Oh no! Say it ain’t so! Hearing that actor Leslie Nielsen passed away today at the age of 84 due to complications from pneumonia feels so incredibly unreal. While he started off as a serious actor in movies like “Forbidden Planet” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” my generation will always remember him best for his work in “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” movies which had us enjoying a constant stream of belly laughs, making us laugh harder than we ever had before. Now he is gone, and the world feels a lot less funny. Hearing my mom mention that he had died almost had me saying “surely you can’t be serious.” Of course, I caught myself just in time and rolled my eyes, wondering why I would repeat that darn joke. I guess if Leslie were to say it today, he could still find a way to make us laugh at it.
Over the years, Leslie came to represent one of the best deadpan comedic actors the world of film has ever seen. From one movie to the next, he could deliver the most ridiculous of lines while keeping a straight face, making it clear that he never acted like he was in on the joke. It’s hard to even watch some of his earliest roles now because even then we find ourselves giggling at how he looks. Even watching Leslie in “Prom Night” (the original, not the crappy remake) had me smiling uncontrollably. Then again, nobody really came out of that movie looking all that good.
“Airplane!” forever changed the way we saw him as an actor, and it allowed him to do the one thing he rarely got to do before as an actor: be funny (intentionally, mind you). Seeing him talking with Julie Hagerty quickly made us aware of how easily he could make a stupid line seem so comically brilliant:
“We need to get her to a hospital.”
“A hospital, what is it?”
“It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”
Further on into that film, he made the oldest of jokes funny as hell:
“Surely you can’t be serious!”
“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley!”
Of course, next came his penultimate role as Lt. Frank Drebin in the short-lived television series “Police Squad” which later led to the hilarious “Naked Gun” movie trilogy. At that point, no one on earth seemed funnier than Leslie Nielsen. Even Bill Cosby seemed to pale in comparison while “The Cosby Show” remained one of NBC’s biggest primetime hits. On top of his brilliant delivery of dialogue (be it smart or incredibly dumb), we also got to see what a talented physical comedian Leslie was as well. I don’t care if he really didn’t do all those somersaults in “The Naked Gun,” there was a lot of other moments where it was clear that a stunt double was not involved.
But seriously, his comic timing was never short of brilliant even in the worst movies of his career. Leslie left us with an abundance of moments and lines that are forever burned into my consciousness:
“We would have come earlier but your husband wasn’t dead yet.”
“Like a midget in a urinal, I was going to have to stay on my toes.”
“I just want to tell you both, good luck, we’re all counting on you.”
On celebrating his 1,000th drug dealer kill:
“In all honesty I backed over the last two with my car. Luckily they turned out to be drug dealers.”
“Like a blind man at an orgy, I was going to have to feel my way through.”
“I like my sex the way I play basketball, one on one with as little dribbling as possible.”
“You might end up dead!”
“You might end up dead is my middle name.”
“What about Jane?”
“I don’t know her middle name.”
Being stopped at the entrance to the Oscars:
“Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant, Police Squad.”
“Yeah, and I’m Robert De Niro.”
“Mr. De Niro, we’ve got to get inside!”
But the other important thing to remember about Leslie Nielsen is the heart and soul he gave to each character he played. In spite of how goofy and utterly incompetent some of these people were, he still made you care about what they went through. Plus, there were those serious moments where he wasn’t trying to make you laugh and tugged at our heartstrings, like when he told Robert Hays about George Zip in “Airplane.” I point this out because a lot of actors in future spoofs completely forgot that, and it became more about delivering the joke than anything else. Others tried too hard to be funny instead of playing the scene as though they believed horrendously brain dead remarks coming out of their mouths. Those looking at what makes a performance truly funny would do best to look at Leslie’s work.
Granted, his career may have had one spoof too many with films like “Spy Hard” and “Mr. Magoo” among other duds, but he never truly lost the ability to make us laugh. He ended up proving it to us all with his performances in “Scary Movie 3 & 4,” and that’s even if the movies themselves were not all that great. We didn’t get to see or hear from him in the last few years, but he sure did leave us with a lot of moments that have us chuckling just at the thought of them.
Now he is gone, and it makes all the more clear that there will be no more “Naked Gun” movies. I kept hearing that Paramount Pictures might be making another one, but that just turned out to be one of the many unsubstantiated rumors floating around in Hollywood. I just hope they don’t get all stupid and try to remake the series with another actor. No one will ever accomplish what Leslie Nielsen did with that role, so it would be wise not to try.
Rest in peace Leslie, and keep God laughing like crazy (he (or she) does have a good sense of humor).