Nielsen’s nephew Doug broke the news to Canadian talk radio station CJOB, stating that the actor/comedian had been in hospital for nearly two weeks.
Born in Saskatchewan, Nielsen had trained as a Royal Canadian Air Force aerial gunner and worked as a radio DJ before receiving a scholarship at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.
After making the move to the States, Nielsen appeared in various dramatic television shows. His first feature film was the 1956 musical The Vagabond King. Although his wasn’t a leading role, he gained the attention of notable Hollywood producers who cast him in the sci-fi film (and now cult classic) Forbidden Planet. That film’s success saw Nielsen signed to a long-term contract with MGM, who kept him working in numerous films throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
His next breakthrough arrived in 1980’s Flying High (known as Airplane! in the U.S.), a spoof of air travel disaster films. As the straight-laced, absent-minded doctor who tries to keep a flight of panicked passengers calm, Nielsen – as well as writer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker – crafted one of film history’s most iconic comic characters. He also delivered the now-eternal deadpan retort to the question, “Surely you can’t be serious?”: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
The success of that film led to the television show Police Squad! in 1982, another Nielsen/ZAZ collaboration that this time spoofed cop shows. Nielsen’s received an Emmy nomination for his performance as Lt. Frank Drebin. In 1988, six years after the show’s cancellation, Nielsen reteamed with Abrams and the Zuckers for a film version – The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! – the success of which spawned two sequels.
Although Nielsen worked steadily in the 1990s, he was unable to recapture the same success he experienced with Flying High or The Naked Gun, instead appearing in forgettable spoofs such as Spy Hard, Wrongfully Accused and Dracula: Dead and Loving It.
However, it was in his final years that he re-emerged as a comedic treasure, thanks to well-regarded appearances in Scary Movie 3 and 4 as the George W. Bush-esque President Harris, and his one-man theatre show Darrow.
Nielsen received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1988, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.