This is probably his best known dramatic role, and with good reason. Forbidden Planet is one of the all-time great science fiction films and Nielsen is perfectly 50s space man as Captain JJ Adams. His voice isn’t yet that deep rumble you think of, and he’s almost squeaky - like the noise his Brylcreemed hair must have made when it hit the pillow at night.
Nielsen was a Canadian, but that didn’t stop the good folks at Walt Disney from casting him as the American Revolutionary hero Francis Marion. Today a kid named Francis Marion would be getting nothing but shit at school; in the 1700s a kid named Francis Marion could grow up to perfect guerilla warfare and use it against the British.
Nielsen’s more mature here, and he’s really got the delivery that the ZAZ team would be using for self-mockery decades later. Swamp Fox was an 8 part limited series, which still hasn’t hit DVD in its entirety (it did get some reruns on The Disney Channel a couple of years back). Mel Gibson would play a character partially based on Francis Marion in The Patriot.
His comedy work made Nielsen seem very affable - he was everybody’s goofy uncle. But his turn in Creepshow proved that he had something darker going on. He’s amazing as the cheated on husband who buries Ted Danson and Gaylen Ross in the sand at the beach, waiting for high tide to drown them (and recording it to boot!). Nielsen drops all the silliness and the warmth and goes straight for son of a bitch - and hits it.
Day of the Animals.
I saved the best for last. When pollution drives animals crazy, a shirtless Leslie Nielsen wrestles and is killed by a grizzly bear. Nielsen is playing an asshole business guy who rips off his shirt and goes into crazy survivalist mode - and I mean really fucking crazy. Nielsen is playing his role on 14 while everybody else is dialing it in at about 8.
In this scene he goes totally crazy and beats up a mom and her son:
And in this scene after yelling at God in the rain he attempts to rape a woman (“I OWN YOU!” he screams) and then INITIATES a wrestling match with a grizzly. Totally fucking nuts.