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Leslie Nielsen: Tribute to a Comedy Legend

Leslie Nielsen's work reached a nearly universal audience. Leslie Nielsen's work reached a nearly universal audience.

When Canadian-born actor and widely loved comedic genius Leslie Nielsen passed away this week at age 84 due to complications from pneumonia, I couldn’t help but wax a little nostalgic. What really surprised me was the overwhelming public reaction to Nielsen’s death. He seems to have been a personality who was nearly universally loved and revered. But then how could you not love Nielsen’s oblivious slapstick routine, best exemplified in his two most famous films, Airplane! and The Naked Gun?

On my social networking page, eulogies came fast and furious following the news of Nielsen’s passing. In all the years of being online, I can think of only a few celebrity deaths that caused a similar wave of reaction. My first exposure to the Saskatchewan-born thespian, like most people of my generation, was in 1980’s Airplane! I was too young to catch the theatrical run, but Jim Abraham, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker’s masterpiece was a favorite on VHS by the time I hit elementary school.

Of course, Nielsen delivered that film’s most famous line, and indeed, one of the most famous comedic lines in late 20th century Western culture. When another character addresses Nielsen with, “Surely you can’t be serious,” Nielsen deadpans, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

Airplane! was highly revered as a satire and was a smash hit, much like 1988’s The Naked Gun, again produced by the team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker. But this film was all Nielsen. Instead of an ensemble cast, it was Nielsen leading the way with a perfectly oblivious performance as police officer Frank Drebin.

I also remember The Naked Gun as one of the few movies that my aging immigrant father and my ten-year-old self could enjoy with equal enthusiasm in 1988. And I suspect that many viewers of my generation connect with Nielsen’s films in a similarly nostalgic way. After all, I may be a huge fan of the increasingly dark and raunchy comedy of the early 21st century, but I can’t help but recognize something special all but lost to our culture since the days of Nielsen’s innocent slapstick.

Films like The Naked Gun and Airplane! also had a nearly universal appeal because the humor was almost entirely without nuance, a feat unto itself. Viewers around the globe found something to laugh about when watching Leslie Nielsen’s masterful performances. Unfortunately, it’s not until his death that all of these reverent reflections dawn on me. But what better way to remember a performer who so indelibly made his way into our lives, than to marvel at how his unique career, while widely appreciated, may nevertheless have been underappreciated until now.  

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Last modified on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 05:35

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