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Although Leslie Nielsen's acting career crossed a variety of genres in both television and movies, he achieved his greatest success in the comedies Airplane! and The Naked Gun series of films. His portrayal of serious characters unaware of their absurd surroundings gave Nielsen a reputation as a comedian. A series of later comedies attempted to emulate the popularity of his prior roles.
This paralleled the serious roles of his early career. A lead role in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet and as the ship's captain in The Poseidon Adventure came long before Nielsen considered a turn to comedy. His deadpan delivery as a doctor in 1980's Airplane! marked a turning point in Nielsen's career, one that would make him, in the words of movie critic Roger Ebert, "the Olivier of spoofs".
Nielsen was born in Regina, Saskatchewan to Ingvard Nielsen, a Danish Canadian and Maybelle, who was of Welsh descent; he has two older brothers including Erik Nielsen who was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada during the 1980s. Leslie Nielsen studied at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto before moving to the United States. Earlier, he attended Victoria Composite High School in Edmonton, Alberta. He also at one time lived in Thorhild, AB. The school's archives room has his year book photo there for posterity; oddly enough, his future plans say nothing of wanting to act but that he enjoys pipe trades.
Nielsen's career began in dramatic roles, with numerous appearances as a doctor, lawyer, or police officer. His distinctive voice narrated several documentaries and commercials. With a handful of exceptions, his early work as a dramatic actor was uneventful. All Movie Guide notes, "much of Nielsen's early work was undistinguished; he was merely a handsome leading man in an industry overstocked with handsome leading men.".
A notable exception was Forbidden Planet, the 1956 science fiction classic which was an inspiration for later films. Nielsen played Commander John J. Adams, the lead in the Shakespearean space opera based on The Tempest. Nearly two decades later, Nielsen would have another familiar role as Captain Harrison in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
Nielsen claims appearances in over 1,500 television programs. His early television appearances include parts in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Studio One, and Wild, Wild West. Occasionally he landed feature roles. Disney's The Swamp Fox, a spin-off of the Davy Crockett series with Nielsen as Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, also featured his singing of the theme song. In 1969, he appeared as a police officer in The Bold Ones: The Protectors. Both shows lasted a single season.
Nielsen's breakthrough came with a supporting role in 1980's Airplane!, a parody of the popular Airport series of tragedy films. Nielsen played a doctor aboard an airplane whose crew has been struck with food sickness. His deadpan delivery contrasted with the absurdity surrounding him. When he is asked, "Surely you can't be serious?", he responds with a curt, "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." The comedic exchange was at #79 on The American Film Institute's list of Top 100 movie quotes.
Critics praised the movie, which proved to be a success with audiences as well. The film's directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, decided to bring the slapstick style of comedy to television. They asked Nielsen to play the lead role in their new series, Police Squad! The series introduced Nielsen as Frank Drebin, a stereotypical police officer modeled after earlier detective series. Much like Airplane!, Drebin was a serious character whose one-liners appeared accidental next to the pratfalls around him. The show failed, lasting only six episodes after being juggled between time slots.
With the exception of Airplane!, Nielsen was not known as a comedian. His roles continued to be small and sporadic, such as Prom Night (1980) and Creepshow (1982), both horror films.
Six years after the cancellation of Police Squad!, the directors decided to make a feature length version for theaters. Titled The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, the film returned Nielsen to his role as Frank Drebin. The film involved a comical scheme to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II through a hypnotized baseball player. Drebin, like the doctor in Airplane!, seemed unaware of the absurdity even when unintentionally contributing toward it. The movie was popular and well received by critics. Ebert's 3 ? star review (out of four) noted, "You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing." 
Two popular sequels followed, The Naked Gun 2?: The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994). Nielsen remains open to the prospects of acting in a fourth Naked Gun, although doubts it will ever be produced. "I don't think so. If there hasn't been one by now, I doubt it. I think it would be wonderful."
Nielsen briefly appeared in the World Wrestling Federation in the summer of 1994. Capitalizing on his Frank Drebin character, Nielsen (as well as George Kennedy), were hired as "super-sleuths" to unravel the mystery of The Undertaker, who had disappeared at January's Royal Rumble event. At SummerSlam 1994, in a Naked Gun parody, they were hot on the case (in fact, they were literally standing on a case). Although, they did not actually find The Undertaker, the case had been closed (the literal case had been shut) and thus, they solved the mystery.
Nielsen attempted a variety of similar roles which never achieved the success of Frank Drebin. Many of the films emulated the style of The Naked Gun films, but with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. Indeed, many of the films were panned by critics. Most performed poorly.
Although The Naked Gun series parodied police dramas in general, Nielsen's later films focused on specific targets. Critics panned Repossessed (1990) and 2001: A Space Travesty (2000), parodies of The Exorcist and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films attempted the absurdist comedy Nielsen is recognized for, but were poorly received. A Space Travesty, for example, remains a perennial entry on The Internet Movie Database's bottom 100 list. Even a leading role in a Mel Brooks' comic horror parody, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, failed to generate much box office excitement, although it did gain somewhat of a following on its later release to video, as did Wrongfully Accused, a parody of The Fugitive.
His attempt at children's comedies met additional criticism. Surf Ninjas (1993) and Mr. Magoo (1997) faced scathing reviews. Jeff Miller of the Houston Chronicle panned Mr. Magoo, a live action remake of the 1950s cartoon, by saying, "I'm supposed to suggest how the film might be better. But I can't think of anything to say other than to make the film again."
Nielsen's first major slapstick success since The Naked Gun came in a supporting role in Scary Movie 3. His appearance as President Harris proved popular enough for a second appearance in its sequel, Scary Movie 4. This became the first time Nielsen reprised a character since his numerous appearances as Frank Drebin.
Nielsen also hosted a series of golf instructional videos beginning with 1993's Bad Golf Made Easier. The videos were not serious, instead combining absurd comedy with golf techniques. The series were popular enough to spawn two additional sequels, Bad Golf My Way (1994) and Stupid Little Golf Video (1997). Nielsen also co-wrote a fictional autobiography titled The Naked Truth. The book portrayed Nielsen as a popular actor with a long history of prestigious films.