It’s a rare thing that two films would define a genre, but that’s exactly what Airplane! and The Naked Gun do for spoofs. They are the ultimate in that brand of comedy, simultaneously showing how funny drama can be and how difficult mining the laughter truly is. It’s an even rarer thing that a single actor would so thoroughly define a particular brand of storytelling.

Leslie Nielsen made people laugh by not laughing. It’s a trait not shared by anyone else in the comedy world. Yet Nielsen consistently took every absurd situation he found his characters in, treated it with life or death certainty, and delivered punch lines without even seeming to notice them.

After serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Nielsen trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater in New York. He went on to become a force in television and a presence in a variety of movies as diverse as the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet and romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor.

Of course he didn’t reach iconic status when he starred in Airplane!, but he was laying the foundation. It was the launch pad to a relationship with Jim Abrahams, and David and Jerry Zucker that would create a trilogy of movies where Nielsen revived his television role as a hard-boiled police detective mired in a world of absurdity and one-liners.

One of his best legacies might be from what Roger Ebert had to say about the first Naked Gun movie: “You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing.”

It’s a powerful skill, and one not owned by many people. Who else could make us forget that a plane was about to crash and kill everyone on board? Who else could distract us from the eminent plot to kill the Queen of England by donning an umpire’s outfit? Nielsen was a master at being serious when no one else around him was.

He also single-handedly took down a group of terrorists:

Nielsen’s died in his sleep on November 28th from complications with pneumonia at the age of 84. He will surely be missed.

Reject HQ will be playing his best films all day starting with Airplane!. Which films were your favorite?

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