Don’t Call Me Shirley: Spoof Icon Leslie Nielsen’s Rise to Stardom

The late actor Leslie Nielsen, who passed away in 2010, was one of those actors who managed to get a smile out of his audience many, many times. From Airplane! to Naked Gun and Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Nielsen was able to deliver deadpan one-liners in a way that other actors could only hope to imitate.

Leslie Nielsen, 1993
Leslie Nielsen, 1993. Source: Shutterstock

The comedian gave us a dozen of laugh-out-loud moments, but I can bet that there are plenty of facts about the actor that even his biggest fans don’t know. Everyone has their favorite Nielsen moment or film, so let’s take a look at this prolific and brilliant actor and his journey to stardom. Just try not to call him Shirley.

He Grew Up Near the Arctic

Nielsen may have been the golden boy of American comedy, but he wasn’t actually American. The actor was, in fact, born in Regina, Saskatchewan and later moved further up north to Canada’s Northwest Territories. The family lived in a small town called Fort Norman, which was just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. According to Nielsen, there were only 15 people living in the town, including him, his two brothers, and his parents.

Leslie Nielsen
Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

Since the village was so isolated and inaccessible, essential supplies only reached the Nielsen family twice a month. But as Nielsen and his brothers began to grow up, his parents realized that the isolation was too much for the family, so they relocated the entire family to Edmonton so the kids could go to a better school.

His Father Was a Mountie

The actor’s father, Ingvard Nielsen, was a member of the world-renowned Royal Canadian Mounted Police force when the family lived in Fort Norman. As Canada’s national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police oversees and enforces federal laws throughout Canada. Despite the name, the police force no longer ride horses, except at ceremonial events.

Forbidden Planet – 1956, Leslie Nielsen
Forbidden Planet – 1956, Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

But while the Danish-born constable was respected in the police force, he didn’t have a good reputation back at home. Nielsen’s father was a strict disciplinary and was regularly abusive towards the actor and his mother. For years, Nielsen dreamed of leaving his family, and when he turned 17 years old, he did just that.

Following in Their Footsteps

Surprisingly enough, Nielsen wasn’t the first Hollywood actor in his family. In fact, his uncle Jean Hersholt was an actor. Hersholt, who was known for his performance as DR. Christian in a radio series, as well as for his role in several TV series and films, was famous when Nielsen was growing up.

Hot Summer Night – 1957, Leslie Nielsen, Colleen Miller
Hot Summer Night – 1957, Leslie Nielsen, Colleen Miller. Photo By Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

“I did learn very early that when I would mention my uncle, people would look at me as if I were the biggest liar in the world,” Nielsen told The Boston Globe in 1994. “Then I would take them home and show them 8-by-10 glossies, and things changed quite drastically.” As Nielsen grew older, he decided to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become an actor himself.

He Trained as an Ariel Gunner

Nielsen wasn’t always an entertainment man. After Nielsen graduated high school at 17 years old, he joined the ranks of many soon-to-be-famous actors who joined the military. Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, despite the fact that he was legally deaf and wore hearing aids for most of his life.

Leslie Nielsen - 1994
Leslie Nielsen – 1994. Photo By Conrad Hafenrichter/Shutterstock

The actor trained during World War II, but he was too young at the time to be sent overseas. After his service, Nielsen left this career far behind him. He soon found work as a disk jockey at a Calgary radio station. He also attended the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, before he earned a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York.

Television’s Golden Age

After receiving his scholarship, Nielsen moved to New York City. There, he studied theatre and music at the Neighborhood Playhouse and then attended the Actors Studio. It was in 1950 that Nielsen made his first television appearance. He was cast for a small role on Studio One, alongside actor Charlton Heston. According to Nielsen, he was paid $75, which is equivalent to around $800 in 2019.

Spy Hard - 1996, Nicolette Sheridan, Leslie Nielsen
Spy Hard – 1996, Nicolette Sheridan, Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Hollywood Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock

Just in that first year alone, Nielsen appeared in 46 live television programs. He narrated commercials and documentaries and was cast in a few dramatic roles. But according to media historian Hal Erickson, much of Nielsen’s earlier works were indistinguishable. “He was merely a handsome leading man in an industry overstocked with handsome leading men,” Erickson wrote.

One Thing Leads to Another

Nielsen finally made his feature film debut in 1956 when he was cast in Michael Curtiz’s musical, The Vagabond King. While the film was not a success (Nielsen often referred to the film as “The Vagabond Turkey), producer Nicholas Nayfack offered the actor an audition for the film Forbidden Planet.

'Forbidden Planet,' a 1956 science fiction film starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen.
‘Forbidden Planet,’ a 1956 science fiction film starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Universal History Archive/Shutterstock

Nielson not only got the part, but he signed a long contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, and the rest is history. The science fiction film was a hit, and Nielsen’s career took off. “The Trekkies today regard it as the forerunner of Star Trek,” Nielsen said of the movie. “I just had to wear a tight uniform and make eyes at Anne Francis. I was pretty thin back then.”

A Romantic Lead?

In 1957, Nielsen was cast as the lead role in the romantic comedy, Tammy and the Bachelor, opposite Debbie Reynolds. The film was a hit, and Nielsen is still remembered until this day for his performance as Peter Brent. His role made people began to consider Nielsen not only as a dramatic actor but as a handsome romantic lead.

Tammy and The Bachelor - 1957, Leslie Nielsen, Debbie Reynolds
Tammy and The Bachelor – 1957, Leslie Nielsen, Debbie Reynolds. Photo By Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock

A few years later, Nielsen auditioned for the role of Messala in the 1959 film Ben-Hur. However, the role went to Stephen Boyd, not Nielsen. The actor soon became unhappy with the type of movies MGM was offering him. He even went as far as to call the studio a “Tiffany, which had forgotten how to make silver.” Soon after the failed audition, Nielsen left MGM.

“Oh, Say, Can You See?”

As Nielsen’s career began to blossom, he decided that it was time to become a United States citizen. So, in November 1958, the actor became a naturalized American citizen. But just because he now held two citizenships, that did not mean that he had turned his back on his home country of Canada. Throughout his career, Nielsen had a strong connection to his homeland and appeared in several Canadian movies.

Prom Night - 1980, Leslie Nielsen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Tough
Prom Night – 1980, Leslie Nielsen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Tough. Photo By Avco Embassy/Kobal/Shutterstock

The actor appeared in the made-for-television movie Riel (1979), as well as in feature films such as City on Fire (1979), Prom Night (1980), and Men with Booms (2002). The actor was also nominated for a Gemini Award in 1996 for his guest spot appearance on the Canadian series, Due South. Nielsen was also awarded the Order of Canada in 2003.

Forbidden Planet Cost Him

Forbidden Planet was definitely the film that put Nielson on Hollywood’s radar. The well-made science fiction movie is about a spaceship crew on the search for a group of missing scientists. While the film is considered a science fiction classic, it caused some problems for Nielsen.

Forbidden Planet - 1956, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
Forbidden Planet – 1956, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

“It’s the reason I was never asked to do Star Trek or The Twilight Zone for TV,” Nielsen said in an interview. “I carried too much baggage with me from that movie.” Well, it makes sense seeing as Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry noted in his 1999 authorized biography that Forbidden Planet was one of the inspirations behind his intergalactic series. The series’ producers most likely did not want a familiar spaceship captain in their cast.

He Starred in Hundreds of TV Shows and Films

We all remember Nielsen’s big film productions, such as the Naked Gun series and Airplane!, but the actor actually appeared in more than 250 projects in his 60-year career! The actor was widely popular, and a great actor, to say the least, but not all his productions were classics.

Airplane, Julie Hagerty, Lorna Patterson, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves
Airplane!, Julie Hagerty, Lorna Patterson, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves. Photo By Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

Nielsen’s last film, which he completed filming just a few months before he died from complications from pneumonia in 2010, was a low budget comedy called Stonerville. While the film never really took off, Nielsen shared the screen with some other famous faces, such as actor Penn Badgley and Lizzie McGuire’s Lalaine. Nielsen also had the occasional guest spot appearance on shows like Barnaby Jones and M*A*S*H.

Canadian Political Ties

Leslie Nielsen wasn’t the only one from his family in the public eye. His oldest brother, Erik Nielsen, was a public figure involved with Canadian politics. He moved his way up the ranks as a Canadian Member of Parliament until he became the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in 1984.

Rick Nielsen (center) stands with his father, Erik (left), and his uncle, Leslie
Rick Nielsen (center) stands with his father, Erik (left), and his uncle, Leslie, at Erik’s cabin at Quiet Lake in this undated photo. Photo By RICK NIELSEN (

Like his brother, Erik was also drafted into the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. During his time overseas, he flew in the 101 squadron. The actor has often said that his older brother had a “fantastic” sense of humor. Erik sadly passed away in his home in September 2008. Two months later, the government of Yukon renamed their main airport in his memory.

Nielsen Was Late to Comedy

Believe it or not, Nielsen was considered a serious actor up until 1980, especially after his roles in Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure. It wasn’t until his role as Dr. Rumack (Airplane!) that he was taken seriously as a comedic actor. The role was a turning point in his career. Directors cast Nielsen for his ability to play like a fish in water, according to the Milwaukee Journal.

Airplane - 1980, Leslie Nielsen
Airplane – 1980, Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

“You could have cast funny people and done it with everybody winking, goofing off, and silly,” the film’s directors said. “We wanted people to be oblivious to the comedy.” Well, casting a dramatic actor to deliver deadpan one-liners really did the trick, and audiences ate up Nielsen’s performance.

The “Laurence Olivier of Spoofs”

The actor managed to transition to deadpan comedy so well that he was cast in several spoof movies. Film critic Roger Ebert even called Nielsen the “Laurence Olivier of Spoofs.” For those who are unfamiliar with the name, Laurence Olivier was an English actor who dominated the British stage in the mid-20th century. So, this was a huge compliment from Ebert.

The Naked Gun, Leslie Nielsen
The Naked Gun, Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

So, how was Nielsen able to transition to comedy so seamlessly? According to the late actor, comedy was something he was always interested in. He never felt 100 percent himself in dramatic roles. But while fans loved Nielsen’s parodies, they weren’t all well-received by the critics. Repossessed (1990), 2001: A Space Travesty (2001), and Spy Hard (1996) were all trashed by movie critics.

He Was Fond of Farting

Despite the fact that Nielsen had portrayed a string of serious characters before being cast in Airplane!, he knew that the spoof style of movies was for him. When Nielsen arrived on set, the cast and crew immediately understood that he wasn’t the serious person they had thought he was.

The Naked Gun, Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley
The Naked Gun, Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley. Photo By Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

“He had that little fart machine of his so that every time he was interviewed on a show or something, and in real life, he would be talking with a straight face, and then he would appear to be farting,” David Zucker, one of Airplane!’s directors, said in 2015. But the fart machine wasn’t just for a fun time on set. According to the late actor, he used the machine in elevators, in Japan, and even at the White House.

Taking It to the Golf Course

Nielsen was a huge fan of golf. “I have no goals or ambition. I do, however, wish to work enough to maintain whatever celebrity status I have so that they will continue to invite me to golf tournaments,” the actor once joked. In 1993, he combined his love for the sport with his love for comedy and created an instructional golf video, which was a parody, of course.

Wrongfully Accused - 1998, Leslie Nielsen
Wrongfully Accused – 1998, Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Morgan Creek/Kobal/Shutterstock

After the release of his first golf parody, Bad Golf Made Easier, Nielsen made two sequels: Bad Golf My Way and Stupid Little Golf Video. The spoofs were full of gags and puns, with people hitting dirt from the ground and throwing their clubs into the pond, among other mistakes.

Returning to the Stage

Following the release of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, Nielsen was typecast as a comedic, spoof actor. The actor embraced these new roles, but he still had a serious side to him. The actor had a soft spot for the controversial defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, who rose to fame in the early 20th century.

Wrongfully Accused - 1998, Leslie Nielsen, Melinda McGraw
Wrongfully Accused – 1998, Leslie Nielsen, Melinda McGraw. Photo By Morgan Creek/Kobal/Shutterstock

In 1999, the actor was cast in Darrow, a one-man stage show that explored many of the defense attorney’s famous cases. Nielsen reportedly felt that the only place he would be taken seriously again was on stage. “Someday, I want to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and I know I’ll be able to do it on stage because of the footlights,” he said in 1994. “They separate you from the audience and they can’t see your eyes.”

Fourth Time’s the Charm

Just as it took Nielsen a long time to find the genre of film he liked to make, it took him more than a few tries to find lasting love. The actor married his first wife, popular nightclub singer Monica Boyar, in 1950. But the couple didn’t last, and they eventually split in 1956. Two years later, Nielsen married Alisande Ullman. The couple have two daughters, Thea and Maura Nielsen.

Leslie Nielsen and Wife Barbaree Earl
Leslie Nielsen and Wife Barbaree Earl. Photo By Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

The two girls have stayed out of the spotlight, so not much is known about them. Nielsen and Ullman divorced in 1973. He was briefly married to Brooks Oliver from 1981 until 1983 and then married Barbaree Earl in 2001. The two remained together until his death in 2010.

Everything Happens in Threes

The year 2010 was a difficult year for fans. Nielsen passed away in November from complications with pneumonia, but he wasn’t the only one who died that year. His death came just eight months after his Airplane! co-star Peter Graves died from a heart attack. Then, one month after Nielsen’s passing, his Forbidden Planet co-star Anne Francis lost her battle with lung cancer.

Spy Hard, Leslie Nielsen
Spy Hard, Leslie Nielsen. Photo By Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

Francis was best known for her role opposite Nielsen, as well as her star role in the series Honey West, which made history by being the first television series that had a female detective’s name in the title. Her performance was so good that she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy Award.

One Final Joke

After the actor passed away at the age of 84, he was laid to rest at the Fort Lauderdale Evergreen Cemetery. But, of course, Nielsen wasn’t going to be buried without one final joke. His tombstone reads “Let ‘er rip,” which refers to his affection for fake flatulence.

tombstone, Let ‘er rip, Leslie Nielsen
Source: Pinterest

Nielsen also promised that these words would be his epitaph during a 1996 interview. Now whenever someone looks at his tombstone, they are bound to crack a smile, just as the actor would have wanted it. The cemetery also has a bench in his honor that reads, “Sit down whenever you can.”

Now, let’s take a deeper dive into some of the behind-the-scenes facts from the film that completely changed Leslie Nielsen’s career forever, Airplane!