The Untold Truth Of Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen went down in film history (and #79 in the AFI Top 100 Movie Quotes) with these seminal lines from 1980's "Airplane!" after Ted Striker (Robert Hays) posits, "Surely you can't be serious":

"I am serious — and don't call me Shirley." 

More than anything else, this singular line sums up the career of Leslie Nielsen, who made bank off of his slapstick comedic schtick, whether it was playing Frank Drebin in "Police Squad!" and "Naked Gun" or President Baxter Harris in the "Scary Movie" films. He successfully made generations of people laugh at his highly physical comedy. 

According to The New York Times, Nielsen was born in Regina, Saskatchewan to a father who was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He found himself enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force before he was 18 and was "trained as an aerial gunner during World War II, but he was never sent overseas." It was after he got out of the military that he got into radio broadcasting and eventually studied at the Academy of Studio Arts in Toronto. He got his film start in 1956. Most of the work he did for the first 15 years of his career was as a dramatic actor in film and on television, but it would be 1980's "Airplane!" that would remake Nielsen into a comedic icon (via CNN). Nonetheless, there are unknown elements to Nielsen's life that have yet to be explored. Here's the untold truth of Leslie Nielsen.

His older brother was deputy prime minister in the '80s

Like his brother Leslie Nielsen, Erik Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force; however, unlike Leslie, he did find himself in numerous battles during World War II. As Yukon News reports, Erik flew over 50 missions, 33 of which were bombing missions as an officer pilot. For his service and after the surrender of the Germans, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and would stay with the RCAF for six more years before leaving the military. 

Yet what Erik (or "Yukon Erik" as many called him) is mostly known for was his political career which would lead to him becoming deputy prime minister from 1984-1986 under Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, according to The Globe and Mail. Erik would come to the Canadian Parliament in 1957 as a Progressive Conservative — this was the first year that the fairly new Progressive Conservative party won a federal election — and would serve the Yukon region for 30 years as the voters in the Yukon voted for him on 10 separate occasions. He was known to be rigorous and vigilant in working for the people of the Yukon. Erik died of a heart attack at his home in British Colombia in 2008.

Leslie Nielsen had an abusive father

Leslie Nielsen grew up in the arctic climes of the Northwest Territories of Canada with his two brothers, his mother, and his father, who was a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer (via Mel Magazine). He noted in The Washington Post, "There were 15 people in the village, including five of us. If my father arrested somebody in the winter, he'd have to wait until the thaw to turn him in." Being so isolated, socially and physically, probably made for a rather difficult life for the Nielsens. However, it was made worse by Nielsen's abusive, troubled father who would beat him, his brothers and his mother. The military became an escape from this violent home life for the boys, and Nielsen reportedly could not wait to leave his home life for the military (via CBS News). It wouldn't seem all that apparent that such a funny man came out of such unfunny circumstances.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

He was legally deaf his whole life

Leslie Nielsen suffered an illness in childhood which rendered him legally deaf, leading him to wear hearing aids for most of his life, as reported by NPR. In an interview at Audiology Online, Nielsen spoke about the active loss of hearing that accompanies the lives of so many. He talked about the ways in which he attempted to slow down the loss by avoiding loud sounds and not having stereos too loud, among other things. When asked about his hearing aids, however, he stated:

"You know it's very difficult to be an actor, and to have people depending on you to say the right line, at the right time, and to not be able to hear your cues! I can't tell you how many times I would've had to have said What? if I didn't have my hearing aids. So my hearing aids are a life saver, and they allow me to practice my craft." 

Nielsen makes it very clear how central his hearing aids were to his success as an actor. Meanwhile, others in the deaf community made it known how important comedians like Nielsen were to them and their families because their physical comedy did not always require hearing for enjoyment (via BBC).

Leslie Nielsen and George Kennedy showed up on WWF Monday Night Raw

George Kennedy and Leslie Nielsen were co-stars in the "Naked Gun" franchise where Kennedy played Captain Ed Hocken alongside Nielsen's Frank Drebin (via Forbes). However, in 1994, the two would reprise their roles in a (perhaps) surprising context: WWF wrestling. In the often soap-operatic storylines of wrestling, the one that would ultimately bring in Nielsen and Kennedy would be the story of what appeared to be a fake Undertaker. As told in Uproxx, Ted DiBiase and Paul Bearer, the Undertaker's longtime manager, brought forth two Undertakers, but one was an imposter. To help dispel the confusion over which Undertaker was real, the WWF brought in Frank Drebin to solve the case, and along the way, he ran into his old buddy Ed Hocken. 

A ccording to "WrestleCrap: The Very Worst of Pro Wrestling," These various skits that took place over several days were "as funny as repeated blows to the nuts with a blunt object." The WWF had planned a series of Undertaker and Underfaker matches, but the live response from the fans was so negative that they scrapped the whole plan on the spot. It appears that not all slapstick comedy was created equally.

He wrote a fictional autobiography

Leslie Nielsen, along with David Fisher, wrote a fictional autobiography entitled "The Naked Truth" in 1993. The book put forward several clear and easily verifiable falsities including Nielsen winning two Academy Awards, having an affair with actress Elizabeth Taylor, playing a part in the dissolution of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and the ever-so-classic rehabilitation stint for his addiction to "dopey jokes" (via Orlando Sentinel). In the same article, Nielsen talked about his co-author, Fisher, and his importance to the whole project: "David helped me refresh my memory about things that did not happen ... He gave me new memories, which was like giving my life back to me. It's like being born again." He made himself familiar with the details of the fake life story in order to make interviews that much more absurd. 

Nielsen's book was made into an album which would eventually get nominated for a Grammy for best comedy album, as reported by Billboard Magazine

Leslie Nielsen lived near the Arctic Circle and spoke Dogrib

Leslie Nielsen's Mountie father was posted to Fort Norman in the Northwest Territories just 199 miles south of the Arctic Circle. As Yukon News continued to report, the Nielsens were the only white family in the entire community. The Nielsen boys grew up speaking more Dogrib (a local First Nations dialect) than English. What was once known as Fort Norman became Tulita when its name reverted back to its traditional Dene in 1996, which in the Dene language means "where the rivers or waters meet" (via Discover Tulita).

Nielsen told Tom Shales in the Washington Post about what it was like living that close to the top of the world. "[T]hen of course in the summer, you have the horizon like this, and then the sun you know is up here, and you see it going down to set and it just goes like this. And it never sets," as he moves his finger toward the table then back up again in a parabolic fashion. He goes on to exclaim how his mother was a true pioneer for following her husband up to that climate along with three boys. 

Leslie Nielsen was a golf fanatic

Leslie Nielsen was such a golf fanatic that he put out a trilogy of spoof golf instructional videos called "Bad Golf Made Easy," "Bad Golf My Way," and "Leslie Nielsen's Stupid Little Golf Video." Each of the videos feature Nielsen and others being intentionally bad at golf along with numerous forms of physical slapstick comedy (via TV Tropes). As of 2021, each of these videos can still be found on YouTube. Nielsen said of the videos, "We make no significant contribution to golf whatsoever ... It is not our intention to instruct or to help anybody other than to have some laughs," according to The Oklahoman.

Yet his love of golf didn't end there; the year after sharing "Bad Golf My Way," he released "The Stupid Little Golf Book," which, according to its own promotional material, stated "Nielsen has drawn on a lifetime of brilliantly uninspired play to produce the unique collection of useless wisdom, spurious reminiscences, and pointless tips that is the Stupid Little Golf Book" (via Google Books). He also found himself taking part in the celebration of new golf courses around the country, including one talked about in The Oklahoman. In 1994, he went to the dedication of the Cimarron National golf course outside of Guthrie, Oklahoma and is friends with a golf course designer, Duffy Martin. 

Leslie Nielsen was married four times

Leslie Nielsen was married four times throughout this life. He was married in the '50s to his first wife Monica Boyar who, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, was a Dominican-born nightclub singer and actress. She sang in seven different languages — and several dialects — and is known as one of the initial people to bring calypso music to America. Known as the "Satin Latin," she made her first professional experience at La Conga Club in New York City when Desi Arnez was the bandleader. He was married to his second wife Alisande Ullman from the late '50s to the early '70s and had two daughters with her (via The New York Times).

He married for the third time in 1981 to Brooks Oliver, but that marriage only lasted until 1983. He married his fourth and final wife in 2001. Her name is Barbaree Earl, and she had acted in four of his films in the '90s, including "Dracula: Dead and Loving It." He had two daughters with Barbaree as well and was still married to her when he died in 2010.

Leslie Nielsen loved farting

Leslie Nielsen loved to fart ... er ... he, at least, loved the sound of farts and the resulting embarrassment that would take place when someone was blamed for it. According to, Leslie Nielsen brought a fart machine with him just about every place he went, including when he would show up on late night talk shows. The first recording of this prank would be in 1982 on "Late Night with David Letterman" while they were talking about "M*A*S*H" — which he has been on a few times — and Nielsen just let the machine go off. He would go on to do it again on "Wogan," "GMTV," and notoriously in the elevators during the filming of "Airplane!" 

Even when he was dedicating a golf course in Oklahoma, the reporter mentioned his machine called the "Han-d-gas" (via The Oklahoma). His love of farting went so far as to follow him to the grave ... where his epitaph says "Let 'er rip."

Leslie Nielsen was the first Trekkie

D.C. Fontana, who was Gene Roddenberry's secretary, but promoted to story editor for "Star Trek," recalled a phone call she received the day after the broadcast premiere of "Star Trek" on September 8th, 1966, from the very first Trekkie, Leslie Nielsen (via AP News). Nielsen had starred in the 1956 film "The Forbidden Planet," which Gene Roddenberry named as the most direct influence on the creation of the USS Enterprise, its crew, and the adventures that they would go on. The film was a visual stunner, as described by Den of Geek, and one of the most ambitious and expensive science fiction films that was made in the 1950s. The same article goes into detail about the various ways that "The Forbidden Planet" forecasted "Star Trek" and even "Star Wars," along with a handful of other science fictions films that had been influenced by the Leslie Nielsen-starring film. 

Roddenberry wrote in a letter that gave a direct line of influence: "Run the film again, or would it be ethical to get a print of the film and have our people make stills from some of the appropriate frames? This latter would be the most helpful. Please understand, we have no intention of copying either interior or exterior of that ship. But a detailed look at it again would do much to stimulate our own thinking ..." (via Den of Geek).

Leslie Nielsen's uncle was a famous actor

Jean Hersholt was a Danish-American actor and the uncle to Leslie Nielsen. Hersholt was known most for the 1924 film "Greed," and played the grandfather in the 1937 version of "Heidi." However, his longest running character was Dr. Paul Christian, a "kindly doctor-philosopher in the little town of River's End." The role was created for Hersholt due to his part in the 1936 film, "The Country Doctor." They even wanted the doctor to be the same as in that film, but due to legal issues, Hersholt created his own doctor character and named it after Hans Christian Andersen (via On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio).

Having a famous relative was occasionally awkward, though, and Nielsen once spoke about the difficulty he had convincing people they were related. He said, "I did learn very early that when I would mention my uncle, people would look at me as if I were the biggest liar in the world. Then I would take them home and show them 8-by-10 glossies, and things changed quite drastically. So I began to think that maybe this acting business was not a bad idea, much as I was very shy about it and certainly without courage regarding it" (via Hollywood Walk of Fame). That said, Nielsen followed his uncle into Hollywood, but the two never had time to comisserate about the film industry. Hersholt "died not too long after [Nielsen] was in a position to know him," and Nielsen regretted never having the opportunity.

Leslie Nielsen died of pneumonia

Leslie Nielsen took his final breath around 5:30 eastern standard time at a hospital near his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. All of his friends and family were by his side when he died, according to CBS4 Miami, and Nielsen's death was caused by complications due to pneumonia. Nielsen was 84 years old when he died. Yet we do not know the exact complications that took place. 

According to ESPN, after hearing of Nielsen's passing, his lookalike, coach Del Harris, told a story about the joy that Nielsen brought to the 1994 Lakers, whom Harris was coaching at the time: "We won the game and security brought [Nielsen] down to the exit tunnel as the players and coaches were exiting the court. We had already had the lookalike thing going and I had actually signed a name to an autograph a time or two, so I said to him, 'How about going in the locker room and act like you are me and tell them they played a good game or you are proud of them or whatever you have.' He did it and the guys loved it." Perhaps there is no other fitting tribute to one of the greatest slapstick comedians of all time.