When most people think of Leslie Nielsen, they think of comedy spoofs – of varying degrees of box office success – such as Airplane! (1980), The Naked Gun (1988), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), and Wrongfully Accused (1998).
Perhaps a little strangely, when I think of Leslie Nielsen, who died at the age of 84 from complications of pneumonia at a Ft. Lauderdale hospital on Sunday, the first thing that comes to mind is the older guy Debbie Reynolds pines for in Joseph Pevney’s Tammy and the Bachelor (1957).
It’s while daydreaming of Nielsen that Reynolds sings Ray Evans and Jay Livingston’s ballad “Tammy.” Don’t laugh. It’s actually a charming romantic song.
Else, I think of the spaceship commander J. J. Adams in Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, which features Walter Pidgeon as the off-kilter Dr. Edward Morbius, Anne Francis in a skimpy mini-skirt, Robby the Robot, and a still very much relevant message about the seeds of self-destruction inside the human mind.
Next comes Nielsen’s Lucas Hollingsworth, Beatrice Arthur’s lover in the two final episodes of The Golden Girls (1992). The reason I remember him in that particular television show is because Arthur’s Dorothy makes a point of telling her housemates over and over again that Hollingsworth’s penis was so incredibly awesome, “We named it!”
During his sixty-year+ acting career, the Canadian-born Nielsen (February 11, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan) appeared in countless television series and in nearly 70 features. Among Nielsen’s other notable film roles are those in The Opposite Sex (1956), a poorly received remake of The Women (1939); The Plainsman (1966), as General Custer in this now-forgotten remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1936 Western hit; Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972), as the doomed ship’s captain; and Paul Lynch’s schlocky horror thriller Prom Night (1980), as the father of a dead girl.
According to Debbie Reynolds, Nielsen was initially unwilling to co-star with her in the fluffy Tammy and the Bachelor.
“Leslie was fresh from New York. He came from The Actors Studio and he thought doing Tammy—a simple little story with a goat and Walter Brennan and Debbie Reynolds—was really corny,” she told Movie Addict Headquarters host Betty Jo Tucker.
“He didn’t want to do it. So he was kind of depressed.
“So I said to him, ‘You should like comedy, because it will do well by you.”
As for his work for comedy producers-directors-writers Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, Nielsen told the Los Angeles Times in 1991: “I will be forever grateful to them. It is just an amazing roll of the dice. I am so lucky to be a representative of their humor.”
Well, he wasn’t much of an actor in his early career. Really, he was the Richard Gere of his day. This only made his transition to broad, campy humor that much better.