Well, Leslie Nielsen has died. It should not come as a great shock when a man of 84 years dies of natural causes. But Nielsen seemed like an actor who would live forever. After a career as a straight leading man in the ’50, ‘60s and ‘70s which was remarkably long in itself, he made a remarkable career turn and, as the “Laurence Olivier of spoof movies” as Roger Ebert put it, was busy throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and up until his death.
In his early career, Nielsen was a debonair leading man on live television programs. One of his early roles was in a TV-adaptation of The Philadelphia Story as C.K. Dexter Haven, taking over a role made famous by the ultra-suave Cary Grant. If the young Nielsen had had slightly darker hair and features, he could have been a romantic leading man in the vein of Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson, the actors that picked up where Cary Grant left off.
In Forbidden Planet, Nielsen is more or less unrecognizable to the generation of movie fans of my generation, who were raised on Airplane and the Naked Gun movies. The basic themes and content of Forbidden Planet have much in common with B-movie space movies of the ‘50s, and later movies which blatantly ripped it off, such as The Phantom Planet (1961). But it rises to a league of its own through a script famously based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the pristine Technicolor cinematography by George J. Folsey, genre-defining art design by MGM’s master Cedric Gibbons, and a score by Bebe and Louis Barron that was cheated out of a well-deserved Oscar because the electronic music pioneers were not members of the musicians union. Nielsen himself adds a lot to the film. He is rugged, as the captain of an inter-galactic spaceship needs to be, with the all-American name of J.J. Adams. But he is never wooden, as was too often the case with space adventure leading men.