Actor Leslie Nielsen dies

Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen has died at age 84 in a Florida hospital from complications from pneumonia.
Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen, seen arriving at the British Film Awards in London in 2000, died Sunday at the age of 84. ((Jonathan Evans/Reuters))


Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen, who went from serious turns in live TV dramas to the inspired bumbling of film comedies Airplane! and Naked Gun, has died at the age of 84.

Nielsen's agent, John Kelly, said the beloved actor died Sunday at a hospital near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he was being treated for pneumonia. His wife, Barbaree, was by his side.

"We loved him dearly and we'll miss him and he was a good friend of mine, not just my uncle. I think that's a tribute to him and his interests and just his warmth," said Nielsen's nephew Doug Nielsen, who lives in Richmond, B.C.

The Regina-born Nielsen, who trained as an aerial gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and was the son of an RCMP officer, started his career in radio, first in Calgary and then Toronto.

A scholarship to the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City followed and Nielsen — with his handsome face, fair hair and six-foot-two height — soon began a busy schedule in the early days of television, turning in 150 live appearances in TV dramas.

Tributes to Nielsen

"In a career spanning more than six decades, the Regina-born Nielsen was an accomplished actor on stage and screen, in both dramas and comedies.... We can be grateful that his most famous performances are preserved on film and will delight audiences for years to come." — Prime Minister Stephen Harper

"He reinvented that funny straight man for his generation, you see some of that oblivious straight guy in Steve Carell and Will Ferrell." — Don McKellar, Canadian writer, filmmaker and actor

"He didn't take himself, or anyone else, too seriously ... Very quickly he gave us a sense of the kind of fun-loving guy he was, because he would walk up to a group, and all of a sudden there would be this whoopee cushion going off and people would be cracking up." — Brian Hamilton, producer, Robson Arms 

"Shirley, he will be missed." — Russell Brand, comedian and actor

"One of my all time favorite comedians. You, my friend, will be missed big time. Wow, what a loss. And don't call me Shirley." — Slash, guitarist

"Surely Leslie Nielson can't be DEAD?!" — Patton Oswalt, comedian

"A lovely man and acquaintance passed away ... What a lovely, funny, talented man. He will be missed. RIP" — Marlee Matlin, actress

"Sad to hear about Leslie Nielsen passing. To this day Airplane is still one of my favourite comedies ever." — Ryan Seacrest, radio and TV host

With files from The Canadian Press

He moved to Hollywood in the mid-1950s and soon his film credits started building up, from the drama Ransom! and the cult sci-fi film Forbidden Planet  to the starring role opposite Debbie Reynolds in the romance Tammy and the Bachelor.

Over the years, Nielsen would balance a career in film and television, with prolific credits ranging from movies like The Poseiden Adventure, The Amsterdam Kill and Nuts to Peyton Place, The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ben Casey and more.

'I am serious, and don't call me Shirley'

Though he developed a reputation as a serious actor, behind the camera he was a prankster — an aspect of his personality never really exploited until the comedy Airplane! was released in 1980 and became a huge hit.

Nielsen once recalled that "working with [producer-directors] David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me."

The trio saw Nielsen's comedic potential and cast him as a hilariously deadpan leading man: Dr. Rumack in the in-flight disaster spoof Airplane! One of the film's most-quoted scenes features Nielsen asking a passenger if he can fly the plane. The man replies, "Surely you can't be serious."

Nielsen responds: "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley."

The Zuckers and Abrahams then cast him as the accident-prone Det. Frank Drebin in TV's Police Squad! that then made the leap to film with the series The Naked Gun.

With these roles, Nielsen's career developed a second wind and took on a new comedic fervour.

The Naked Gun eventually encompassed three films, and he co-authored, in 1993, a spoof autobiography titled The Naked Truth, which contained absurd statements, fictionalized information and faked photos purportedly about his life and career. Other books by the avid golfer included Leslie Nielsen's Stupid Little Golf Book and Bad Golf My Way.

Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen is seen with Nicollette Sheridan at the premiere of the comedy Spy Hard in 1996. ((Michael Caulfield/Associated Press))

Nielsen continued with a host of similarly silly comedies, including Spy Hard, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Mr. Magoo, Wrongfully Accused and the Scary Movie films.

He ultimately turned in hundreds of television performances, including in Due South and Robson Arms, and appeared in more than 100 movies, such as 2002's Men With Brooms, for which he re-teamed with Due South star Paul Gross.

"Leslie's huge heart and fierce intelligence defined goofball comedy and he was its undisputed master," Gross said Monday in a statement.

"His loss will be felt by all. More personally he was a mentor and a friend. I will miss him terribly."

On a serious bent, in 1996, Nielsen bought the rights to the one-man play Darrow, by David Rintel, and toured the critically acclaimed production about the legendary defence attorney through Canada, the U.S. and Australia.

He was honoured by both Hollywood's and Canada's Walk of Fame and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.

Nielsen, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, continued to visit his Canadian family periodically. Along with regular visits to his nephew in B.C., he was sometimes spotted in Ottawa while visiting his elder brother Erik Nielsen, a long-time Progressive Conservative MP and deputy prime minister in Brian Mulroney's government. Erik Nielsen was also 84 when he died in 2008 at his home in Kelowna, B.C., after suffering a heart attack.

Nielsen is survived by his wife, Barbaree, and his daughters from a previous marriage, Thea and Maura.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press