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Leslie Nielsen Syndrome

There has to be a perfectly rational explanation. Maybe there's more than one Leslie Nielsen in Hollywood!note 

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
Edmund Kean

The casting opposite of Tom Hanks Syndrome. With this trope, a successful actor with a history of dramatic roles plays against type and stars in a comedy, playing it for laughs and generally acting silly. And it works. Unlike Tom Hanks Syndrome, the change will rarely be permanent: the actor will still dip into serious roles, and may even bounce back and forth from comedy to drama like a rubber ball. But sometimes, the actor finds a new niche (and a new career) as a comedic performer.

Named after actor Leslie Nielsen, who, after a long career in the fifties, sixties, and seventies as a dramatic lead, turned to comedy in the 80s and thereby rejuvenated his career to the point that, these days, more people know him for his work in Airplane and Police Squad! than they do for any of his prior dramatic or romantic roles.

Often related to The Comically Serious. See also Playing Against Type. Note that this trope is not about serious performers who have done comedic work here and there. It is about people who once were well known for serious work, and now are primarily doing comedy. If the previous Type Casting is sufficiently exploited, Adam Westing may apply as well.


  • The Trope Namer is Leslie Nielsen. Prior to Airplane, Nielsen had a long dramatic career that spanned television and film. He often played military commanders and police detectives, with the occasional medieval king or Roman senator thrown in for good measure. Offers of leading roles had pretty much petered out by the 1980s, so he deliberately branched out into comedy with Airplane, playing The Comically Serious. After that, he experienced a career renaissance as a comedic actor.
  • Like Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges ended his career better known for his roles in Airplane!, the Hot Shots movies and other comedy films than for his earlier dramatic work.
  • Believe it or not, Jim Carrey sort of qualifies. While he did appear in a short-lived sitcom in The '80s (The Duck Factory), auditioned to be an SNL cast member (which he didn't get), and had an ongoing stand-up career, most of his early film roles were serious rather than comic (i.e., the alcoholic son in Doing Time on Maple Drive).
  • Charlie Sheen was first known for roles in Wall Street and Platoon... and then landed the role of Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn in Major League. Hot Shots, Spin City, the Scary Movie franchise, Two and a Half Men, and Anger Management would all follow.
  • Christopher Walken won an Academy Award for a dramatic role (1978's The Deer Hunter), but nowadays seems to do more comedies and gimmicky comedic cameos more often than not. He's even got his own Best of Saturday Night Live collection, despite never being an official cast member. Basically, his onscreen persona has experienced so much Memetic Mutation that he's decided to embrace it, and his career is now largely based around Self-Parody (but none the worse for it).
  • Alec Baldwin has seldom been seen near dramatic works as of late, thanks to Thirty Rock and his frequent hosting gigs on Saturday Night Live (hosting so many times that he dethroned Steve Martin as the show's most frequent host). Heck, he's even doing comedy commercials.
  • Robert Downey, Jr. started out doing comedies (and he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980snote ), then went into dramatic work before falling victim to his drug problems. He relaunched his career with a comedy buddy movie (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and now juggles between doing comedies and doing action films. Hell, he's at his funniest in his serious roles.
  • William Shatner is best known for the overly dramatic Captain Kirk, as well as his intense performances in several episodes of the The Twilight Zone, and other serious roles. These days, however, he has made a name for himself as a loveable comedic actor, through things like the iconic Priceline commercials, Boston Legal, and most recently $#*! My Dad Says.
  • Joanna Lumley was famous for playing dramatic roles until she played the outrageous Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. She commented that her fan mail went from retired colonels telling her she was the perfect English Rose to drag queens asking her where she got her clothes.
  • John C. Reilly was mostly known for serious roles, but had a hard time getting lead roles due to his unconventional looks. Then he got mixed up with Will Ferrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers) and Judd Apatow (Walk Hard) and experienced a career jolt as a successful comedic actor.
  • Kitty Carlisle made her career as an operetta soprano (she was the female romantic lead in A Night at the Opera), but lasted longest as a panelist on the Game Show To Tell the Truth.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis first established herself as a horror movie scream queen, playing the Final Girl in films like Halloween (1978), Prom Night (1980), Terror Train and Road Games. Ever since Trading Places, however, she's been best known for comedies like A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, Freaky Friday and True Lies (which, while a Schwarzenegger action vehicle, also had strong comedic overtones).
  • Gene Wilder had an abbreviated version of this trope. Although he considered himself a serious actor when he started out in live theatre (and appeared in a television staging of Death of a Salesman), he only got one such film role, a supporting part in Bonnie and Clyde, before co-starring in The Producers and launching himself as a comedic actor.
  • Robert De Niro had already cemented his legacy as an acting legend by the end of the 1990s thanks to his collaborations with Martin Scorsese. He closed the millenium with Analyze This, a comedy that sent up his mob archetype. Next year came The Adventures Of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Meet the Parents. With the blockbuster success of Analyze and Parents, DeNiro found a second wind in his career as a comedic actor.
  • Patrick Troughton: The second actor to play the lead in Doctor Who was known for dramatic roles both before, during, and after his role as The Doctor. He was television's first Robin Hood, a radio version of 1984's Winston Smith, as well as the priest from The Omen (1976). And he played Adolf Hitler on stage. He played his Doctor as more of a clownish hobo figure in comparison to his more serious predecessor and successor, both of whom, in a way, qualify for Tom Hanks Syndrome.
  • Director Blake Edwards got his start with "private eye" material — on radio, TV and film — before he directed the war comedy Operation Petticoat. This wasn't a big catalyst, but after The Pink Panther, most of his output was comedic, although he continued to do drama here and there.
  • Spencer Tracy gradually shifted to comedy with Father of the Bride, but Adam's Rib really provided a bigger catalyst for the shift. Though also well respected for his dramatic works, he rounded off his career with Its A Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
  • Alan Reed first played supporting roles on radio dramas but shifted largely to comedy by the 1950's. By the way, The Flintstones is a comedy.
  • Fred Mac Murray had both this and Tom Hanks Syndrome; he was known for "nice guy" roles in movies like Alice Adams and Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, played against type as a "heavy" in movies like The Caine Mutiny, The Apartment and Double Indemnity, then switched over to often Disney-connected family-friendly roles like The Absent-Minded Professor, The Shaggy Dog and as a TV dad in My Three Sons.
  • Rose Byrne was best known as a dramatic actress at the outset of her career, notably with Troy, Twenty Eight Weeks Later, and the lead in sleeper hit Insidious and FX drama Damages. She's gained a lot more recognition as of late as she's gone into more comedic work, with well-received turns in the smash hit Bridesmaids, along with Get Him to the Greek and Neighbors.
  • James Marsden gradually shifted to comedy during the late part of the Turn of the Millennium. At the beginning of said decade, he is known playing the Only Sane Man in action and heavy drama films (X-Men, The Notebook, Superman Returns). Starting the late 2000s, he's mostly seen in romantic comedies or dramedies (Hairspray, Enchanted, Twenty Seven Dresses).
  • Candice Bergen got her start as a dramatic film actress, working very hard at trying to crawl from under her famous father Edgar Bergen's (think the '50s version of Jeff Dunham here) formidable comedic shadow by sticking to serious dramas. Playing Sydney Biddle Barrows in the TV movie The Mayflower Madam led to a second time hosting SNL. Her performance that night got her cast as the eponymous protagonist in Murphy Brown.
  • Jackie Chan early in his career deliberately went for funny movies and adopted a comedic fighting style to differentiate himself from Bruce Lee.
  • Dwight Schultz is fondly still remembered as H.M. (Howling Mad) Murdock from The A-Team. He would later be recognizable as the timid Lt. Barclay. Currently, he is a prolific voice actor in animation, anime, and videogames, usually playing villains or authority figures.
  • Roy Atwell dove headfirst from a dramatic actor into a comedic one when he nervously flubbed a line during his first time in Broadway (He was supposed to say, "It is spring and all the little birds are twittering in the tree tops.", but it came out, : "Tis ting and the twits are birdering in the tree flops." ). From then on, stumbling over words became his trademark.