Although his career stretches back half a century and includes over 100 films and countless TV programs, Leslie Nielsen gained true fame late in his career, when he starred in a series of comic spoofs beginning with 1980's Airplane!.
The son of a Canadian Mountie and the brother of Canada's future Deputy Prime Minister, Nielsen was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, on February 11, 1926. He developed an early knack for acting when he was forced to lie to his disciplinarian father in order to avoid punishment, and he went on to become a radio announcer after serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII (despite being legally deaf, the result of a childhood illness). To prepare himself for his future career, Nielsen studied at Toronto's Academy of Radio Arts, which was run by CBC commentator and future Bonanza star Lorne Greene. After several years in radio, he won a scholarship to New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, where he studied acting under Sanford Meisner and dance under Martha Graham. He then spent five years appearing on such live television programs as Tales From Tomorrow before making his film bow in Ransom! (1956). With the exception of his starring roles in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956) and the popular Debbie Reynolds-vehicle Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), much of Nielsen's early work was undistinguished; he was merely a handsome leading man in an industry overstocked with handsome leading men. An attempt to do a "Davy Crockett" by starring as Francis Marion in the Disney TV saga The Swamp Fox resulted in a nifty title tune but little else. Nielsen went on to star in such series as The New Breed, Bracken's World, and Hawaii Five-O (1968), but found he was more in demand as a heavy than as a hero.
A notorious offscreen practical joker and cut-up, Nielsen was not given an onscreen conduit for this trait until he was cast in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof Airplane (1980). This led to his deadpan characterization of monumentally inept police lieutenant Frank Drebin on Z.A.Z.'s cult TV series Police Squad, which in turn spawned the 1988 hit The Naked Gun and two sequels. Nielsen also found success in a number of other film spoofs, so much, in fact, that those familiar only with his loopy comedy roles are invariably surprised that, once upon a time, he took himself deadly seriously in films like Harlow (1965) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Nielsen died at the age of 84, of pneumonia, in late November 2010. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi