'Airplane!' Director David Zucker Remembers Leslie Nielsen

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Nov. 30 2010, Published 4:49 a.m. ET

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As director, writer and producer of the 1980 film Airplane!, David Zucker not only gave Leslie Nielsen's career a second chance when he cast him in the film, but also gained a friend.


After Leslie passed away on Sunday at the age of 84 due to complications from pneumonia, David sat down and wrote a tribute story in his honor for the The Hollywood Reporter on Monday.

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"It was summer 1979, a full three weeks before the start of shooting for Airplane! and our casting director had finally had enough," David began his tribute to Leslie. "Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves and now Leslie ... who?"

"At least audiences had heard of the first three, but this guy — it was true, when it came time to select an actor to play Dr. Rumack, my brother Jerry, Jim Abrahams and I remembered: 'This one guy, he's been in hundreds of television shows, and I think he played the captain of the Poseidon. What's his name?' Our research revealed that the actor's name was Leslie Nielsen," he explained. "Jim, Jerry and I were thrilled when he agreed to meet, not because he was 'funny' but because of his long résumé of serious films and TV."

David thought Leslie was perfect for the role.

"At our first meeting, he mentioned proudly that he had done an episode of M*A*S*H*. We assured him we wouldn't count this brief comedy experience against him. But when he read the Airplane! script, he 'got' its unconventional nature and offbeat style," David wrote. "We heard later that he told his agent, 'Take whatever they offer; I'd pay them to do this.'"

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"Arguably the best role was that of Dr. Rumack, played by the guy no one wanted or ever suspected would be funny, much less go on to have a second career starring in feature films as a goofball comic," David added. "Leslie was great in the role because he never 'winked' — let on that he knew he was in a comedy. This was essential to the style, and Leslie had a natural instinct for it."

Together, David and Leslie continued to film an Airplane! sequel, several Naked Gun films and the Police Squad TV series.

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"He always knew he was doing OK because 'I could hear David laughing during the take,'" he would say. And I was! Tough to just sit there silently during 'Nice beaver!''" David said of laughing on set while Leslie was acting. "Offscreen, he wasn't so much of a joke or storyteller but a chronic prankster. The stories are legion about the fart machine, which he kept hidden and sprang on any hapless stranger who approached him. He used it on set, on talk shows, anywhere he could find a victim. One time, at a press junket in Charlotte, I remember watching Leslie let loose with the device on a crowded elevator, the other occupants squirming up against the walls in an effort to distance themselves. And just like the scenes we put him in, he never broke character, never let on that he knew he was being funny."

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David always tried to put Leslie in his films.

"We invariably would get to discussing our history together, reminiscing a bit and renewing our good-natured debate about who the hell was luckier to have met the other, Leslie Nielsen or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team," he wrote. "The truth was, all of us knew how grateful we were to have each other in our lives, both professionally and personally, and we expressed it to each other often."

"Leslie was grateful for everything in his life (most especially his wife Barbaree), almost as though he didn't feel he deserved any of it," David shared. "Maybe that's why he was so happy. And maybe that's why he was so good at making everyone else happy."


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