Leslie Nielsen would have been 85 years old today. His death last year had many reflecting on his legacy of laughter, but today we’re taking a look at his often overlooked career as a dramatic actor.
In 1980, the movie Airplane! not only spawned the entire spoof genre, but it also launched Leslie Nielsen’s career as America’s funniest straight man, a role he would play for the next 30 years in the Airplane sequels, the Police Squad TV show, the Naked Gun movies, and others. But these only tell half the story, as Nielsen previously enjoyed a long, if undistinguished, TV and movie career.
Nielsen’s TV career began in TV’s so-called Golden Age, where he appeared in a host of televised live dramas on programs like Actor’s Studio, Stage 13, Starlight Theatre and The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. In 1950 alone, Nielsen appeared in more than 50 productions. During the 1960s, as TV moved away from the live drama, he continued working, appearing in successful dramas like Naked City, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, and popular Westerns including Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, Bonanza and The Virginian. In the 1970s, as Westerns lost their appeal, he successfully made the shift to crime dramas, appearing in Ironside, Kojak, Hawaii 5-O and Columbo.
The Vagabond King
Nielsen made his feature film debut in Ransom! in 1956 opposite Glenn Ford and Donna Reed (and later remade by Ron Howard and starring Mel Gibson), but his role as Thibault in The Vagabond King provided his big screen break. The film was a musical directed by Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian-born director best known for Casablanca and White Christmas. In 1994 Nielsen referred to the all-but-forgotten movie as ‘The Vagabond Turkey’ – but it was responsible for introducing Nielsen to MGM producer Nicholas Nayfack, who offered him an audition for Forbidden Planet and got him signed to a contract with MGM.
Starring alongside Anne Francis, Nielsen was cast as Commander John J. Adams, pilot of the Planets Cruiser C-57D spaceship that has landed on Altair IV, a planet 16 light years from earth. A camp sci-fi classic, it’s notable as one of the first films to use an all electronic musical score and feature a robot with a distinct personality. The movie was a big hit in 1956 and garnered an Academy Award nomination for special effects.
One of Neilsen’s final projects before making the switch to being a comedic actor was 1976’s Project: Kill, with a plotline described thusly on imdb.com: “A former government assassin flees a mind-control program in the Philippines, is pursued by his ex-partner, the local police and Asian gangsters.” The film wasn’t widely released as a result of legal wrangling that occurred when one of the producers was murdered shortly after the movie was shot. Watching the clip below, as Nielsen deadpans through awful lines like “you will be taught how to use everyday objects as weapons, everything from a toenail clipping to a briefcase,” it’s easy to see in retrospect how this same delivery style could be turned into comedic gold.
And just a few years later, that’s exactly what happened.
Leslie Nielsen kept the world laughing for the next thirty years, right up until his death on November 28, 2010 at the age of 84.