CLASSIC VIDEO SHOWPLACE: The “Serious” Side of Leslie Nielsen

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Over 40 years ago this month, arguably the greatest comedy in cinematic history, Airplane!, premiered in America.  To pay tribute, we take a look at one of the film’s most memorable characters. 

Ask someone to give you their favorite Leslie Nielsen acting role, and you’re likely to get at least a half dozen completely different answers, such as:

  • Commander John J. Adams in the ahead-of-its time sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet 
  • The tragic captain overruled into sailing into a monsoon in the 1972 epic blockbuster, The Poseidon Adventure 
  • His career-changing role as the straight-laced but hilarious Dr. Rumack in the classic drama-films’ spoof, Airplane!

(“Surely you don’t mean that…Yes, I do — and don’t call me Shirley!”) 

  • The bumbling detective Lt. Frank Dreblin on TV’s Police Squad and the wildly successful Naked Gun film series
  • TV guest appearances ranging from his “good sheriff turned gun-wielding serial killer” performance on Bonanza to his unique, musical singing role on The Love Boat 

…and many, many more!

Born Leslie William Nielsen on February 11, 1926 in Saskatchewan, Canada, he was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force before becoming a disc jockey and studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York City.  Leslie was turned on to the acting bug by his famous half-uncle, Jean Hersholt, and his turn as the titular character, Dr. Christian, in the popular film, radio and television series in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s.

In his Boston Globe obituary it claimed that Nielsen was very shy as a teenager and desperately wanted to talk to and learn from his famous relative but Hersholt died before the two could actually meet.

In his Chicago Sun-Tribune obituary it was reported that his father was an abusive man who beat his wife and sons, and Leslie longed to escape. When he graduated from high school at 17, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, though he was legally deaf and actually wore hearing aids for most of his life.

Despite a great amount of self-admitted insecurities, Neilsen’s acting career kicked into high gear in 1950, performing in 46 live-action television productions within the year.

In 1956 he appeared in the film, The Vagabond King, helmed by White Christmas director Michael Curtiz, whom Nielsen would later refer to as “a charming sadist.”  While that movie was not viewed as a success (Nielsen would later nickname this film, “The Vagabond Turkey”) he himself drew praise for his performance and was signed to a long-term contract with MGM.

Over the next 24 years, Leslie would thrive in Hollywood as a dramatic actor.

With the exception of a rather bizarre, mostly musical edition of The Love Boat, in which he had to hang on and belt out tunes alongside singing giants like Cab Calloway, Ethel Merman, Della Reese and others, Nielsen was known throughout the entertainment industry as someone who could only do serious roles.

But that was all about to change forever.

You can see one of Neilsen’s dramatic roles in the 1976 action film, Project: Kill on RCN-TV.  To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN-TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website. We’ll have more on Nielsen’s career-altering role and subsequent successes, next week here at the Showplace.


Chris Michael About Chris Michael

Chris handles play-by-play for RCN sports events, including baseball, football & basketball games and produces/hosts the station’s 60-minute live call-in show. Among Chris’s other responsibilities include reporting on local news & sports stories, conducting “Take 5” interviews with community and political leaders, producing commercials, voiceovers and promos; and generating blog entries and videos on the internet. Click here to listen to the weekly Sports Talk podcast.

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