Leslie Nielsen, star of TV’s Police Squad! as well as the Airplane and Naked Gun movies, has died at age 84. Nielsen was a dramatic actor who turned to comedy relatively late, but the first half of his career was preparation for the second, in which he became one of Hollywood’s funniest straight men.
When Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker cast Nielsen in Airplane!, they were looking not for a classically funny guy: they were looking for a man who could play as if entirely unaware he were the funniest character in a movie. The disaster-movie parody spawned his entirely apt trademark line, in response to the exclamation, “Surely you can’t be serious!”: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
Airplane! led to Nielsen’s casting as the lead, Frank Drebin, in the cop-show parody Police Squad!, whose short, brilliant life demonstrated that TV in the early ’80s was constrained in ways that movies weren’t. Nielsen’s deadpan delivery and the show’s comic style—which relied, like Airplane! on the effect of playing hilarious scenes entirely straight—was deemed above audiences’ heads, and the show was soon canceled. (Later, it would be revived more successfully in the form of the Naked Gun movies.)
There’s always a fine line between stoic lawman and comic figure to begin with anyway. (Think of Fox Mulder in The X-Files, which sometimes became a comedic role.) And Nielsen, with his gleaming white hair and rock-solid expression of authority, was the perfect man to walk that line; his acting only worked comedically to the extent that his characters believed in themselves dramatically.
If Police Squad! was—as it was then described in so many words—too intelligent for its audience, the fact that it probably would not be so today is testament to its legacy: the show, and performances like Nielsen’s, made TV a smarter in the long run. RIP.