Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack in the movie Airplane! And don't call me Shirley.

The Leslie Nielsen Syndrome

Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen):   Can you fly this plane and land it?

Ted Striker   (Robert Hays):     Surely you can’t be serious?

Dr. Rumack:                            I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.

Now that we’ve gotten that exchange out of the way (# 79 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Quotations), we can discuss serious business – comedy. This dialogue from the movie Airplane! restarted actor Leslie Nielsen’s career as a comedy star. As the saying goes, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” And those were the alleged final words of 19th century Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, not known for getting laughs on stage. It’s a good quote, though, and variations have been used since 1833.

While Kean died a famous tragedian, Nielsen died a comedy legend with a syndrome named for him. A “syndrome,” of course, is a group of symptoms that collectively characterize a disease, psychological disorder, or other abnormal condition. The 1980 Airplane! introduced The Leslie Nielsen Syndrome, the abnormal artistic effect achieved when a serious dramatic actor plays a silly comic role, getting laughs by playing against expected type. When film critic Roger Ebert called him the Laurence Olivier of spoofs, Nielsen replied, “That would make Laurence Olivier the Leslie Nielsen of Shakespeare.”

Born on 11 February 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, to Mabel Elizabeth Davies, a Welsh immigrant, Leslie William Nielsen grew up in Tulita, Northwest Territories, where his Danish father Ingvard was the local Mounty. “When my father was upset with something you’d want to make sure in some way you made him laugh. Because when he didn’t laugh, you were in trouble!”

After high school, where he learned “one thing a person won’t do when he’s laughing is beat you up,” he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, but never made it overseas. He did make it to New York in the late 1940s with a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse, arriving during the “Golden Age” of live television, where his talent and good looks got him work. “I played a lot of leaders, autocratic sorts; perhaps it was my Canadian accent.” And Nielsen worked constantly. Starting on the CBS series Studio One in 1948, he appeared in almost 50 television shows in 1950 alone.

He debuted on Broadway in 1952 in Seagulls Over Sorrento [!] and on film in 1955 in the The Vagabond King, which brought an offer from MGM and his first hit – Forbidden Planet – in 1956. “It was all about the id, or something like that. Who knows? The Trekkies today regard it as the forerunner of Star Trek. I just had to wear a tight uniform and make eyes at Anne Francis. I was pretty thin back then.”

After Tammy and the Bachelor with Debbie Reynolds in 1957 and The Swamp Fox series for Disney, Nielsen carried on in TV westerns, mysteries, and police dramas, finally reaching disaster as the ship’s captain in the 1972 movie The Poseidon Adventure. His expected character, stolid, square, and serious, was set. Then he was cast for just those reasons in Airplane! The disaster movie was turned on its head.

Nielsen stumbled on in television’s Police Squad! as Capt. Frank Drebin, an overly-serious policeman whose one-liners, pratfalls, and sight gags established his Syndrome. It was confirmed in the police squad movies The Naked Gun, Naked Gun 2½, and Naked Gun 33⅓.

Nielsen appeared in more than 100 films and 1,500 television episodes. “Doing nothing is very hard to do because you never know when you’re finished. The upside is from the moment you wake up in the morning, you’re on the job.” He only slowed down to attempt playing golf. “The reason they call it ‘golf’ is that all the other four-letter words were used up.” The syndrome actor was also a practical joker who liked to bring his portable fart machine with him to the set. Leslie Nielsen’s whoopee cushion was finally stopped by pneumonia on 28 November 2010 at 84. The epitaph on his tombstone reads “Let ‘er rip.”