According to breaking reports, Leslie Nielsen has passed away in Florida, where he was hospitalized for pneumonia. The veteran character actor and funnyman was 84 years old, and his death brings to a close one of the great reinventions in modern film.
Here's a short interview with his nephew, confirming the details.
One of the reasons I'm glad I grew up in an era where the theatrical experience was still the main way to see a film is because of the memories I have of certain films when they played originally. Seeing "Airplane!" in a movie theater in 1980 was one of those great audience moments for me. People don't react to comedies like that anymore, and part of it is that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker changed the way film comedy worked, and their style of shotgun-blast silliness has been so thoroughly absorbed by the mainstream that it doesn't have the same impact. "Airplane!" blindsided the audience, and it was amazing to sit in that theater and ride those waves of laughter. I must have seen it theatrically at least a half-dozen times while it was out.
It was a particularly brilliant move on the part of the filmmakers to cast Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack in the film. Nielsen was at that point a regular guest star on every TV show in production, and seemed to be settling into that career the way so many older actors do. He was appearing in films like "Day of the Animals" and "Viva Knievel!" and "The Poseidon Adventure," but this is a guy who had already played something like 80 speaking roles by that point, and who had been a leading man during the 50s.