Leslie Nielsen’s Iconic ‘Airplane!’ Gave Him the Courage to Make His Dream Come True

Leslie Nielsen’s name in a film’s cast meant it was going to be a funny movie. Even though he started as a dramatic actor, he became the international symbol of film parody.

The Canadian-born actor was one of the best-known and most popular comic actors in American cinema. He had a 60 years long career and was known for his role in “Airplane!”

Initially, Leslie Nielsen was known for his funny personality behind the camera. However, he didn’t dare to do comedy in front of the camera at some point in his life.

Leslie Nielsen with his wife Alisande Ullman and daughters Maura and Thea on March 27, 1970, in Los Angeles (left), Leslie Nielsen and wife Barbaree Earl at the Sterling Awards on November 2, 1991, in Beverly Hills (right) | Photo: Getty Images

Leslie William Nielsen was born in Regina, Canada, on February 11, 1926, to a Welsh mother, Mabel Elizabeth, and a Danish father, Ingvard Eversen Nielsen. He had two brothers, the eldest of whom, Erik, was a Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s.

He had an uncle, Jean Hersholt, an actor known for his portrayal of Dr. Christian in the radio series “Dr. Christian.” Nielsen believed his uncle was an inspiration to him.

In his early years, people never believed Hersholt was his uncle until they saw images of them at Nielsen’s home. The reverence for his uncle convinced Nielsen that acting was a respectful job and gave him some courage to undertake it even though he was shy.

Leslie Nielsen in Madrid, Spain, in 1968 | Photo: Getty Images

Unfortunately, his uncle died before Nielsen was able to get to know him properly. On the other hand, Nielsen wanted to run from home as a child because his father was a strict disciplinarian who beat his wife and kids.

After he graduated from Victoria High School, Nielsen joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at 17, where he trained to become an aerial gunner even though he was legally deaf.

Portrait of Leslie Nielsen for “Police Squad” in 1982 | Photo: Getty Images

Being too young and inexperienced to be dispatched overseas during the Second World War, he was discharged. He later worked briefly as a DJ at a radio station in Calgary, Alberta, before enrolling at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto.

While attending the academy, he received a scholarship to study theatre and music at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which he accepted, then moved to New York.

Portrait of Leslie Nielsen | Photo: Getty Images

In the 1950s, in the early days of his career, Nielsen took part in dramatic roles which he later deemed as uneventful. However, being a dramatic actor made it easier for him to go into comedies.

Even though this was during the golden years of television, Nielsen, who appeared in over 40 live shows in 1950 alone, had a rather low salary.

Thanks to his distinct voice, he was chosen as the narrator of many documentaries and commercials. In any case, there were no noteworthy changes in his career.

Portrait of Leslie Nielsen circa 1955 | Photo: Getty Images

Nielsen finally made his feature film debut in 1956, with the musical film “The Vagabond King” directed by Michael Curtiz. Despite the film’s poor commercial success, the producer, Nicholas Nayfrack, offered Nielsen a role in the sci-fi film “The Forbidden Planet.”

The movie, directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, was hugely successful, and this helped Nielsen get a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.

He appeared in other MGM movies such as “The Opposite Sex” and “Ransom!” in 1956, “Hot Summer Night,” and “Tammy and the Bachelor” in 1957.

Portrait of Leslie Nielsen circa 1988 | Photo: Getty Images

The Oscar-nominated romantic musical “Tammy and the Bachelor” brought Nielsen to a peak of fame with audiences, who considered him an excellent dramatic actor.

Nielsen was still unsatisfied with the films entrusted to him by the studio, and he left MGM. He later found a lead role in a Walt Disney miniseries, “The Swamp Fox,” which kept him occupied for years.

Photo of Leslie Nielsen in the movie “The Opposite Sex” in 1956 | Photo: Getty Images

In the same period, he appeared in some episodes of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” series, “Gunsmoke,” and “The Wild Wild West.” In 1972, he returned to mainstream cinema with “The Poseidon Adventure.”

In 1979, he played his last dramatic role in the Canadian disaster film “City on Fire” before taking on mainly comedy roles.

Photo of Leslie Nielsen in the ABC tv series “Peyton Place” in 1965 | Photo: Getty Images

1980 marked the turning point for Nielsen’s career. He appeared as a supporting character, in the role of Doctor Rumack, in “Airplane!,” a parody of disaster movies such as the 1957 “Zero Hour!” and 1970 “Airport.”

“Airplane!” was written and directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. The film entered the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Best Comedy Movies of All Time, and Nielsen’s performance became his trademark for years.

Even though Nielsen was shy growing up, many stars who had worked on the same set with him had confirmed that he was funny behind the cameras and knew how to make everyone laugh on set.

Photo of Leslie Nielsen on May 24, 1990 | Photo: Getty Images

Encouraged by the success of “Airplane!,” the directors decide to create a role for Nielsen in the film series, “The Naked Gun.” In the movie, Nielsen plays the role of Lieutenant Frank Drebin.

The film was an instant hit, critically acclaimed, and followed by two sequels. The first movie released in 1988 was “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” followed by “The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear” in 1991 and “Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult” in 1994.

When he took the role in “The Naked Gun” series, he confirmed that he wanted to act crazy in front of the camera for a change. The next time he made successful comedy movies was in the “Scary Movie 3” in 2003 and “Scary Movie 4” in 2006.

Photo of Leslie Nielsen on January 16, 1992, in Hollywood | Photo: Getty Images

Nielsen was a huge golf enthusiast, and the sport was one of his favorite pastimes. He said he had no sporting ambition but hoped to work hard enough to maintain his celebrity status, allowing him to participate in golf tournaments.

In his personal life, Nielsen was married four times. His first marriage to nightclub singer Monica Boyar lasted from December 28, 1950, to June 9, 1957.

After their divorce, he married Alisande Ullman from September 10, 1958, to July 1974. They had two daughters, Maura and Thea, who also became actresses.

Photo of Leslie Nielsen on March 27, 1970, in Los Angeles | Photo: Getty Images

From November 13, 1981, to December 5, 1984, he was married to Bobbye Brooks Oliver, and his last marriage was to Barbaree Earl from 2001 to the day of his death.

On November 28, 2010, Nielsen died in his sleep from pneumonia at 84 after being admitted to Holy Cross Hospital, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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