Nielsen died in Florida Sunday night after suffering from pneumonia, surrounded by friends and family. He was 84.
Nielsen spent almost three decades in scores of serious Hollywood and TV roles, but he will “surely” be best remembered for his iconic comedic roles.
The Regina-born actor grew up in Canada’s North, but left his abusive family at the age of 17 to try his hand at acting in New York.
As a six-foot blond with good looks, he worked steadily, mostly in TV on such series as “Rawhide,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Fugitive,” as well as in such well-known films as “The Poseidon Adventure.”
But Nielsen’s career only really began, many might argue, when he joined the cast of “Airplane!” in 1980. At the time, Nielsen was 54 — an age when many Hollywood actors’ careers are winding down.
Canada AM film critic Richard Crouse says what made Nielsen so brilliant in that role was the way he took cues from the melodramas he’s built his career on and turned it into comedy.
“He got this role in ‘Airplane!’ and they told him, ‘Play it safe. Don’t go for the joke; let the jokes come to you. Be the leading man you’ve always been. Just say extremely funny things’.”
“He was 54 years old but it led to the next 30 years of his life,” says Crouse. “He was working until, literally, weeks ago. This guy never stopped working. He enjoyed working.”
“Airplane!” became a huge hit, filled with classic comedic scenes that allowed Nielsen to use his deadpan delivery for laughs.
When Nielsen’s character asks character Ted Striker to fly the plane they’re aboard, Striker replies, “Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious,” Nielsen responds, “and don’t call me Shirley.”
Nielsen followed up “Airplane!” with the role of Det. Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun,” a film series send-up of the cliches of “Dragnet” and other cop shows. With George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson and Priscilla Presley co-starring, Nielsen had another hit on his hands, leading to sequels “Naked Gun 2 1/2” and “The Naked Gun 33 1/3.”
In his later years, Nielsen worked on stage, in advertisement work and film. The naturalized U.S. citizen returned often to Canada for work, appearing in “Men With Brooms,” “Due South,” “Robson Arms.”
Actor and filmmaker Don McKellar featured Nielsen in an episode of his cartoon TV series, “Odd Job Jack.” Though he met the actor only a couple of times, he says he was always impressed.
“He reinvented that funny straightman for his generation, you see some of that oblivious straight guy in Steve Carell and Will Ferrell,” McKellar told The Canadian Press.
“Robson Arms” producer, Brian Hamilton, said Nielsen always kept the film set atmosphere light with his mischievous sense of humour.
“He didn’t take himself, or anyone else, too seriously and he was someone who lightened the tone on sets constantly, even when we were under stress or a tight time frame,” Hamilton told CP.
“He was always the one to crack a smile and keep everyone in a light mood and frame of mind.”
Those who worked with Nielsen knew the prankster kept with him a hand-held whoopee cushion that always helped to bring some laughs to any dull day.
Crouse says he himself has been the victim of that whoopee cushion.
“About a year and a half ago, I hosted a panel with him at the Fan Expo in Toronto. And every time I would come near him, he had a little flatulence device that he would hit,” Crouse remembered.
“That was his thing; he had it with him all the time. Thirty years he carried this thing around and he was legendary for it. So every time I went near him, he would make the sound, and then he would look at me kind of disdainfully. And then with perfect timing, he would look at the audience with that ‘What am I supposed to do with this guy?’ look. And it got a huge laugh every single time,” Crouse said with a laugh.
Nielsen has stars on both Hollywood’s and Canada’s Walk of Fame and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.
He is survived by two daughters, Thea and Maura, and his fourth wife, Barbaree.
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