Remembering Leslie Nielsen: An actor known for advocating better hearing
Leslie Nielsen with Joe Rizzo
When the Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen died November 24 at age 84, the mainstream press remembered him mostly for his roles in the satirical comedies Airplane!
and The Naked Gun
film series. But in the hearing care world, he was known as an ardent advocate for better hearing, a cause that be believed in deeply and very personally. For 15 years, he made public service announcements and took part in fundraising events for the Better Hearing Institute (BHI). In an interview with The Ear Hears
, the former BHI executive director Joe Rizzo spoke about Nielsen’s involvement with the institute, recalling both his dedication to the cause and his love of making people laugh. “
He was a wonderful man,” said Rizzo, adding, “Even though he had originally been a serious actor, he enjoyed comedy more and was very vocal about being happier with his later fame as a comic movie personality than in his serious roles.
SPOOFS, PSAs, AND JOKES
Rizzo first met Nielsen in 1980 when he was a participant in BHI’s “Help America Hear” celebrity golf tournament in Gaithersburg, MD. Afterwards the actor quipped, “I have no goals or ambitions. I do, however wish to work enough to maintain whatever celebrity status I have so they will continue to invite me to golf tournaments.”
In 1991, Nielsen joined BHI’s award-winning public service announcement (PSA) series that featured nearly 100 prominent personalities who benefited from hearing aids and other hearing help, and who encouraged others to similarly overcome their hearing loss.
These celebrities greatly mitigated the early stigma of wearing hearing aids, Rizzo noted. In 1992 Nielsen made his first solo PSA. Rizzo recalled, “It was hilarious because we did a television spot that was a spoof on his movie Airplane!
with him tied up, interspersed with him talking about how a hearing problem is like being bound and gagged. It was really funny.”
Nielsen went on to do two more TV spots and appeared in a number of magazine advertisements, which ran frequently in Good Housekeeping
, and Newsweek.
He also made frequent appearances on network television shows where he spoke about hearing loss, which he experienced for many years.
“I remember going out to California to film his public service messages and it was like he was trying out jokes on us,” said Rizzo, who now leads an active “retirement” in Winter Park, Florida, “He would have us in stitches during the intermissions of filming. We couldn’t stop laughing. He was just naturally that way.”
YOU SHOULD HEAR WHAT YOU’RE MISSING
“You should hear what you’re missing” was the slogan of the Better Hearing Institute during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Nielsen, who used hearing aids to cope with a sensorineural hearing loss, fit perfectly into the vision of the Better Hearing Institute, which enlisted the support of a great many celebrities who talked about how they overcame their hearing problems. Rizzo said, “The key was only using celebrities who had a hearing problem because people would recognize their credibility.”
Nielsen often attended BHI events, sometimes giving an entertaining introduction to Rizzo before he spoke. “It had a great impact,” said the former BHI leader.
“Leslie did so much for us over the years. He was a wonderful human being.”
Former President Reagan and actress Nanette Fabray met with BHI director Joe Rizzo in the White House in 1983.