Vintage Hunk: Leslie Nielsen

By: Mike McCrann

"The Olivier of spoofs." - Roger Ebert on Leslie Nielsen

The late Leslie Nielsen was such a success late in his life playing in the comedy hits Airplane!, The Naked Gun series and other fan favorites that we forget that the strapping 6' 2" actor was quite the hunk back in the 1950s, particularly in the classic sci-fi cult film Forbidden Planet, and as Debbie Reynolds' love interest in the first Tammy film, 1957's Tammy and the Bachelor.

Leslie Nielsen was born in Canada in 1948. Escaping an abusive father, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at 17. Disc jockey work and then acting with a scholarship to the famous New York Neighborhood Playhouse followed. This led to steady television work and finally Hollywood came calling. After an unsteady film debut in the flop musical The Vagabound King, Neilsen got one of the leads in Forbidden Planet and a contract with MGM. A musical remake of The Women called The Opposite Sex had sexy Neilsen being married to June Alyson while fooling around with Joan Collins.

In 1957 Neilsen was loaned to Universal for a B-movie called Tammy and the Bachelor starring perky Debbie Reynolds. This backwoods hokum was pretty risible but Reynolds was cute and Neilsen was sexy, especially in his bathing suit scene. What made Tammy an eventual hit (and series franchise) was the great song Tammy sung over her love for Nielsen's character. The song single handedly turned a minor movie into a box office success. Nostalgia for the 1950s was never expressed in a more loving manner.

Nielsen made a number of other films and TV shows, left MGM and even tested for the role of Massala in Ben Hur, a role eventually played by Stephen Boyd. There were a few hit movies like The Poseidon Adventure playing the doomed ship's captain, but by 1980 Neilsen's career was pretty much over.

Then came Airplane!. This hilarious spoof of disaster films was the smash hit of the year and Nielsen was hilarious with his deadpan delivery of the film's funniest lines. The most famous of course was his reply to the question: "Surely you can't be serious?" Without missing a beat Nielsen shot back, "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." Airplane! is probably the funniest film of the 80s.

Suddenly a star, Neilsen was now everywhere, and The Naked Gun films (based on Nielsen's shortlived TV show Police Squad) made a fortune. The white haired actor, now in his 60s, was at the zenith of his fame. He even appeared in the final episode of The Golden Girls, whisking Dorothy away to a new life as the series ended. Everyone loved Nielsen. He could do no wrong. Ironically, Nielsen was as pleased and surprised by his late career success as everyone else. He stated in an interview with William Arnold, "I was always a very shy person, so it's been a gradual transformation to the person you now see... But I find it liberating. I'm beginning to think I was cast against type for 35 years, and this (comedy) is what I was meant to do all along."

Nielsen was married four times and had two daughters, and he died of pneumonia at 84. For a comedy pro it is amazing that Nielsen was also legally deaf and wore hearing aids for most of his life. His comedy timing was perfect and he was regally handsome as an aging silver fox.

Years ago I ran into Nielsen at The Mayfair Market (now Gelsons) in West Hollywood. The great fame of Airplane! had yet to happen. I talked briefly with him, telling him how handsome and elegant he was in Tammy and Forbidden Planet. He seemed pleased and told me he was surprised people still remembered those films. LIttle did either of us know that new fame was just around the corner.