows himself to be manipulated by a gold-digging showgirl (Joan Collins) in The Opposite Sex, a musical remake of the earlier play and film, The Women. Though the addition of men and music to what had been an all-female vehicle diluted the fun, it was still an immensely amusing film.
Loaned to Universal to star with Debbie Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), Nielsen was an aristocratic crashed pilot nursed back to health by backwoods waif Reynolds who then becomes a guest on his plantation, where her homespun philosophy works wonders. It was a beguiling, unassuming romantic comedy which proved a "sleeper" hit, aided by Reynolds singing the title song.
After auditioning for the part of Messala in Ben-Hur (1957), Nielsen left MGM – Stephen Boyd won the role, and the test, which can still be seen, indicates that Nielsen lacked the gravitas for the role at that stage of his career. He returned to television with the role of the American Revolutionary War hero Colonel Francis Marion in the Disney series The Swamp Fox (1959-61), and he was a guest star in the pilot film for Hawaii Five-0, and such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, Columbo and The Streets of San Francisco. On screen, he was the ship's captain in one of the better disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Always more interesting as a villain than a hero, he was a convincingly corrupt mayor in the Canadian disaster movie, City on Fire (1978), and two years later came his revelatory performance in a film that uproariously spoofed the whole disaster-movie genre, Airplane!. Its success spawned many imitations but few as inspired, from the opening shot of an aeroplane's tail darting through the clouds in the manner of the shark's fin skimming through the water in Jaws, and in particular the scenes involving the delightfully deadpan Nielsen as the aircraft's doctor, sublimely unaware of the drama surrounding him.
Nielsen's role resulted in a television series, Police Squad (1982), in which he starred as a police officer, his portrayal winning him an Emmy nomination. The show had a brief life, and Nielsen returned to straight roles in films including the horror movie, Creepshow (1982) and the courtroom drama Nuts (1987), in which he was murdered by Barbra Streisand. In 1988 his Police Squad character, the hilariously inept plain-clothes cop Frank Debrin, was revived in a feature film, titled The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad, and it was another great hit, prompting critic Roger Ebert to label Nielsen, "the Olivier of spoofs".
There were two sequels, The Naked Gun 21/2: The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 331/2: The Final Insult (1994), the cast of which included Priscilla Presley and OJ Simpson. Nielsen also played Debrin in a string of commercials for cider. Though the big-screen lampoons were not universally praised, with critics feeling that the formula was wearing thin, they continued to be popular with audiences, but other attempts at parody, Repossessed (1990), Spy Hard (1996), 2001: A Space Travesty (2001), and Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It (2005), in which he was top-billed, were less successful, but he won praise for a supporting role as a paranoid president with more than a passing resemblance to George Bush in Scary Movie 3, which he reprised in Scary Movie 4. He is also in Scary Movie 5, which has yet to be released.
In recent years, he hosted a series of humorous golfing videos, and wrote a fictional autobiography, The Naked Truth, in which he depicted himself as Elizabeth Taylor's lover and the star of a long series of prestigious films. He toured on stage in Darrow, a one-man play about the legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow, provided numerous voice-overs for cartoons and commercials, and in 2007 he began playing the role of a doctor on the humorous educational series Doctor*Ology for television's Discovery channel.
Leslie Nielsen, actor: born Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada 11 February1926; married 1950 Monica Boyer (divorced 1956), 1958 Alisande Ullman (two daughters; divorced 1973), 1981 Brooks Oliver (divorced 1983), 2001 Barbaree Earl; died Fort Lauderdale, Florida 28 November 2010.