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Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010

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Getting into an elevator with Leslie Nielsen meant one thing: Be prepared. Without fail for decades, “he carried a fart machine in his hand,” recalls his Airplane! and Naked Gun executive producer Jim Abrahams. “He would squeeze it and squiggle like he was uncomfortable, and everybody would be embarrassed. He was a ham.”

And he savored every second of it. Nielsen, who died of pneumonia on Nov. 28 at age 84, was in his 50s when he found his true calling in Hollywood-using his distinguished looks and commanding voice not for drama but for deadpan silliness. “Leslie loved to make people laugh,” says one of Abrahams’ producing partners, Jerry Zucker. “Being goofy made him happy, and in turn he made us all happy.”

The son of a Royal Canadian Mountie in Saskatchewan, Nielsen developed his love of pranks early. “When my father was upset, you’d want to make him laugh,” he told the BBC in May. “When he didn’t, you were in trouble.”

Around 1954, Nielsen moved to Los Angeles to make his first of over 65 movies, including 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. But it wasn’t until 1980’s disaster spoof Airplane! that Nielsen, as a doctor, got to show his comedy chops. Two years later he earned an Emmy nod for ABC’s Police Squad!, a cop-show parody that led to three Naked Gun films. “He was forever young at heart,” says costar Priscilla Presley. “He made coming to work so much fun.”

Offscreen, Nielsen enjoyed golf, traveling and spending time in Florida with his fourth wife Barbaree, 62, and his two daughters from a previous marriage. “Leslie was so appreciative,” says Abrahams “of the life he had.”