Deadpan comic actor Leslie Nielsen, who started in dramas before finding his fame as a hapless doctor in “Airplane!” and the accident-prone detective Frank Drebin in the “Naked Gun” comedies, died Sunday in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.
His agent John S. Kelly said he was being treated for pneumonia.
“Airplane!” directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker introduced the Drebin character on short-lived ABC comedy “Police Squad!,” for which Nielsen was Emmy-nommed, before moving to the bigscreen with three “Naked Gun” features.
He became well-known for lines in “Airplane!” like “I just want to wish you both good luck, we’re all counting on you …” and for his response to the question “Surely you can’t be serious?” with, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
In later interviews, Nielsen showed surprise at the impact of that line: “I thought it was amusing, but it never occurred to me that it was going to become a trademark.”
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, to a family of politicians (one brother later became deputy prime minister of Canada), Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and then worked briefly as a DJ before attending acting school in Toronto. He moved to New York to study at the Actors Studio and got a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse. He came to Hollywood in the mid-1950s after performing in more than 100 live television dramas in New York.
His uncle was actor and humanitarian Jean Hersholt. Nielsen told the Boston Globe in 1994 that mentioning Hersholt’s name changed people’s impression of him.
“I began to think that maybe this acting business was not a bad idea, much as I was very shy about it and certainly without courage regarding it,” he was quoted as saying.
With a craggily handsome face, blond hair and 6-foot-2 build, Nielsen seemed ideal for a movie leading man. He quickly became known as a serious actor, although behind the camera he was a prankster. That was an aspect of his personality never exploited, however, until “Airplane!” was released in 1980 and became a huge hit.
“Airplane” co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar paid tribute on his blog writing, “He was a consummate professional when the cameras were rolling. And during downtime he was a notorious practical joker.”
Critic Roger Ebert called him “the Olivier of spoofs” for his deadpan delivery, and he went on to appear in such take-offs as “Scary Movie 3,” “Scary Movie 4” and “Spy Hard.” He continued to work into his 80s, appearing in spoofs including “Superhero Movie” and “Spanish Movie” in the past few years. While many received poor reviews, several performed well at the box office and on homevid.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, Nielsen made hundreds of TV appearances on shows including “Kojak,” “Columbo,” “Fantasy Island,” “Love Boat” and “The Golden Girls.” He was also Emmy-nommed for guest performer in 1980s series “Day by Day.”
Among his other film roles were “Forbidden Planet,” “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Mr. Magoo” and “Soul Man.” His interest in golf led him to take part in several instructional videos.
He is survived by his fourth wife, Barbaree Earl, and two daughters.