Nielsen was born on February 11, 1926 in Regina in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. He was the son of a Canadian Mounted policeman and went on to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force before becoming a radio announcer and DJ. A scholarship to New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse allowed him to study acting with Sanford Meisner and dance with Martha Graham. Bit parts on stage and TV led to leading roles.
His height and his good looks made him a natural to play the stalwart hero, which he did in films like the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. He then spent two decades in various TV roles, often guest spots, with the odd turn in movies where the role required a serious and commanding presence, as he did as the captain of the doomed ship in The Poseidon Adventure.
He was doing guest stints on television’s "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" when David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams came to call. They wanted Nielsen to play the solemn character he’d perfected over the years in their upcoming spoof Airplane! as Dr. Rumack, the practical physician aboard a troubled flight. Nielsen was relieved to be offered something where he wasn't playing the grandfather and the role forever changed his career and the public’s perception of him. Nielsen deadpanned some of the best lines in the movie: “Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” and “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner. “ (That dialogue was taken directly from Zero Hour!, the serious flight disaster film upon which Airplane! was based.)
Though Airplane was the surprise hit of that summer Nielsen headed back to TV, to star as Lt. Frank Drebin in the short-lived Zucker/Abraham’s comedy, “Police Squad.” The show failed but it inspired the creative team behind it to make a big screen version with The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! The success of that film in 1988 led to two sequels with Nielsen headlining and the reliable George Kennedy and still comely Priscilla Presley supporting. The series also gave O.J. Simpson another few years of time in front of the movie camera. Several poorer cousins, such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Mr. Magoo, Spy Hard and Wrongfully Accused, followed and tainted the goodwill Nielsen had accumulated and the diminishing box office confirmed it. He continued to make cameo appearances in films, almost all spoofs, up until his death.
Nielsen had been ill for over a week, getting treatment for a staph infection in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he contracted the pneumonia. His nephew, Doug Nielsen, confirmed the rumors of his uncle’s death by a call-in to a Manitoba radio station, CJOB on Sunday stating that “today at 5:30, with his friends and his wife, Barbaree, by his side, he just fell asleep and passed away.”
Nielsen is survived by Barbaree Nielsen, his fourth wife, and his two daughters, Thea and Maura, whom the actor had with his second wife, Sandy Ullmann.