The actor Leslie Nielsen died yesterday in Florida from complications associated with pneumonia. He was 84.
I read something in his obituary that struck me as somewhat instructive. I thought I’d shared it with you here.
Most people remember the Canadian native as a comedic actor, especially for his role as the bumbling Dr. Rumack, a passenger in Airplane, a spoof movie from the 1980s. In the latter part of his career, Mr. Nielsen was the king of the deadpan and dry delivery and became famous for exchanges like this one from Airplane:
Dr. Rumack: Captain, how soon can you land?
Captain Oveur: I can’t tell.
Dr. Rumack: You can tell me. I’m a doctor.
Captain Oveur: No. I mean I’m just not sure.
Dr. Rumack: Well, can’t you take a guess?
Captain Oveur: Well, not for another two hours.
Dr. Rumack: You can’t take a guess for another two hours?
And who can forget:
Dr. Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can’t be serious.
Rumack: I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.
After the success of the Airplane movies, Leslie Nielsen laughed all the way to the bank, churning out profitable hits of the same vein, namely The Naked Gun trilogy.
What passes for comedy is pretty subjective, but in reading of Mr. Nielsen’s life, one is struck as much by his early work as by the last part of his career. After military service during World War II, Leslie Nielsen began his career in radio and dabbled in stage plays before debuting on television in a 1950 episode of the “Actors Studio” on CBS.
According to his obituary, he was “often cast as an earnest hero” where his “best-known roles included the stalwart spaceship captain in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (1956), the wealthy, available Southern aristocrat in Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) and an ocean liner captain faced with disaster in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).”
But it wasn’t until his role in Airplane that Leslie Nielsen found his niche and hit his groove.
“It’s been dawning on me slowly that for the past 35 years I have been cast against type,” he said in 1988, “and I’m finally getting to do what I really wanted to do.”
Isn’t that interesting? It took Leslie Nielsen 54 years to find the thing he really and truly wanted to do.
I wonder how often that happens to us? We might fall into a rhythm and routine, sometimes comfortable, sometimes not, but we don’t make a change simply because it’s familiar and predictable.
I have a colleague who knows a world class runner. This “star” is aging now, but remains the best at what he does. My colleague asked him if he still had joy in his career. “No,” he responded. “When I used to win, I was elated. Now I feel relief.” His curiosity piqued, my friend asked, “Then why do you continue to do it?” He replied, “Because people expect me to.”
Do you ever feel like you only do what you do because people expect you to do it?
Do you ever feel like you’ve been “cast against type”?
When I think back twenty years to my own career with International Paper, I am reminded of that moment when I was offered a promotion that everybody expected me to take. It would have meant more responsibility, more money, and more prestige – more everything!
Except it wasn’t what the Lord wanted me to do.
Instead, I took a new position at a fraction of the salary, with an organization called Focus on the Family.
At the time, many of my friends were shocked.
“Surely you can’t be serious,” they said to me.
“I am serious,” I told them, “and don’t call me Shirley.”
What about you?
Are you listening to the Lord – or to the expectations of the world?