Nielsen, who died yesterday at 84, was a unique figure in the movie firmament; he was a one-man genre. Everyone knew what to expect from a Nielsen movie spoof, and everyone laughed. And I mean everyone; how many 84-year-olds have had enough youth appeal to merit an obit on MTV News? Or be mourned on Twitter by comics generations younger than he was, including Russell Brand, Patton Oswalt, David Wain and Kevin Pollak? Indeed, the whole Twittersphere is bursting today with variations on Nielsen's signature riposte from 'Airplane!': "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."
Nielsen was indeed ageless. He seemed to have been frozen in time around 1980; ever after, he remained tall, white-haired, rugged, elegant and still eager to do pratfalls or drop bizarrely funny deadpan punchlines. It seemed like he would always be around, making spoofs and delivering a shotgun spray of physical and verbal gags. Still, it's remarkable that his comic run lasted as long as it did, especially considering what a 180 it was from his serious origins.
Nielsen grew up in a home with an abusive father, a home in a frozen village just south of the Arctic Circle from which he escaped at 17 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He learned his famously stentorian speaking manner in a school for radio talent run by fellow serious-toned thespian Lorne Greene (long before his 'Bonanza' and 'Battlestar Galactica' days). He came to America and quickly found parts in TV and movies, but they were usually stiff, stolid authority figures. (One of the livelier ones was his space captain in the 1956 sci-fi classic 'Forbidden Planet.') Though he missed out on playing the second lead of Messala in 1959's 'Ben-Hur' (he was out-stiffed by Stephen Boyd, but you can watch Nielsen's screen test below, -- h/t to Roger Ebert for finding it), he continued to play rigid authority figures for another 20 years, most memorably, the ill-fated cruise ship captain in 1972's 'The Poseidon Adventure.'
But it was that very stiffness that landed him a role doing the kind of comedy he always wanted to do in 1980's 'Airplane!", where he joined other fellow masters of deadpan (Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack) in sending up their own images. Of course, the others were all well-established TV and movie figures, but Nielsen became the film's unlikely breakout star.
Nielsen would spend the second half of his career spoofing the kind of roles he'd specialized in during the first half -- presidents, secret agents, and especially cops. His most beloved post-'Airplane!' role was Lt. Frank Drebin, the hard-boiled and slightly cracked detective of the short-lived 1982 TV series 'Police Squad!' and its astonishingly successful big-screen spinoff, the 'Naked Gun' movies.
When I met Nielsen, I asked him why he thought the Drebin saga had been such a success in movies after having been such a failure on TV. (Ratings failure, that is. 'Police Squad!' was beloved by critics and a cult of fans, and it still holds up as well as the 'Naked Gun' movies do.) Nielsen's answer: There was too much going on in 'Police Squad!' for TV audiences to catch; it was full of the same multiple-gags-at-once comedy as 'Airplane!' (both were the creation of the ZAZ team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker). "You had to pay attention," Nielsen explained. The movie theater was better suited for scenes that filled a screen with several jokes at once, he said.
Nielsen was unfailingly gracious to me, even when I made the faux pas of asking him about the then-ongoing trial of his three-time 'Naked Gun' co-star, O.J. Simpson. (He politely declined to answer, and I changed the subject.) He seemed awed and grateful for his belated success and thrilled to be greeted by enthusiastic fans wherever he went.
Nielsen's latter-day career wasn't always comical; watch him as call girl Barbra Streisand's violent john in 'Nuts' to see him thoroughly scary and dramatic and not at all funny. But for the most part, he was happy to keep making his trademark parody films, first as a leading man (in movies like 'Spy Hard' and 'Wrongfully Accused'), later as a supporting player, in the 'Scary Movie' series and in other '____ Movie' films, where his anything-for-a-laugh gameness made him seem right at home alongside performers 60 years younger.
Not that Nielsen was coasting or resting on his laurels. Doing the kind of comedy he did, dancing blithely on the line between deadpan seriousness and utter ridiculousness, is extremely difficult, and it's hard to imagine anyone else coming along who will be able to do it as well as Nielsen did. Surely he will be missed.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.