Leslie Nielsen, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 84, was a prolific actor who never failed to raise a smiles on our faces. As most famously demonstrated in Airplane!, and The Naked Gun trilogy, Nielsen could deliver a deadpan one-liner better than anyone, and gave us dozens of laugh-out-loud moments over the years. However, you might not have realised there was a lot more to his career than comedy alone.
Everyone has a favourite Nielsen film or moment – now we’re having a look back at this brilliant star with some facts about Leslie Nielsen you may not have known. Just don’t call him Shirley.
12. Leslie Nielsen wasn’t American
Nielsen may have been an icon of American comedy cinema, but he wasn’t actually American. Nielsen was in fact Canadian, born February 11 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan and later raised in the Northwest Territories.
His father Ingvard Eversen Nielsen was Danish (and served in the Royal Canadian Mounties), whilst his mother Mabel Elizabeth was Welsh. It was only after establishing himself in Hollywood that Nielsen became an American citizen.
11. At the height of his fame, he was legally deaf
In his youth, Nielsen suffered from bow-leggedness; he later commented that he never could have been a child star because of this. What’s more, for most of his life, Nielsen suffered from sensorineural hearing loss.
For this reason, Nielsen had to wear hearing aids from the mid-80s. The problem was so bad he was declared legally deaf, although this did not keep him from working.
10. He was married four times and had two daughters
Leslie Nielsen was first married to nightclub singer Monica Boyar, from 1950 to 1956. In 1958 (the same year he attained American citizenship) he tied the knot with his second wife, Alisande Ullman, with whom he had two daughters: Maura and Thea Nielsen.
This marriage lasted 15 years, until they split in 1973. Nielsen was later married to Brooks Oliver from 1981-1983, and Babaree Earl from 2001 until his passing in 2010.
9. He starred in more than 250 films and TV series
Nielsen appeared in more than 250 productions in a career spanning seven decades. He was 58 by the time that Airplane! reached cinemas in June 1980, at which point he was already a Hollywood veteran, having already starred in over 160 movies and TV shows.
While known primarily for his film work, Nielsen had no shortage of TV credits dating back to the 50s, including appearances on such small screen favourites as The Man from UNCLE, Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H* and Murder, She Wrote.
8. His brother was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada
Leslie wasn’t the only member of the Nielsen family to be a notable public figure. His brother Erik Nielsen was a high-ranking Canadian politician who rose to become Deputy Prime Minister in 1984.
Born February 24th 1924, Erik was the elder Nielsen brother by two years almost exactly. Sadly, he also passed away two years before Leslie in September 2008.
7. His aunt and uncle also starred in hundreds of films
Nielsen was not the first big-name actor in his family, as his aunt and uncle, Jean and Via Hersholt were prolific actors themselves, appearing in hundreds of productions between them.
Jean Hersholt enjoyed particular success, his notable credits included Heidi, The Mark of the Vampire and The Mask of Fu Manchu.
6. He served in the Canadian Air Force
Leslie Nielsen wasn’t always in the entertainment business; as a younger man – technically a kid, in fact – Nielsen was one of the many soon-to-be-famous folks who would join the military.
At the age of 17, Nielsen joined up and enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force and managed to train up as an aerial gunner, though he later left this career well behind him.
5. Before Airplane! and The Naked Gun, he was a dramatic actor
Believe it or not, 1980’s Airplane! was the first film in which Nielsen really turned his hand to straight comedy, in a career that had begun 25 years prior. Before that, Nielsen was considered very much a straight dramatic actor and, particularly in his younger years, a romantic leading man – and even a bit of a heart-throb!
Up to that point, Nielsen had starred in dozens of non-comedy productions, including the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet and the 1972 disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure.
4. Roger Ebert christened Nielsen the ‘Laurence Olivier of Spoofs’
Nielsen managed to swap his acting style to dead-pan comedy so well that he starred in many parody films, and was even called the ‘Laurence Olivier of Spoofs’ by film critic Roger Ebert. The actor reunited with the Airplane! team on short-lived TV show Police Squad! which was later the basis for smash hit comedy The Naked Gun, which spawned two sequels.
Nielsen’s other famous spoofs include Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Spy Hard, Repossessed (a send-up of The Exorcist) and Wrongfully Accused (a parody of The Fugitive).
3. He was the first Trekkie
Nielsen was considered to be possibly the first-ever Trekkie, as he contacted the producers of Star Trek the day after the first show aired to offer praise and say how much he enjoyed the show.
If Nielsen had hoped this might lead to a job offer, he may have been left disappointed; the actor never made an appearance in the Star Trek franchise.
2. He was considered to play Jack Torrance in The Shining
Nielsen was reportedly one of the many actors considered for the role of Jack Torrance in director Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.
This role ultimately went to Jack Nicholson, but Nielsen wasn’t the only funnyman considered: Robin Williams and Chevy Chase were also in the frame.
1. There’s a fart joke on his grave stone
Nielsen died in November 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As well as being mourned by his loved ones, film fans the world over were saddened by his loss, and Nielsen’s relatives chose to honour his comedic legacy at his final resting place.
Nielsen’s grave stone is engraved with the legend, ‘Let ‘er rip!’ which the actor was known to say when pranking people with a fart machine.