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Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)

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Leslie Nielsen, a dramatic actor whose career was reborn when he co-starred in 1980s comedy “Airplane,” passed away today in his Florida home after a bout with pneumonia. He was 84.

Born Leslie William Nielsen on February 11, 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, His father, Ingvard, was a Constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He grew up in the Northwest Territories, where his father was stationed, and graduated from high school at the age of seventeen. Following graduation Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and received training as an aerial gunner. Because of his age he was deemed too young to be sent overseas. He worked part time as a disc jockey and then enrolled in the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto. While studying at the Academy he received a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. While learning to hone his craft he found work in summer stock productions and, in 1948, made his first television appearance in an episode of “Studio One” opposite another young actor named Charlton Heston. He later became a member of the distinguished Actor’s Studio.

Nielsen spent the early half of the 1950s appearing in practically every live television program on the air, including roles on “Stage 13,” “The Magnavox Theater,” “CBS Television Workshop,” “Kraft Theater” and “Suspense.” In all he totaled more then 50 television appearances. In 1956 he made his film debut opposite Glenn Ford and Donna Reed in the kidnap drama “Ransom.” The next year he starred as Commander J.J. Adams in the sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet” and also appeared opposite Debbie Reynolds in the romantic comedy “Tammy and the Bachelor.”

As the 1960s began, Nielsen found himself in demand for dramatic parts in series like “The Untouchables,” “Thriller,” “Naked City,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Route 66.” He portrayed Lt. Price Adams on the television show “The New Breed,” a series that lasted two seasons. He also had a recurring role in “Peyton Place,” “Dr. Kildare” and “The Bold Ones.” He began the 1970s by starring as the title character in the television series “Bracken’s World.” When that show ended he continued to appear regularly on television, with memorable appearances on programs like “Medical Center,” “M*A*S*H,” “The F.B.I.” and “Barnaby Jones.” His most famous film appearance that decade was as the Captain of the doomed ocean liner in Irwin Allen’s “The Poseidon Adventure.”

At the age of 54 his career found a second life when he starred as Dr. Rumack in the comedy classic “Airplane.” His dry, dramatic performance in what was obviously a mainstream comedy earned him raves and new generation of fans. It also made the phrase “and don’t call me Shirley” into one of the most memorable movie lines of all time – charting as the 79th most popular of all time according to the American Film Institute. He followed “Airplane” up with the television series “Police Squad,” from the same team that had created “Airplane.” Despite only lasting six classic episodes, Neilsen’s performance earned him an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. The series also lead Nielsen to his greatest success, the trilogy of “Naked Gun” films that featured his “Police Squad” character, the well meaning but bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin. He went on to star in a variety of parody films, including “Spy Hard,” “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” and “Wrongfully Accused.’ He also appeared as the President in the last two “Scary Movie” films. Though he gained much fame and success from these comedy roles, Nielsen also shined in two very different performances. In the film “Nuts” he portrays the customer that Barbra Streisand’s Claudia Draper kills, setting off the events of the film. A very unflattering portrayal. He also starred in a two-part episode of “The Golden Girls” as the husband to be of Bea Arthur’s Dorothy.

In October 2008 my wife and I had the great opportunity to meet Mr. Nielsen at the Chiller Theater convention. With a little urging from my wife, Mr. Nielsen donned a Santa Claus hat and posed with she and I. That photo became our Christmas Card that year. The card read “Surely that’s not Leslie Nielsen, the star of “Airplane,” wearing a Santa Hat? Yes it is…and don’t call us Shirley!”

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