Leslie Nielsen began his life as a dramatic actor, starring in films like The Poseidon Adventure and Forbidden Planet, but became famous for parodying the same straight-arrow roles that gave him his start. He was ultimately best known for his comic roles, particularly his portrayal of the incredibly stupid detective from the Naked Gun franchise, Lt. Frank Drebin.
On Sunday, the comic actor, who appeared in more than 100 films in his lifetime, died from complications of pneumonia. He was 84.
In a 1993 interview on Fresh Air, Nielsen explained how the Naked Gun team — producers-directors-and-writers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker — initially approached him, as well as Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack, to star in their 1980 disaster-movie spoof, Airplane!
"They had written something that was just wonderfully dumb and funny," he said. "And they knew that if [we] approached their material with the same seriousness and the same gravity with which we approached our police television shows that we were doing, that it would be very funny."
That film's commercial success — and Nielsen's scene-stealing role as the doomed airplane's doctor — led to a lead role, as Drebin, in Abrahams and the Zuckers' short-lived 1982 TV series Police Squad!, which poked fun atDragnet and other cop shows — and then the Naked Gun series, alongside O.J. Simpson and Priscilla Presley.
"Today, in my career, I'm doing what I love to do," he said. "And that is, do things for the fun — do comedy. It's a pleasure to go for the laughter."
Nielsen's role in Naked Gun led to appearances in many other comedies, including Spy Hard, Mr. Magoo, Scary Movie 3, Surf Ninja and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
But he never forgot the film that first catapulted him into the world of laughs: "When I read the [Airplane!] script, I knew exactly what they were after," he said. "It was the greatest break of my life, in a sense, that I ended up working with people who spotted me for being the closet comedian that I was."