Zucker, along with his filmmaking partner brother Jerry and Jim Abrahams, gave Nielsen his first major comedy role in 1980’s Airplane! and they went on to work together on numerous films including The Naked Gun series.
The director remained life-long friends with the actor, who died on Sunday (28Nov10), and has written a tribute for the Hollywood Reporter.
Zucker describes his first meeting with Nielsen when he auditioned for Airplane! and reveals he found an actor with a “natural instinct” for comedy. He also remembers Nielsen’s sense of humour and love of pranks.
He writes, “Offscreen, he wasn’t so much of a joke or storyteller but a chronic prankster. The stories are legion about the fart machine, which he kept hidden and sprang on any hapless stranger who approached him. He used it on set, on talk shows, anywhere he could find a victim. One time, at a press junket in Charlotte, I remember watching Leslie let loose with the device on a crowded elevator, the other occupants squirming up against the walls in an effort to distance themselves. And just like the scenes we put him in, he never broke character, never let on that he knew he was being funny.”
And Zucker is convinced Nielsen was at his happiest when he was making people chuckle: “Leslie got the biggest kick out of his newfound status as an international comedy icon… He just really loved to laugh. Doing goofy things on and off the set made him happy, which was almost always his demeanour. And in turn, he made all of us happy…”
He adds, “Leslie was grateful for everything in his life (most especially his wife Barbaree), almost as though he didn’t feel he deserved any of it. Maybe that’s why he was so happy. And maybe that’s why he was so good at making everyone else happy…”