Most of us were dismayed to hear that the talented and unique Leslie Nielsen died this past weekend. Though his credits are full of interesting big screen titles like Forbidden Planet, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Poseidon Adventure, it was 1980's Airplane! which forever cemented his image, at least for fans of a certain age, of Nielsen as a primarily comic actor. He hardly started out that way, though, breaking into live TV in the very early 1950s in a steady series of roles that never let up as he made appearances on every major drama showcase of the time. He had several years at MGM making movies, but at the end of the decade he was back in the medium that seemed to better know how to utilize his earnest presence.
His credit list is an A-List of every important television series from the 1960s on, in every genre -- Rawhide, Wagon Train, The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, The Fugitive, The Defenders, Daniel Boone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Peyton Place, Ben Casey, The Wild Wild West, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, Run for Your Life, It Takes a Thief, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Virginian, The Bold Ones, Night Gallery, Medical Center, The Mod Squad, M*A*S*H, The Streets of San Francisco, The F.B.I., Barnaby Jones, Hawaii 5-O, Ironside, Kojak, The Rookies, Kung Fu, Cannon, Columbo, SWAT, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Vega$, Hotel, 227, Murder, She Wrote, Highway to Heaven, Father Dowling, Who's The Boss?, The Golden Girls, and many more. After his big screen success in Airplane!, Nielsen got his own comedy TV series in 1982 with Police Squad!, short-lived on TV but spawning three movie sequels as The Naked Gun.
From that time on it was hard to convince people that Nielsen had once been a dead serious dramatic actor, but it didn't really matter. He was making so many people laugh that it was a moot point. Always the proud Canadian (his older brother was a top Canuck politician), Nielsen made several appearances on the popular mid-90's Mountie comedy-adventure series Due South starring Paul Gross. (It was seen down here on CBS late-night for a while and then we picked it up for TNT where it ran nicely in afternoon for several seasons). Nielsen was able to both honor and poke gentle fun at his native land with his portrayal of Sgt. Buck Frobisher, a sure comic creation played with his characteristic absurdist grace.
And here's a cute TV commercial for the European mobile telephone company DutchTone (and there are others on YouTube for the same company):
Here's a bit of Leslie when he assumed the role of high-powered movie studio boss Bracken in the second season of the fascinating (but ultimately short-lived) series Bracken's World, circa 1969. Leslie Nielsen's scene with the wonderful Lois Nettleton begins about 1:30 into the clip. It's from the episode called "Nude Scene" about actors facing the dilemma of whether or not to do one together. The late great Steve Ignat also starred in this memorable episode.
Critic Tom Shales did a nice column in The Washington Post on Leslie Nielsen's television career, which you can (and should) read here. You should also read his comprehensive biography here; it will make you appreciate even more the productivity and longevity of this show business legend. If you're a Netflix subscriber, take a look at the wealth of offerings available to watch and enjoy.
Leslie Nielsen was able to survive, adapt, reinvent himself in different decades, and thrive -- sounds like a lesson that we can all learn from.