Mr. Nielsen was known as a dignified "B" actor of dramatic series and occasional movies when he was cast as an earnest, straight-faced but absurdly literal-minded doctor in the 1980 disaster film parody "Airplane!" First introduced wearing a stethoscope in his ears, he answered the exhortation, "Surely, you can't be serious," with deadpan aplomb, saying "I am serious. And don't called me Shirley." His matinee-idol good looks and silver hair made his loopy line deliveries all the more funny.
The producers rewarded him for his work in "Airplane!" by casting him as the sober, but dense Detective Frank Drebin in the television series "Police Squad!," which outrageously mocked the serious, overly dramatic crime series of producer Quinn Martin. "Police Squad!" lasted only six episodes, but it spawned the hit 1988 film comedy "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!" and two sequels.
Leslie William Nielsen was born on Feb. 11, 1926, in Regina, Saskatchewan. Jean Hersholt, the Danish-born actor and humanitarian, was an uncle. He began his acting career in radio in Calgary, and then studied at the Academy of Studio Arts in Toronto and at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where he won a scholarship. He began appearing in summer stock productions, and on episodes of the live television series filmed in New York.
He appeared in one Broadway show, Seagulls Over Sorrento, in 1952, and toured North America and Britain in a one-man show about the crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow.
He made an impression in the 1956 sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet" and was the captain of the doomed ship in 1972's "The Poseidon Adventure." After his success in "The Naked Gun" series, he was cast in many other subsequent film parodies, but few met with success. Film critic Roger Ebert once called him "the Laurence Olivier of spoofs."