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Leslie Nielsen: The Jester King of Comedy
A Man of Many Talents
Many of his fans may not know that Leslie Nielsen got his start in acting in television dramas, starting out performing live on the small screen in the early 1950s. In fact, the first half of his career was dominated by television appearances on shows such as Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, Barnaby Jones, The Love Boat, Night Gallery and The Virginian, often playing different characters on several episodes of the same series. Of course, he had some recurring roles as well including John Bracken on Bracken's World , Vincent Corbino on Kung Fu and Colonel Francis Marion on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. He did not become known for his comedic performances until 1980 when he had America rolling in the theater aisles with his role as Dr. Rumack in the hilarious disaster spoof Airplane!
Nielsen, who passed away November 28, 2010, went on to become one of America's most beloved funny men. After Airplane! , he gave us another three decades of outstanding comedy performances while still dabbling here and there in more dramatic fare. His impressive career included credits on over 200 television shows and motion pictures encompassing more than 300 different roles. By any standards this would be a remarkable feat but when considered alongside the quality of his work it is simply awe-inspiring. When he passed away at age 84, he had spent a full six decades acting and entertaining.
It is hard to pick just a few highlights from his career, so I tried narrowing the scope of this hub to only films and only comedic roles. That still left me struggling though as I had to skip such wonderful characters as Father Jebedaiah Mayii (Repossessed), Count Dracula (Dracula: Dead and Loving It), Ryan Harrison (Wrongfully Accused), Gordon Cutter (Men with Brooms) and Richard Vickers (Creepshow). I am sure most fans will agree with some of my more obvious choices (Frank Drebin, Dr. Rumack) but may disagree with some of my more personal faves (Mr. Magoo, Dick Steele). But for what it is worth, her are my five favorite Leslie Nielsen roles in no particular order...
Frank Drebin in Police Squad and The Naked Gun series
With his extensive background in television along with his newly discovered comedic chops, it was no surprise when Leslie Nielsen landed the role of Lt. Frank Drebin on the short-lived police show spoof Police Squad in 1982. Sadly, the show only aired six episodes as America seemed unprepared for something fresh and original. The show went on to develop a cult following and in 1988 the first of three Naked Gun movies was released based on the popular series. Obviously, Nielsen was the only choice for Drebin.
The movie along with its two sequels were successful and there were rumors a fourth installment might be made, but unfortunately that never became a reality. It would be hard to dispute that this was Nielsen greatest acting accomplishment due to the number of times he assumed the role of Frank Drebin. Audiences loved Drebin not because he was a bit of a buffoon, but because he was a bit of a lovable and sincere buffoon. He might say the most inappropriate things, but you always felt his heart was in the right place.
Mr. Quincey Magoo in Mr. Magoo
When it was announced there would be a live action version of the vision-challenged cartoon star, Mr. Magoo, everyone wondered who would play him. The cartoon had been distinctively voiced by Jim Backus and everyone felt it would be quite a job to find someone to do the character justice. Leslie Nielsen managed a perfect portrayal of Magoo and gave an outstanding performance though most will agree the film itself left something to be desired. Still, even with the weakness of the film's other elements (and admittedly due in part to my love of the character), Mr. Magoo managed to be one of my favorite Nielsen performances.
President Baxter Harris in Scary Movie 3 & 4
There have been many "Presidents" to grace the Hollywood screen. From Bill Pullman (Independence Day) and Jack Nicholson (Mars Attacks!) to Gene Hackman (Absolute Power) and Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove), these have been men who ranged from brave, competent leaders to bumbling, clueless dupes and pretty much everything in between. (You know... sort of like our real Presidents!) But of all these, Leslie Nielsen stood out in his role as President Baxter Harris. In fact, he was so popular in Scary Movie 3 that they asked him back for Scary Movie 4 making President Harris the only time Nielsen reprised a film role other than Frank Drebin.
Dr. Rumack in Airplane
If there is a classic Leslie Nielsen line that stands out above all the others, it would have to be Dr. Rumack's deadpanned "I am serious... and don't call me Shirley." This is quite possibly the most quoted line in history, though Arnold Schwarzenegger probably came close with "Hasta la vista, baby." With Airplane!, Leslie Nielsen practically began a second career. Prior to this film, Nielsen was known as a somewhat handsome, dramatic leading man. But after Airplane! , Nielsen became a somewhat handsome, comedic leading man. It was almost as if a second career was born!
Dick Steele in Spy Hard
Spy Hard was yet another spoof film for Leslie Nielsen and a great example of how well his tongue-in-cheek performances fit this particular genre of film. As Dick Steele, Agent WD-40, he was able to give the spy film genre a much needed jolt in the funny bone. The film was filled to the brim with cameos, gags and hilarious one liners. Probably not on every Nielsen fan's Top Five (or even Top Ten) it is still one of his films I can watch over and over.