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Leslie Nielsen Is Remembered

Leslie Nielsen Is Remembered - If it’s true, as many claim, that showbiz deaths usually come in three's, then we should fear the worst for some living legends during the next day or so.

Why? Within the past 48 hours, we have lost two conspicuously accomplished octogenarians: Leslie Nielsen, the journeyman character actor who deftly reinvented himself as a splendidly straight-faced farceur, and Irvin Kershner, the veteran filmmaker credited by many fans as auteur of the very best Star Wars movie ever made.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Nielsen found steady employment as heroic lead or reliable guest star in a variety of TV series, often finding himself persuasively cast as a steely-eyed cop (The New Breed, The Bold Ones) or a cold-hearted villain. On the big screen, he made his biggest impact – fleetingly, but unforgettably – as the ship’s captain whose shocked response to an oncoming tidal wave (“Oh my God!”) set the shamelessly melodramatic tone for The Poseidon Adventure.

It wasn’t until 1980, however, that Nielsen got his shot at being a true pop-culture icon, when he was perfectly cast in Airplane! – the free-wheeling laugh riot that spawned an entire genre of movie-lampooning movies – as a tightly buttoned-down doctor who retains his cool during a crisis, but repeatedly warns everyone not to address him as Shirley.

It was the sort of straight-arrow role that Nielsen had previously played perfectly straight in dozens and dozens of feature films, TV-movies and series episodes. And that, of course, is what made his deadpan zaniness all the more hilarious – much like co-stars Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, he subtly satirized sobersided shtick for which he was best known, and got his biggest laughs while behaving as though he hadn’t been let in on the joke.

Nielsen reprised that formula in the classic but criminally short-lived Police Squad! TV series – which spawned the considerably more popular Naked Gun movie trilogy – and then more or less repeated himself, with varying degrees of success, for the next three decades. He was so good at self-mockery, even in comedies unworthy of his best efforts – did somebody say Repossessed? – that I’m sure many moviegoers under the age of 30 might be totally unaware that there ever was a time that Nielsen was regarded as a no-joke, dead-serious dramatic actor.

Leslie Nielsen Is Remembered


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