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In "Airplane!" and "Police Squad" and the "Naked Gun" movies, Leslie Nielsen and the ZAZ team (David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams) burnt manly-man stereotypes of movie heroism to a satiric crisp.

In "Airplane!" Nielsen was part of a mock-macho ensemble including Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges -- men who appeared in so many TV and movie melodramas they should have been made honorary horsemen of the apocalypse.

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In their roles as a pilot (Graves), a doctor (Neilsen), another pilot (Stack) and a plane dispatcher (Bridges) they were so cutting about their own he-man images they might have been committing a riotous version of professional harakiri. Instead, they revived their careers. They had a peculiar, bubbly chemistry -- each were stiff drinks that somehow managed to mix.

Nielsen and Graves shared the exact same deadpan, an effect heightened because, when they were close together, you couldn't tell where Graves' white hair ended and Nielsen's light-blonde hair began.

"Greatest generation" movie audiences liked to complain that there were no good hero figures left in movies. "Airplane!" had the audacity to remind them that the hero figures of yore were often pains in the neck.

But Nielsen achieved his most sublimely ridiculous comic flights as would-be super-cop Frank Drebin (above) in the ZAZ team's flop TV farce "Police Squad!" and its hit big-screen spin-offs, the "Naked Gun" movies. These movies went beyond one-liners or two-liners to no-liners: only a performer as confident as Nielsen could pull off absurd conversational gambits like warning a villain to keep his nose clean or else he would come along and wipe it for him.

Nielsen anchored the movies' recurring cast, which included George Kennedy and (yes) O.J. Simpson, and developed a delightfully silly beauty-and-the-beastie rapport with series paramour Priscilla Presley. (In the second "Naked Gun" movie they actually pulled off a parody of the pottery-wheel love scene from "Ghost.") Nielsen became the conscious straight man for the whole slaphappy franchise. He made Drebin's blithe monomania -- his inability to see beyond his own immediate agenda -- the series' surefire formula.

As a kid, I loved watching Nielsen play the Revolutionary War hero the Swamp Fox for Disney on television, and he already had my allegiance for starring in "Forbidden Planet," the wonderful sci-fi film rendering of Shakespeare's "Tempest." But he earned a unique place in movie history with his 1980s and 1990s comedies. With pop-eyed aplomb, Nielsen embodied a Jean Renoiresque principle: in "The Naked Gun," everybody has his stupid reasons.

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