After 20 Years as a Poker Face, Police Squad's Leslie Nielsen Shines as a Bright New Comic

updated 08/23/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For years tall, somber Leslie Nielsen was known as a ubiquitous TV actor who played a cop on The New Breed in the early '60s and did a guest shot on every series made thereafter. He was almost always cast as an unruffled he-man, and if he had any specialty, it was deep restraint. But all that changed with the appearance in 1980 of Nielsen as the dippy doctor in the smash movie Airplane! And this season he's won raves as a fall-guy detective on ABC's equally absurd Police Squad, a sort of Mad magazine meets The Untouchables. So what is Leslie Nielsen, 56, really like? His friends will tell you:

"The man is swinging a cracked bat," allows Airplane! producer Jerry Zucker.

"Leslie has high intelligence, and hides it well," reveals a pal of 25 years, Robert Goulet. "He is a nice guy, but a certified nut."

"Every time I come home from work, Leslie jumps out of a closet hollering 'Boo' and wearing just a smile," reports Nielsen's 29-year-old wife, Brooks.

Unhappily for Nielsen, Police Squad is a closet case too. A critical hit that has won him an Emmy nomination, the series, now in reruns, is a ratings flop. Some critics call it too sophisticated for TV. Well, Nielsen can't be blamed for that, his friends contend. Zucker recalls an early Airplane! meeting during which "Leslie kept emitting gas in a very loud and embarrassing manner. We just assumed he'd been to Mexico or something. Then we found out he has this little rubber gadget that makes these terrible noises. And we realized that what we had here was a 10-year-old dipstick parading around as a genteel 50-year-old."

In all fairness, Nielsen has a more serious—and winning—side. Reports Brooks, who met him on an Acapulco-L.A. flight four years ago, "When I got home from the airport, my phone was ringing, and he asked me to lunch the next day. At his house. After lunch he asked me to stay for dinner. That evening he asked me to stay, period. I moved in." They were married in Las Vegas last November.

Nielsen grew up as one of three sons of a Royal Canadian Mountie at Fort Norman in the Yukon. "It wasn't as prestigious as it sounds," he says of his father's job. "There were only 15 people in the area, and we were five of them. If my father arrested someone in the wintertime, he had to lock him up until spring thaw." After moving to Edmonton, Leslie showed a precocious interest in girls (at 11 he claims to have had "a torrid love affair which climaxed with her playing the piano and me singing Old Black Joe") and flawed pranks ("We didn't know that the water bombs would freeze on the way down from a second-story window," he jokes). He was, however, motivated enough to go on to Toronto's Lorne Greene (yep, that Lorne Greene) Academy of Radio Arts, New York's Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio. In 1955 he moved to L.A. to make the first of his 40 movies, The Vagabond King; he's also logged 1,200 television shows.

Along the way one brief marriage, to singer Monica Boyar, crumbled. Another, to executive secretary Alisand Ullman, produced daughters Thea, now 22, and Maura, 19, before ending after 15 years. "I was in a lot of pain after the divorce," observes Nielsen. "I drank and chased." He considered psychiatric help and made a point of meeting Primal Scream author Arthur Janov, but "never had the nerve to go into therapy."

His life calmed down after the arrival of Brooks, an Arkansas farm girl who was married briefly at 20 and now sells radio advertising. "When I met her I was a man with heavy defenses and a wounded ego," he admits. "I feel as if I've come out of a tunnel. She's so straightforward that it's easy to misunderstand her. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never does." The couple occasionally have friends in, "but we are very boring," he claims. "We sit up here on the top of the world"—home is a one-bedroom house high above Hollywood—"and talk."

Professionally, he's busy with local commercials and the upcoming comedy-chiller movie Creepshow. "I like to work, but I'm not on the phone to my agent every day," says Nielsen, who would just as soon putter around to celebrity golf events, even in places like Moline, III. "I have no ambitions to do any particular parts, or any regrets. I'm on a real high in my life—I'm just very content. I see no reason to do anything unless I am going to have some fun," he says, smiling as a remarkably rude noise suddenly fills the room.

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