Most famous for his later-in-life comedy roles in THE NAKED GUN series, Nielsen was also a well-known sci-fi and horror performer. In 1956, he starred as Commander J.J. Adams in FORBIDDEN PLANET, the first big-budget, full color, and Cinemascope Outer Space-set science fiction film. A classic of the genre, the film would be the blueprint for serious SF productions for years to come.
Born in the North West Territory of Canada, he attended Toronto’s Academy of Radio Arts before moving to New York and joining The Neighborhood Playhouse. Soon he became a regular performer in live television, including a number of science fiction-themed shows.
Among the live performances were OUT THERE (1951), LIGHTS OUT, SUSPENSE, and several episodes of TALES OF TOMORROW (1952-53). In one of the TALES shows, Appointment on Mars,
Nielsen’s astronaut character was supposed to shoot another (played by Brian Keith). However, the prop gun refused to fire its blanks during the live program, so he was forced to rush his adversary and strangle him instead.
His powerful voice and leading man looks lent Leslie Nielsen an air of authority, making him a natural for FORBIDDEN PLANET’s serious-minded skipper of the United Planet’s Cruiser C57D. Nielsen invested the stock character with a touch of quiet humor in lighter situations and a sense of at-times barely-controlled fury at the strange predicament that imperils his ship and crew.
For Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color,
Nielsen played Col. Francis Marion in the eight-part THE SWAMP FOX, based on the historical figure, who was an originator of the use of intelligence-gathering and guerilla tactics during the Revolutionary War.
He appeared in episodes of THRILLER and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, starred as modern policeman Lt. Price Adams in THE NEW BREED (1961-62).
In 1965, he played 19th century occult detective Brett Kingsford in DARK INTRUDER, originally planned as a supernatural mystery series to be called THE BLACK CLOAK. Not picked up by a network, Universal released it as a feature film.
During the 60’s and 70’s Leslie Nielsen appeared on many TV shows, often playing straightforward or ruthlessly corrupt authority figures. SF/Fantasy shows included VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, WILD WILD WEST, and THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
TV Movies NIGHT SLAVES, THE AQUARIANS, HAUSER’S MEMORY (all 1970) shared some SF slant. Nielsen guested in two episodes of the supernatural anthology THE EVIL TOUCH (1973-74), played a recurring adversary for Caine in KUNG FU, and faced off against a bear in the ecological SF flick DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977).
Leslie Nielsen visited FANTASY ISLAND three times (1978-80) before spoofing his screen image in AIRPLANE. He brought a deadpan delivery of nonsensical dialog as Dr. Rumack in the 1980 film, a chance to show off his real-life sense of humor and love of the absurd.
This film would lead to a short-lived TV series POLICE SQUAD! as the disconnected from reality Detective Frank Drebbin, later spun off into the NAKED GUN films, and eventually other thick-headed characters in comedies such as THE CREATURE WASN’T NICE and DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT.
He also appeared in horror movies PROM NIGHT (1980) and CREEPSHOW (1982), and horror spoofs REPOSSESSED (1990), and SCARY MOVIE 3 & 4.
Leslie Nielsen is sure to be missed, by several generations of TV and Movie viewers, and fans of both genre and mainstream entertainment.