Let me get this straight – you call him one of our finest comic screen actors?
He certainly did not start out that way. When he began his acting career in the early fifties, his rugged good looks and granite-like jaw earned him starring roles in a handful of films, including Forbidden Planet (1956). But most of the first three decades of this Canadian actor’s career was spent on television dramas.
He starred in a few TV series, including Walt Disney’s The Swamp Fox (1960-1961), The New Breed (1961-1962), The Bold Ones: The Protectors (1969-1970) and Bracken’s World (1970). But each those series ended within a couple of seasons and he moved on to new challenges (the man could not hold a job!).
Although he had a few occasional recurring roles in selected TV dramas, including Dr. Kildare, where he played Harry Kleber for nine episodes in 1965, most of his early work consisted of one shot deals – guest appearances on single series episodes. Yet a review of his resume, the TV programs in which he appeared, reads remarkably like a list of some of the most popular shows ever broadcast: Rawhide (1959) (the series that introduced us to Clint Eastwood), The Untouchables (1960), The Fugitive (1963, 1964), Daniel Boone (1964), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1965), The Wild, Wild West (1965), Bonanza (1967), It Takes a Thief (1968), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1968), Gunsmoke (1969), The Big Valley (1969), The Mod Squad (1972), M.A.S.H. (1973), The F.B.I. (1965, 1973), Barnaby Jones (1973), The Streets of San Francisco (1973, 1974), Hawaii Five-O (1968, 1969, 1974), Ironside (1974), Kojack (1974), The Rookies (1975), King Fu (1975), Cannon (1975), Columbo (1971, 1975), The Love Boat (1977, 1978, 1979) and Fantasy Island (1978, 1979, 1980), to name a few.
He was a consummate professional, never short for work. He moved from role to role and his stellar reputation consistently led to new opportunities.
We may therefore call him a popular guest star, a likeable villain or a talented character actor – but one of our finest comic screen actors?
Surely, you can’t be serious.
But serious you are. Commencing with Airplane! (1980), Leslie Nielsen began, at age fifty-four, the second stage of his career, one that saw him dive head first into slapstick with skill and aptitude that few suspected he owned. His most memorable comedic roles, Dr. Rumack in Airplane! and Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun trilogy (1988-1994) (both created by the insane Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, who never quite learned the meaning of excess or poor taste) saw him at the top of his game, displaying a mastery of deadpan humor and incomparable facial expressions that endeared him to the viewing audience. It should be noted that Nielsen originated the role of Frank Drebin in the 1982 TV series Police Squad!, which was regrettably cancelled after just six episodes (again, the man could not hold a job!).
Nielsen passed away this past weekend in Ft. Lauderdale, at the age of eighty-four, of complications from pneumonia. He leaves behind a body of work that is unparalleled in its scope and diversity.
Just don’t call him Shirley.