OBITUARIES: Leslie Nielsen and Irvin Kershner

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Leslie Nielsen and Irvin Kershner both died on October the 28th.

Nielsen was a surprisingly strapping 84. Best known to the ‘Danes as Detective Frank Drebbin, he’s best known to us fen as Commander John J. Adams of the Space Cruiser C-576D in “Forbidden Planet.”

That was his second movie, but he’s already managed to rack up an impressive seventy-eight guest staring roles on TV. “Planet” was a massive bomb, and Nielsen became regarded as the kiss of death for films: he was in the final Martin/Lewis movie before they broke up, he starred in the final Tammy movie, and the only unsuccessful one. Just the same, he kept getting a lot of work because he was reliable, knew his lines, showed up early, stayed late, never complained, and was by all accounts just a joy to work with. He was cranking up the TV credits during this period, appearing in literally hundreds of episodes of TV shows.

Despite his good looks and acting talent, he was always a rather awkward leading man until 1980 when he made his thirty-first film, and his first successful one: Airplane. Turns out the problem all along was that he was being cast as a dramatic leading man, when in fact he was better suited to being a comedic actor. Looks can get in the way, it seems. Just the same, the first "Naked Gun" film turned him into a minor sex symbol at sixty-two! How many people can claim that? Ok, Ricardo Montalban, sure, but how many others?

Over the next thirty years, he cranked out more than sixty films, including the highly successful “Naked Gun” series. Most of the films were crap, let’s be honest, but if Nielsen was in a crappy movie, at least you could rest assured the film would be a little less crappy than it would have been without him. And he did still manage to nail home some unexpectedly dramatic performances, as in 2002’s light comedy, “Men with Brooms.”

Following the OJ Simpson murder trial, Simpson was broke and was petitioning the movie studio to make a fourth “Naked Gun” movie, as they were always cash cows. Nielsen publicly refused to have anything to do with any subsequent movies if OJ was involved. The man had a sense of values, it seems. While he spent most of his life in the ‘States, his brother Erik Nielsen became the deputy prime minister of Canada in the mid-1980s. Leslie married four times, and divorced three. All of his ex wives have since passed on.

Besides “Planet,” his genre credits include the almost-entirely-awful “2001: A Space Travesty” (The only good thing about which is that bubble wrap costume Ophelie Winter wears), “The Reluctant Astronaut,” and an episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Nielsen is survived by his current wife Barbaree, and his two daughters.

Irvin Kershner was primarily a director, though he acted rarely on the side. He started out with low-budget crime films in the 1950s, then moved on to considerably more steady work on television. Returning to the big screen in the 1960, he showed a penchant for memorably odd films like “A Fine Madness” (Staring a young Sean Connery) , “The Return of the Man Called Horse,” and the ironically creepy “The Eyes of Laura Mars.”

He was an odd choice to direct “The Empire Strikes Back,” but he was exactly the right man in the right place at the right time, with just the right sensibilities to pull it of. It was a vastly more ambitious film than Star Wars itself, and it was the make-or-break moment for the franchise. He delivered the best film of the series - original and prequel - and the most obvious jewel in the crown of his own career.

Unexpectedly, his career wound down after that, with “Never Say Never Again” (Again with Sean Connery) being something of a critical disappointment, and “Robocop 2” being a flat-out bomb. He did a few more television directing gigs, and retired in the early 1990s.

Born Jewish, Kershner studied Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, but I’ve never been able to find out if he eventually settled on one of them. He kept his personal life very personal, and I’m not even sure if he ever married or had kids.

We thank them for all they contributed to our genre and our lives, and our prayers are with their souls and their families.

I’m going to re-watch “Forbidden Planet” today as a memorial. Why don’t you guys watch something in their honor, as well?

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