And just like that, he’s gone.
This past week, deadpan actor Leslie Nielsen passed away at the age of 84. The Canadian-born performer went from radio DJ to bit actor to leading man to comedy icon. His line, “I am serious. And stop calling me Shirley” was delivered with so much seriousness, yet it continues to pop up on clip shows as one of the funniest lines of all time.
I remember seeing those “Airplane” movies and being inspired to some day write a comedy film like that on my own. The writers behind that movie also squeaked out an “Airplane 2”, but it was when they went to television that Leslie Nielsen caught my attention and introduced his role as Lt. Frank Drebin of “Police Squad”. That short-lived series spun off into the “Naked Gun” movies and we were able to enjoy three of those before Hollywood said, “OK, enough”.
Since those days, there have been parody movies, but they’ve been more “Hey, look who we’re making fun of” than funny. Nielsen went on to appear in other movies, like “Scary Movie 3” as the president, but you could tell the years were starting to catch up with him. However, he was still Leslie “Frickin'” Nielsen.
I don’t know much about his personal life. Broadcast buddy Greg Hersholt, former KIRO news anchor, was Leslie’s second cousin and during a recent lunch, told of the time Nielsen came into the radio station and the two reconnected. I remember listening one time when they had him on the air and Leslie would deliver his responses in the same, classic, dry way you would expect him to talk off-screen.
An observation: everything I recall seeing Leslie Nielsen in NEVER had a laugh track. I didn’t need to hear the laughs of a pre-recorded studio audience to tell me when things were funny. They just were and hilarious at that. Steve Allen, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen are three of the people who come to mind when I think of those who have inspired my comedic ways. Red Skelton, Johnny Carson, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers–all helped shape the way I look for that elusive line.
By the time I discovered the comic side of Leslie Nielsen, I was heading off into my radio career and had just started working in Seattle. I’d have to say that Leslie showed me the subtle side of comedy and, thanks to the TV show and movies I mentioned above, probably gave me the most “laugh out loud” moments of any comedian I’ve seen in this increasingly long lifetime.
For that, all I can do is say “thanks”. And, “I AM serious.”