As you’ve probably heard by now, the 84-year-old actor died yesterday. I don’t really have that much to add to the many online tributes to him, most of which tell the story of his early career as a dramatic leading man and his sudden metamorphosis into a deadpan funny man after his role in 1980’s Airplane!
I will say that much of his success in comedy came from his voice. That stony basso profondo seemed to signal to the world: “I am super tough and macho, and I can do anything.” Of course, that just made it funnier when he mangled the English language or cluelessly tried to narrate the story like a hard-boiled detective.
If you’re interested in seeing a (somewhat) different side of him as an actor, you might want to check out the 1982 Stephen King-scripted horror anthology Creepshow. Nielsen plays a husband who discovers that his wife is screwing a younger guy (played by Ted Danson) and murders them. This being Stephen King territory, he finds out that just because they’re dead, it doesn’t mean that they’re gone. Nielsen here is well over-the-top, but no less enjoyable for that. I still remember his last line: “I can hold my breath for a long time!”
The rest of us can just remember him by savoring his skill at sending up the bravado of Hollywood action heroes. I’ll leave you with this bit from The Naked Gun, though there really is nothing to see here.