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TERRY GROSS, Host:

Actor Leslie Nielsen died yesterday at the age of 84. We're going to listen back to an interview with him. Nielsen started a new comedic phase of his career in 1980 with his role as the doctor in the disaster film parody "Airplane."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AIRPLANE")

LESLIE NIELSEN: (as Dr. Rumack) You better tell the captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.

JULIE HAGERTY: (as Elaine Dickinson) A hospital? What is it?

NIELSEN: (as Dr. Rumack) It's a big building with patients. But that's not important right now. Tell the captain I must speak to him.

GROSS: "Airplane" was followed with starring roles in other film parodies, like the series of cop movie parodies "The Naked Gun" and the horror movie parodies "Scary Movie," in which he played the president of the U.S. Earlier, he was in over 60 films playing a lot of straight-laced characters. In the real disaster film "The Poseidon Adventure," he played the ocean liner captain. His straight delivery was a plus for his role in "Airplane."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AIRPLANE")

NIELSEN: (as Dr. Rumack) Can you fly this plane and land it?

ROBERT HAYS: (as Ted Striker) Surely you can't be serious.

NIELSEN: (as Dr. Rumack) I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.

Unidentified Woman: Doctor, I've checked everyone. Mr. Striker's the only one.

NIELSEN: (as Dr. Rumack) What flying experience have you had?

HAYS: (as Ted Striker) Oh, I flew single-engine fighters in the Air Force, but this plane has four engines. It's an entirely different kind of flying, altogether.

NIELSEN: It's an entirely different kind of flying.

HAYS: (as Ted Striker) Besides, I haven't touched any kind of plane in six years.

NIELSEN: (as Dr. Rumack) Mr. Striker, I know nothing about flying, but there's one thing I do know: You're the only one on this plane who can possibly fly it. You're the only chance we've got.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: I spoke with Leslie Nielsen in 1993 after the publication of his book "The Naked Truth," in which he told a totally made-up version of his life. Here's an excerpt of his audio version of the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO BOOK, "THE NAKED TRUTH")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NIELSEN: (Reading) I'm an extremely fortunate person. I've been honored by my colleagues with four Academy Award nominations. I have twice been named Best Actor. I've won two People's Choice awards, a Golden Globe, a Best in Show at Westminster, an American League batting title. I've been a three-time finalist in the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I was named Mr. Week of April 23rd on Home Shopping Network. And finally, in August 1990, I received the highest honor any actor could ever be given, other than participation in gross receipts. I was awarded the coveted Nobel Prize for Good Acting.

GROSS: You've become famous for lampooning square, mediocre actors in B movie formulas.

NIELSEN: Yeah. Well, if that's for you to becoming(ph) famous for lampooning those kinds of actors. Yeah, I'm really lampooning myself, and I'm pretty square.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NIELSEN: And I'm pretty dumb, and I'm pretty stupid, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, this all started for you with "Airplane." How were you chosen as one of the actors in "Airplane?"

NIELSEN: I think that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, who were the authors and the creators, directors, etcetera of "Airplane," they had written something that was just wonderfully dumb and funny. And they knew that if Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack and myself, that they had seen our work on television. And if we approached their material with the same seriousness and the same gravity with which we approached our police work television show that we were doing, that it would be very funny.

And when I read the script I knew exactly what they were after, and it was the greatest, you know, advent or break of my life, in a sense. But I ended up working with people who spotted me for being the closet comedian that I was. And from there came "Police Squad" and "Naked Gun," and it was the launching of the nut that is inside of Nielsen. Thank God for it.

GROSS: How did you do the condom scene in "Naked Gun"?

NIELSEN: Very gently.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NIELSEN: You know what happened with that scene was, in the beginning, we had a material on the condom that you could, you know, really kind of see through, and the scene didn't work. It just didn't - it was not funny. And eventually, David figured it out, and he had them remake the condom, but so that you could see the outline, but you could not see anybody inside the condom. You could see the outline of the body, and so on. And then it worked. And I think what happened when it didn't work was that people were spending a great deal of time trying to look through the condom to see Priscilla or to see whatever.

GROSS: You want to describe the scene?

NIELSEN: Describe the scene?

GROSS: Yeah.

NIELSEN: Well, you know, we had this wonderful candlelit dinner, and eventually it's apparent to Priscilla the enormous attraction she has for me, as I for her. And we stand up, and the clothes literally fall off our bodies as she says: I believe in safe sex. And I say: So do I. And the next scene, at the window in the bedroom, you see this shadowy - these shadowy images in the - in an embrace. And you see these two giant condoms with the nipples on their heads as they maneuver and fall toward the bed.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Many of your fans may not realize that A, you're from Canada.

NIELSEN: Yeah.

GROSS: And B, your brother in Canada has been a member of parliament, and I believe deputy prime minister, as well?

NIELSEN: That's true. And...

GROSS: How far up north are you from?

NIELSEN: Fort Norman is the place where I spent my childhood, and that is on the same parallel of latitude as Fairbanks in Alaska.

GROSS: Brr.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NIELSEN: It's pretty cold. You know, it gets 70 below zero.

GROSS: So what kind of house did you live in?

NIELSEN: Literally, a log cabin. In many cases up in the North, you find log cabins like that with the sod roof and the mud and straw and manure kind of plaster that's in between the cracks of the logs and - to use as a sealer, I guess, for the cabin itself. And in many cases there was never a floor in the cabins. There was just that heavy, hard-packed gumbo clay, which was like cement, actually, when it was properly tended to.

GROSS: Now, I was surprised to read that you had also studied dance with Martha Graham when you were a kid.

NIELSEN: Well, that's part of the Neighborhood Playhouse.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

NIELSEN: They had - Martha Graham was a friend of Mrs. Morgenthal(ph), who I believe had founded the playhouse. And so she was kind enough to teach us modern dance. I did not know who Martha Graham was, and I...

GROSS: You see, it just seems so out of character for me to think of all the - the "Airplane" pilot and the cops that you've played, you know, doing modern dance with Martha Graham.

NIELSEN: Well, I agree with you. I felt the same way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NIELSEN: But the second year, you know, it dawned on me, you know, who - Martha Graham and dancing, and so on. They had those, kind of a blue jersey outfits they put on you with bell-bottomed trousers, and this was the kind of uniform you wore on any modern dance presentation. And, you know, I was used to cowboys and Indians and shoot 'em up and Tarzan and swinging from the trees, not this, you know, running across with the piano music doing hoppity-hippity and skippity-skoppity and so on. But the second year I buckled down and really tried very hard to learn modern dance and to be part of it. And I'm very grateful that I did, too.

GROSS: So you got to really like it.

NIELSEN: Yes, I did. But also, you know, to have the benefit of being taught by such an extraordinary artist as Martha Graham.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

NIELSEN: You know, I knew - I didn't know anybody, and I didn't know about anything. So I have a lot of catching up to do.

GROSS: Would you still like to do drama?

NIELSEN: Sure. I do the one-man play "Darrow..."

GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that.

NIELSEN: ...the life of Clarence Darrow. And I admire the man so much and I love the play, and one day I will do it again. And also, one day down the line I'd like to do Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." But, you know, the disclaimer is that I don't have any ambition and I do not have any goals, so I may not do them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's refreshing.

NIELSEN: Yeah. Right. I'm happy. You know, I like people, and I like hanging out with the people I love. And that's the name of the game for me right now.

GROSS: Leslie Nielsen, recorded in 1993. He died yesterday at the age of 84.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POLICE SQUAD")

NIELSEN: (as Frank Drebin) I'm Lieutenant Frank Drebin, Police Squad.

(SOUNDBITE OF A PUNCH)

NIELSEN: (as Frank Drebin) And don't ever let me catch you guys in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING, SHOUTING)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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