Surrounded by his wife, Barbaree, and friends, the Canadian-born actor died from complications from pneumonia according to a statement by his agent John S. Kelly.
“We are saddened by the passing of beloved actor Leslie Nielsen, probably best remembered as Lt. Frank Drebin in ‘The Naked Gun' series of pictures, but who enjoyed a more than 60-year career in motion pictures and television,” said Kelly.
Nielsen came to Hollywood in the mid-1950s after performing in 150 live television dramas in New York. With a craggily handsome face, blond hair and 6-foot-2 height, he seemed ideal for a movie leading man. Nielsen first performed as the king of France in the Paramount operetta The Vagabond King with Kathryn Grayson.
His first film for that studio was as the space ship commander in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet. He found his best dramatic role as the captain of an overturned ocean liner in the 1972 disaster movie, The Poseidon Adventure.
He became known as a serious actor, although behind the camera he was a prankster. That was an aspect of his personality never exploited, however, until Airplane! was released in 1980 and became a huge hit.
As the doctor aboard a plane in which the pilots, and some of the passengers, become violently ill, Nielsen says they must get to a hospital right away.Critics argued he was being cast against type, but Nielsen disagreed. “I've always been cast against type before,” he said, adding comedy was what he'd really always wanted to do.
“A hospital? What is it?” a flight attendant asks, inquiring about the illness.
“It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now,” Nielsen deadpans.
When he asks a passenger if he can fly the plane, the man replies, “Surely you can't be serious.”
Nielsen responds: “I am serious, and don't call me Shirley.”
It was what he would do for most of the rest of his career, appearing in such comedies as Repossessed (a takeoff on the demonic possession movies like The Exorcist) and Mr. Magoo, in which he played the title role of the good-natured bumbler.
Nielsen did play Debbie Reynolds' sweetheart in the popular Tammy and the Bachelor. He became well known to baby boomers for his role as the Revolutionary War fighter Francis Marion in the Disney TV adventure series The Swamp Fox.
He remained active in television in guest roles. He also starred in his own series, The New Breed, The Protectors and Bracken's World, but all were short-lived.
Then Airplane! captivated audiences and changed everything.
Producers-directors-writers Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker had hired Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Nielsen to spoof their heroic TV images in a satire of flight-in-jeopardy movies.
After the movie's success, the film making trio cast their new found comic star as Detective Drebin in a TV series, Police Squad, which trashed the cliches of Dragnet and other cop shows. Despite good reviews, ABC canceled it after only four episodes.
“It didn't belong on TV,” Nielsen later commented. “It had the kind of humor you had to pay attention to.”
The Zuckers and Abraham converted the series into a feature film, The Naked Gun, with George Kennedy, O.J. Simpson and Priscilla Presley as Nielsen's co-stars. Its huge success led to sequels The Naked Gun 2 1/2 and The Naked Gun 33 1/3.
His later movies included All I Want for Christmas, Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Spy Hard.
Between films he often turned serious, touring with his one-man show on the life of the great defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow.
Nielsen also was married to: Monica Boyer, 1950-1955; Sandy Ullman, 1958-74; and Brooks Oliver, 1981-85. Nielsen and his second wife had two daughters, Thea and Maura.