Leslie Nielsen, Master of Deadpan, Dies at 84

This surely is a sad day for comedy

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On Sunday, the actor Leslie Nielsen passed away at a hospital near his home in Fort Lauderdale. He was 84. Nielsen, who was suffering from complications of pneumonia, was best known as a gifted, deadpan comic actor, revered for his work in films like Airplane! and the Naked Gun series, and on the television show Police Squad! In more than a half century of film and television roles, Nielsen ended up working in almost every genre there is. Critics and fans alike have come forward to pay their respects to the late entertainment giant.

  • Started in Drama, Moved to Comedy  Anita Gates at The New York Times points out that in the early years of his career, Nielsen "was often cast as an earnest hero... His best-known roles included the stalwart spaceship captain in the science fiction classic 'Forbidden Planet' (1956), the wealthy, available Southern aristocrat in 'Tammy and the Bachelor' (1957) and an ocean liner captain faced with disaster in 'The Poseidon Adventure' (1972). In the 1960s and '70s, as his hair turned white and he became an even more distinguished figure, Mr. Nielsen played serious military men, government leaders and even a mob boss, appearing in crime dramas, westerns and the occasional horror movie." It wasn't until 1980 that Airplane! gave Nielsen a second career in comedy.

  • Not Just a Bumbler  "Nielsen's most visible skill in the roles that eventually made him a star was the ability to deliver ridiculous lines with a serious face," writes Isaac Chotiner at The New Republic. "But the greatness of the Naked Gun films also lies in the character Nielsen created. Lt. Frank Drebin is more than a buffoon (although he is definitely an idiot)--he's also a  morally upstanding, and extremely likeable figure who is compelling enough to make the films better than they otherwise would be."

  • Helped Push Television Forward  At Time, James Poniewozik discusses the legacy of Nielsen's "cop-show parody Police Squad!, whose short, brilliant life demonstrated that TV in the early '80s was constrained in ways that movies weren't. Nielsen's deadpan delivery and the show's comic style—which relied, like Airplane! on the effect of playing hilarious scenes entirely straight—was deemed above audiences' heads, and the show was soon canceled ... If Police Squad! was—as it was then described in so many words—too intelligent for its audience, the fact that it probably would not be so today is testament to its legacy: the show, and performances like Nielsen's, made TV smarter in the long run."

  • Movies, Too  Drew McWeeny at HitFix appreciates what Airplane! did for modern comedies. "Seeing 'Airplane!' in a movie theater in 1980 was one of those great audience moments for me. People don't react to comedies like that anymore, and part of it is that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker changed the way film comedy worked, and their style of shotgun-blast silliness has been so thoroughly absorbed by the mainstream that it doesn't have the same impact. 'Airplane!' blindsided the audience, and it was amazing to sit in that theater and ride those waves of laughter."

  • In a League of His Own  Marc Hirsh at NPR offers a fond reminiscence of Nielsen's hosting turn on Saturday Night Live:

When Nielsen hosted the show, way back in 1989, he was given a magnificent opening monologue where he explained exactly what he did and his bafflement therein. He didn't understand why he had been asked to host a comedy show, because he was neither a comedian nor a comic. A comedian, he explained, was someone who says funny things. A comic was someone who says things in a funny way.

Nielsen, on the other hand, was someone who said unfunny things in an unfunny way, and for some reason, people laughed. To demonstrate this, he delivered an innocuous line – something along the lines of "Mr. Jones, sit down, I'd like to talk to you about your son" – twice. The first time, he said it as though he were in a drama, and the response was muted.

Then he told us that he was going to say the exact same unfunny line as Lt. Frank Drebin, in an unfunny way, and he did exactly that, and the audience exploded. ... Without actually tilting his delivery in that direction, Nielsen made it genuinely funny. To underscore his point, he then broke character with a look of happy exasperation and basically said, "See?"

Here's Nielsen on Police Squad!:

And here's what may be his most enduring contribution to popular culture:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.