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Leslie Nielsen, the actor best known for starring in such comedies as Airplane! and the Naked Gun film franchise, died Sunday of complications from pneumonia at a hospital near his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He was 84.
“We are sadden by the passing of beloved actor Leslie Nielsen, probably best remembered as Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun series of pictures, but who enjoyed a more than 60-year career in motion pictures and television,” said a statement from Nielsen’s family released through his rep.
Nielsen died surrounded by family including his wife, Barbaree, and friends.
Nielsen was born Feb. 11, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He came to Hollywood in the mid-1950s after performing in 150 live TV dramas in New York. His acting career spanned several decades, starting with episodes of series including The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse and Tales of Tomorrow and encompassing several genres.
Moving into film, Nielsen first performed as the king of France in the Paramount operetta The Vagabond King with Kathryn Grayson. The film — he called it The Vagabond Turkey — flopped, but MGM signed him to a seven-year contract and he starred in 1956’s Forbidden Planet for that studio.
But he became known in later years for his deadpan delivery in comedies featuring absurd situations, including 1980s’s Airplane!, a parody of Zero Hour!, Airport and other movies about flying.
Critics argued he was being cast against type, but Nielsen disagreed.
“I’ve always been cast against type before,” he said, adding comedy was what he’d really always wanted to do.
Among Nielsen’s more memorable quotes from Airplane!, in which he played a doctor aboard a flight in which the pilots and some passengers become violently ill:
— When Nielsen tells the crew they must get to a hospital right away, a flight attendant asks “A hospital? What is it?” inquiring about the illness. Nielsen replies: “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.”
— When he asks a passenger if he can fly the plane, the man replies, “Surely you can’t be serious.” Nielsen responds: “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”
“Leslie was key to Airplane! and perfect in the role. I look at his performance and it was very flawless,” Jerry Zucker — who directed the movie with Jim Abrahams and David Zucker — told the Associated Press on Monday, adding that Nielsen delivered the “Shirley” line perfectly.
“We cracked up during shooting, then cracked up again during dailies. He really got what we were doing, and he loved it,” he said.
After Airplane! became a hit, the three directors wanted to take the film’s slapstick style of comedy to TV. They asked Nielsen to play the lead role in their new series Police Squad!
In the show, Nielsen played Frank Drebin, a stereotypical police officer modeled after characters in earlier police TV series. The show lasted only six episodes but earned Nielsen an Emmy nom for lead actor in a comedy series.
“It didn’t belong on TV,” Nielsen later said. “It had the kind of humor you had to pay attention to.”
Six years later, Nielsen reprised his role for a feature-length version of the show, Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, as well as two sequels.
Between films, he often turned serious, touring with his one-man show on the life of the great defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
Other credits include the 1960s TV series Peyton Place, Dr. Kildare and The Bold Ones: The Protectors and the 1972 disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure. In more recent years, he starred as the title character in 1997’s Mr. Magoo and appeared in the parodies Scary Movie 3 (2003), Scary Movie 4 (2006) and Superhero Movie (2008).
Nielsen had two daughters, Thea and Maura, from a previous marriage. In lieu of flowers, his family is asking that donations be made in his name “to the charity of your choice.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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