A concerned doctor on a troubled airliner in the 1980 film Airplane! asks a fellow passenger, "Can you fly this plane and land it?" The passenger replies, "Surely, you can't be serious," to which the doctor responds, "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."
This single punch line, which ranks No. 79 on the American Film Institute's list of top movie quotes of all time, forced a turnabout in Leslie Nielsen's 60-year stage, film and TV career. In the first half, he was a reliable dramatic actor of patrician masculinity. The second half, in which he parlayed the stalwart idiocy of his Airplane! character into his great role as Lieutenant Frank Drebin in the TV series Police Squad! and its three Naked Gun movie spin-offs, sublimely spoofed every cliché of movie heroism, including his own. When he died Nov. 28 at 84, he was recalled with the kind of goofy smile that Drebin never cracked.
Born in Saskatchewan--his father was a Mountie, his brother Erik later the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada--Nielsen served an early stint on Broadway before hitting Hollywood as the space captain in the 1956 Forbidden Planet, a sci-fi remake of The Tempest. A workmanlike two decades in TV dramas followed. Then, in 1977, he had a brief voice role in Kentucky Fried Movie, by the upstart japesters David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. That launched a 30-year stint with the ZAZzers that stretched from Airplane! and Police Squad! to the recent Scary Movie 3 and 4 and An American Carol, a parody-diatribe against Michael Moore.
Still playing the occasional serious part (he toured as Clarence Darrow in a one-man show), Nielsen reveled in his comedy persona as a doofus cocooned in delusion--a role he inhabited with deadpan ease. When he solves a case in a Police Squad! episode, a colleague says, "Piece of cake." "No, thanks," Drebin snaps. "I just ate."