National Post (Latest Edition)
Looking back at the career of a Canadian comedy icon.
By 1991, Leslie Nielsen was a star. Riding high on the popularity of Airplane! and the Naked Gun franchise, Nielsen was a massive success story in the insular world of Canadian comedy when he appeared at the Genie Awards to meet with the show’s young writers.
“I remember the first time I talked to him, I said something like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ We shook hands, and he made this incredible farting sound,” says Brian Nasimok, a comedian who wrote for Nielsen, the show’s host that year. “He had this little device with him that made farting sounds and he’d intersperse it throughout conversations, but do it without breaking character. He always played the joke straight, even if it involved a farting machine.”
Nielsen died on Sunday evening at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., an 84-year-old veteran actor who succumbed to pneumonia. A native of Regina, Nielsen got his start as a leading man, and stood out on The Red Skelton Show,
M*A*S*H and The Poseidon Adventure. However, it was his work as a comedian, especially in collaboration with the Zucker brothers on
Police Squad! and Airplane!, where Nielsen connected to fans.
“He played sort of this bumbling hero that you can’t help but love and he was gifted at parody, burlesque, slapstick and puns,” says Lynne Perras, who teaches a course in Canadian humour at the University of Calgary. “His humour was definitely not malicious, which is very Canadian, and he was also really good at laughing at himself — again, a very Canadian trait.”
The son of a Mountie and brother of a member of Parliament, Nielsen acted opposite such luminaries as Debbie Reynolds and Barbra Streisand and received stars on both the American and Canadian walks
of fame. “He had a billion-dollar-deadpan,” says Mark Breslin, founder of the Yuk Yuk’s comedy clubs and author of the Yuk Yuk’s Guide to Canadian Stand-Up. “It’s easy to be funny in an aggressive kind of way, but to be funny as a straight man is hard. You can draw a straight line from the work of Leslie Nielsen to the work of people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.”
Since his death, comments have been streaming in from people who worked with Nielsen. “Leslie’s huge heart and fierce intelligence defined goof-ball comedy and he was its undisputed master,” Paul Gross, who worked with Nielsen on Due South, said in a statement. “His loss will be felt by all. More personally, he was a mentor and a friend.”
“By playing against character type, he found a hilarious comedic thread that made him an ironic Canadian icon,” writes Andrew Alexander, CEO of Second City, the famed Chicago-based comedy troupe that trained a legion of comedy stars, including Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy and Gilda Radner.
Of course, no one can speak to the influence of a Canadian comedy icon like a comedian still working in the Canadian comedy world today. Brent Butt is the creator of Corner Gas who is currently writing and starring on the show Hiccups, and he says Leslie Nielsen was one of a kind.
“I had never seen comedy like that before and, since Saskatchewan wasn’t exactly a comedy hotbed, discovering that he was Canadian made me think that maybe I could do it as well,” says Butt, who performed with Nielsen in 2005 at the Saskatchewan Centennial Celebration in front of Queen Elizabeth and 13,000 fans. “He was a pro through and through and as funny as he was, what I think I’ll really miss most about him was just that he was a super nice guy.”