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Leslie Nielsen

I am not going to attempt to write an obituary for the recently deceased actor Leslie Nielsen. Countless other bloggers, film critics and media writers have already published their own versions, many of which are undoubtedly far more eloquent than anything I could come up with. Like Dennis Hopper before him, I can’t claim to have encyclopedic knowledge of Nielsen’s incredibly long and distinguished career, nor can I suggest that his filmography is composed of nothing but masterpieces. However, he was always a performer who I respected and whose considerable talents seemed to be tempered with a desire never to take himself too seriously.

I promise I won’t make a “Shirley” joke, or even echo his most famous line – the one being played around the world at this very moment. It might seem unfair or reductive to reduce an 84-year-old movie veteran down into a simple soundbyte, but I think that those lines are what made him so instantly distinctive. Even people who don’t know the name Leslie Nielsen can conjure up the image of the distinguished silver-haired deadpan comedian when you offer a single quotation. It isn’t an attempt to diminish the man, but rather an attempt at cinematic shorthand – in order to instill those words with such a rich pop culture meaning, he must have been one hell of a guy.

At times like this it’s frequent and fair to examine how narrow the public’s perception of an individual is – the temptation to shout “he did so much more!” as clips from Airplane! and The Naked Gun fill the airwaves. Of course Nielsen had a far wider range than he frequently got to showcase. He started off in drama, with roles in the classic Forbidden Planet or The Poseidon Adventure. He even made a few returns to the genre – most notably a superb performance in an episode of Due South as an ageing Mountie. There are pleas to the audience, begging them not to forget what a distinguished actor he was. It’s a fair point – we shouldn’t forget.


However, that’s not to let these observations somehow diminish what he was most famous for. Making millions of people laugh so hard that their bellies hurt is something to be incredibly proud of. Helping people forget all their troubles for eighty-odd minutes by putting a stupid grin on their face is a considerable accomplishment. Sure, Nielsen’s films weren’t always hilarious (although I have a softer spot for Spy Hard than most), but nobody could deliver deadpan one-liners like Nielsen.

When I wrote about Dennis Hopper, I remarked that Hopper’s filmography wasn’t all classics, but that he was usually at least interesting to watch. Nielsen was always entertaining to watch, even in less-than-superb movies like Scary Movie III or Scary Movie IV. There was always something genuine about him, which suggested that he was actually a pretty nice guy who loved being able to do what he did for so long.

One of the commentators on the radio recalled that Nielson used to arrive at interviews with a whoopee cushion, remarking on how hilarious the sound of a fart was – no matter what the context. This wasn’t a man who considered himself as a great comedic mind or a visionary talent, but a guy who liked a good laugh and loved being able to share with people. There’s just something very genuine about that, and charming.

I would like to take the opportunity to express my deepest sympathies to Leslie Nielson’s family, as I’m sure millions have before me and millions will after me. He made me laugh, he made me smile. Hell, even in these rather depressing economic times, I still feel I can stick on Police Squad! and just forget about the recession for a half-an-hour – and I feel that I owe him a thanks for that. He will be sincerely missed.

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2 Responses

  1. Nielsen’s one liners will be remembered forever… are your favorites on our list?
    http://www.dontpaniconline.com/magazine/film/naked-gun-actor-dies-at-84

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