You know him, and you love him, as bumbling Lieutenant Frank Drebin, the silver-haired schlemiel of TV's Police Squad! and the mega-successful string of Naked Gun movies. But if that's all you know of Leslie Nielsen, you're missing out on about 95 per cent of a remarkably diverse career that spans six decades, nearly 100 movies, and more than 1,500 television appearances.
Nielsen has been romanced by Debbie Reynolds and murdered by Barbra Streisand; been to Peyton Place, Bracken's World, and a famous, forbidden planet; played dozens of doctors, a legion of lawyers, several millionaires, a Mountie, a drug lord, Santa Claus and, yes, even God.
The son of an RCMP officer, Nielsen was born February 11, 1926, in Regina, but spent much of his early years near the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories community of Fort Norman, now Tulita. When Nielsen was four, the family travelled south so his older brother Eric who later served as government leader of the Yukon Territory and then deputy prime minister as a Conservative member of Parliament c ould attend school in Edmonton. Nielsen signed on as an aerial gunner in the RCAF in his late teens.
After the Second World War, Nielsen settled in Calgary and made his show business debut at a local radio station as a radio engineer, announcer and DJ (he was "Stay Up Sam, the All-Night Record Man"). Eager to study acting, Nielsen moved to Toronto to attend Lorne Greene's Academy of Radio Arts, then earned a scholarship to the famed Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York City. Sanford Meisner taught him to act, Martha Graham taught him to dance, he polished his skills at the legendary Actors' Studio, and summer stock paid the bills.
In 1950, Nielsen made his television debut on the prestigous Studio One anthology series, playing opposite another newcomer Charlton Heston. That year alone, he appeared in 46 live TV programs, though he recalls: "There was very little gold. We only got about $75 or $100 per show."
Hollywood beckoned in 1954. Working at Paramount under legendary director Michael Curtiz, Nielsen launched his movie career with the lead role in 1956's The Vagabond King. More memorable was his performance that same year as Commander John J. Adams in the cult sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, and his starring role, opposite Debbie Reynolds, in the hit 1957 romance Tammy And The Bachelor.
As the 1960s dawned, Nielsen continued to pursue film roles most memorably as the doomed captain in The Poseiden Adventure but focused primarily on TV work. Throughout the next four decades, he starred in no fewer than nine series, including several seasons of Peyton Place, as Dr. Vincent Markham; in the title role of Hollywood studio chief John Bracken on Bracken's World and as Sgt. Buck Frobisher in Due South.
Along the way, he found time to guest star on just about every hit drama series going The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, The Virginian, Route 66, Ben Casey, The Fugitive, Dr. Kildare, The Big Valley, Bonanza, Run For Your Life, The Wild, Wild West, The F.B.I., The Man From U.N.C.L.E., It Takes A Thief, Gunsmoke, Hawaii 5-0, The Streets Of San Francisco, Ironside, Kojak, Barnaby Jones, Cannon, Vega$, Murder, She Wrote, and at least a dozen more. Occasionally, too, there was room for comedy, including memorable turns on M*A*S*H, Who's The Boss, Evening Shade, and The Golden Girls.
Still, it wasn't until the 1980s that audiences learned just how deft a comedian TV's perennially serious doctor-lawyer-gunman-cop could be. As Nielsen later recalled: "Working with (producer-directors) David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me." The Zuckers and Abrahams cast Nielsen as the hilariously deadpan Dr. Rumack in Airplane, then handed him the role of Lieut. Frank Drebin. The fate of his second career was sealed.
Despite some superb dramatic outings like his gritty performance as the brutish john killed by Streisand in Nuts a whole new generation of fans have exalted Nielsen's impeccable comic timing and penchant for pratfalls in such clever parodies as Spy Hard, Dracula: Dead And Loving It, Safety Patrol, and 2001: A Space Travesty.
Though the hit comedies continue, Nielsen has more recently returned to two of his first loves drama and the stage. Following in the footsteps of Henry Fonda, he bought the rights to David Rintel's one-man play, Darrow, in 1996 and has since criss-crossed Canada, the United States and Australia with his critically acclaimed portrayal of the legendary defence attorney.
In recent years, the Emmy-nominated superstar has been heaped with accolades. Top among them was his selection, in 1995, as the 18th recipient of the University of California at Los Angeles's coveted Jack Benny Award, a prize reserved for only the best and brightest names in comedy.
Yet, despite worldwide popular and critical success, Leslie Nielsen remains both humble and, of course, humourous about his achievements. As he remarked not long ago: "I have no goals or ambition. I do, however, wish to work enough to maintain whatever celebrity status I have so that they will continue to invite me to golf tournaments."
Brother Erik (one-time deputy Prime Minister of Canada)
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