Here’s What Happened to Leslie Nielsen Before, During and After ‘Airplane’ (and Don’t Call Us Shirley)

There are two very distinct “chapters” in the life and career of Leslie Nielsen, at this point the better known being the the one that began with the 1980 release of Airplane!. That film, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, took this well-known villain of the big and small screen and rocketed him down a road of parody and comedy that no one could have predicted.

Except maybe Leslie Nielsen.

“I always played those kinds of serious roles,” he related to The Californian in 1991, “but I did a lot of comedy behind the camera. I just didn’t have the courage to take it in front of the camera. Comedy was a dream. But if you test it and you don’t make it — if you’re not as funny as you imagined you could be — then you’ve lost the dream. The believability or credibility or logic all fit into a character. If you hang all that on me and have me do insane things or placed in insane situations, there’s a strong possibility it will be funny … If the audience gets the idea for one second that we think we’re funny or trying to be funny, it’s no longer funny.”

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He added to The Press Democrat, “The more seriously, the more credibility you present in your demeanor when you’re talking about insanity, the funnier it becomes.”

Dale Sherman, author of The Mel Brooks FAQ, among others, opines, “What’s interesting about Leslie Nielsen’s acting career is that he seemed to follow three stages: good second lead, crime-drama guest star and then comedic actor. Fortunately for him, that last part came in the third act of his career and proceeded to make him a bigger star than anything before it. Interesting as well is that he appears to have been very much a man who liked to keep people laughing, but seemed to be stuck playing ‘man who sternly looks at others’ in a number of his roles before Airplane!. Admittedly, that also has him sternly looking at others, but with comical results.”

Film historian and author Lee Gambin draws a comparison between Leslie Nielsen and actor George Hamilton in terms of their career trajectory. Both, he says, were leading men early on who served as love interests, or, conversely, villains on the big screen.

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“They played these kind of complex characters and then what happened with them is they ended up being buffoons. Self-parodies,” he details. “They ended up becoming actors who kind of made fun of themselves. George Hamilton with things like Love at First Bite and Zorro, The Gay Blade, and Leslie Nielsen with Airplane!, The Naked Gun films, Repossessed and the others. From the ‘70s onward, he sort of does these roles that lampoon who he is, but he’s really in control of it and, it turns out, a really good comedian.”

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