Nielsen - who passed on yesterday, confounding fellow players who were convinced he was going to twist – was born young, in the backwoods of Canada. His family later moved to the middlewoods; but, before he could reach the frontwoods he longed for, he was caught up in the Second World War - an eye-watering experience, which women can never fully understand.
Nielsen joined the Royal Canadian Air Force despite being legally deaf – fortuitously, as he later learned that volunteers whose deafness was deemed illegal faced up to six years in a military jail. Serving as a tail gunner, Nielsen soon won recognition in the pilots’ mess for his smooth pouring of drinks from inside a hydraulic turret. As an aerial gunner, he was decorated for shooting the radar aerials off enemy night fighters; the citation refers to the coolness of his pastel wallpaper, and his dedicated Feng Shui advisor.
On leaving the RCAF from a great height, Neilson initially went into radio – sets were bigger in those days, he once reminisced – playing records live on air in New York. Moving into television (“Ah, room to stretch out”) and cinema (“Hey, let’s throw a party!”), Nielsen swiftly realised that playing records had suddenly become a lot harder to pull off, unless you happened to be black, flat and circular, so he opted to play people roles instead.
|It's going to be an interesting funeral|
The result was an MGM contract – a surprise to Nielsen, who was expecting several cans of film – which saw him catapulted to stardom in ‘Forbidden Planet’ as the captain of a spaceship driven by a powerful catapult. The daily rigours of being hurled across Los Angeles in the name of entertainment, some believe, are the reason his hair turned prematurely white, although Nielsen always insisted that he hadn’t pencilled in a specific date for it.
The lean years of television that followed sent a variety of nondescript roles Nielsen’s way, all of which he dutifully ate in the required leaning position. However, a fight in a print shop saw him cast against type and, as the deadpan doctor in comedy hit movie Airplane!, Nielsen became a legend by delivering The Funniest Line Ever Spoken In The Entire History Of Comedy According To People With An Atrophied Sense Of Humour as he bravely struggled to bring a pan back to life.
Although Police Squad! flopped on television, it was successfully cleaned off with a damp sponge - and, in three hit Naked Gun movies, Nielsen again reduced many comedy fans to tears by picking up the part of plain-clothes detective Frank Drebin, putting it away and zipping it up too fast. An eye-watering experience, which women can never fully understand.
Leslie Nielsen, comic actor (1926-2010)