Remembering Leslie Nelson

Leslie Nielsen will always be known for being Frank Drebin in the “Naked Gun” movies, and while he surely came to terms with it late in his career and life, the thought early in his career that this guy, this blandly handsome automaton, would end up famous for his comedy would have seemed insane. His career spanned almost 60 years, and the first 30 were rock-jawed, Serious Leading Man roles. It is not for nothing that Nielsen spent most of the first decade on television stageplays like “Kraft Suspense Theater” and “Playhouse 90.” He was, essentially, Ronald Reagan: A dull, handsome straight man back when we liked our protagonists as vanilla “heroic” as possible.

Nielsen’s biggest “straight” role was in 1956’s “Forbidden Planet,” a schlocky sci-fi groaner that was nonetheless quite popular at the time (and sustained Nielsen’s career for a couple of decades until the Zucker brothers came around). Nielsen is painful to watch: Every line sounds like he’s reading from a Depression-era radio play.

He is so self-serious, so unblinking, that the joke is both from him and on him. He’s just perfect, and even though this was his first-ever real “comedy,” his career would never be the same. No one could ever take him seriously again. Over the last 20 years of his career, Nielsen lived off the Drebin image, showing up in a series of increasingly low-budget and lousy “comedies.” (The last of which was something called “Stonerville,” which also featured a cameo from Pauly Shore.) But he was beloved, at last, the straight man finally turned to lunacy, whether he always realized it or not. But seriously: Don’t call him Shirley. That line is merely one of hundreds that Nielsen will be remembered for. Just try to think of Nielsen today, and not have a smile take over your face. It’s difficult to imagine a happier legacy than that.