The white-haired doctor from “Airplane!” flew to his last trip. American actor Leslie Nielsen died Sunday in Florida at the age of 84.
He died in a hospital near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, surrounded by his wife, Barbaree, and friends at 5:34 p.m. EST.
Nielsen is probably best known for playing the bumbling cop Lieutenant Frank Drebin in the “Naked Gun” franchise.
Nielsen may have chosen an acting career as a reaction to the strict upbringing that his father, a police officer of Danish origin, imposed on him, in a small village in northern Canada. Some of his biographers claim that he discovered his talent by lying to her father to avoid a spanking.
He studied at the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto founded by Lorne Greene – made famous by the series Bonanza – then landed a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.
Tall – 1.84 m high -, blond and masculine good looks, he seemed destined for a career as a leading man. He starred in “Peyton Place”, in “Dr. Kildare” and about 150 other episodes of TV soap operas in New York before migrating to Hollywood. He continued to play dramatic roles, including villains and tyrants – his movie and television career spanning more than 60 years- but he is best known for his humor off camera.
Thus his international career took off with “Airplane!”, a film by brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their friend Jim Abrahams, a hilarious string of madcap spoof movies, launched in 1980.
For “The Naked Gun” franchise, creators Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker – who had previously worked with Nielsen on “Airplane!” – made a feature packed with slapstick action and double-entendres.
Married three times, having two daughters, living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he continued to act until recent years.
“Doing nothing is very difficult,” he said once, “because you never know when it’s over.”
After being hospitalized for twelve days for lung problems, he saw his condition worsening over the past 48 hours.
Sunday Afternoon, “with his friends and his wife at his side Barbaree, he just fell asleep and died,” reported his nephew Doug Nielsen.
Many actors and film critics have paid tribute on Twitter, still recalling his famous line as Dr. Rumack in “Airplane!”: “Can you fly this plane, and land it?,” he asks a passenger. “Surely, you can’t be serious,” the passenger exclaims.
“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” Rumack replies.