Forbidden Planet (1956)
Long before he perfected that deadpan look past the camera or anyone had dreamt of calling him Shirley, Nielsen was a stern-jawed leading man with a serious swirl of hair.
Forbidden Planet was just his second film, a sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which is credited with paving the way for the original Star Trek series and which launched Nielsen to semi-stardom.
The Opposite Sex (1956)
Following his space adventures, Nielsen found himself as the almost inconsequential male lead in this catty musical sex comedy the same year.
The line-up is a fierce and famous one, with June Allyson, Joan Collins, Dolores Gray and Anne Sheridan, though it shows Nielsen’s limitations as a leading man, and doesn’t touch the film on which it is based, George Cukor’s The Women.
This fish-out-of-water comedy went on to spawn several successful sequels on TV and film, and is one of Nielsen’s best pre-farce movies.
He plays society flier Peter, whose plane crashes into a Mississippi swamp leaving him to be rescued by Debbie Reynolds’ simple country gal Tammy. Only then she’s forced to leave home and adjust to life in his middle-class home. Weird fact: you may recognise the Debbie Reynolds-sung love theme 'Tammy' from woozy drugs classic Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Establishing his later disaster movie spoofing credentials, in 1972 Nielsen played the nervous captain of the SS Poseidon in one of the biggest catastrophe blockbusters of the 1970s.
The film holds up to sleepy Sunday viewings even now, but more importantly Nielsen’s captain, who objects to all this going into deep waters business moments before everything goes capsize-shaped, is a brilliant foreshadowing of his later silver-haired straight men.
Project: Kill (1976)
A grimy low-rent thriller from the very end of Nielsen’s pre-comedy career, in which the greying thesp plays a government agent subjected to various mind-control experiments before going nuts.
And, if that sounds a little bit Bourne Identity, then it absolutely isn’t – the main reason for including is here is the brilliantly awful climactic kung-fu sequences (opens in new tab) , full of clutter-handed edited to hide the actors’ lack of athleticism.
Nielsen reinvents himself as a hilarious straight man in the classic comedy, co-directed by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers Jerry and David.
Their greatest coup – and the thing that makes Airplane! work – is that Nielsen is just one of several middling-profile actors playing it straight in the swirl of absurdist madness (alongside Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges). But he has something – a poise to his face, an idiot’s assurance to his delivery – that makes him far and away the funniest.
Prom Night (1982)
The transition from handsome mediocrity to comedy icon didn’t happen overnight. For several years after Airplane! Nielsen was still taking on straight roles of various kinds.
Like this one, as the father of the 10 year-old Robin Hammond whose hide-and-seek death at the start of the film jumpstarts a round of teenage slashing and heartache.
The Canadian Conspiracy (1985)
Not technically a film, but worth mentioning as a cool curiosity, this HBO mockumentary features Nielsen alongside a bunch of other Canadian stars in a Fox News-style fit up.
The program – apparently investigating a sinister Canadian plot to infiltrate and undermine the US – features John Candy, Lorne Michaels and the amazing William Shatner, while Nielsen’s appearance ties in with the fact his brother, Erik, was then Canada’s deputy prime minister.
The Naked Gun (1988)
Based on a short-lived TV cop spoof Police Squad, this is Nielsen’s masterpiece, and a reteaming with the creative crew behind Airplane!
Nielsen isn’t just comic bit-part, but now a fully-fledged deadpan lead, playing clownish Detective Frank Drebin as he thwarts an assassination attempt on the Queen while sayings like “I've finally found someone I can love – a good, clean love, without utensils.”
A misfiring possession-horror parody that, while not being terribly funny or good, did at least prove that people other than the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams took Nielsen seriously as a comic actor.
The film is a 17-years-too-late spoof on The Exorcist in particular, and ropes that film’s fading starlet Linda Blair along for the ride, as well as WWE regulars Jesse Ventura and Eugene Okerlund. Messy but it has its moments.