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Leslie Nielsen

Nielsen in October 2008
Born Leslie William Nielsen
February 11, 1926 (1926-02-11) (age 84)
Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
Occupation Actor/Comedian
Years active 1950–present
Spouse(s) Monica Boyer (1950–1956)
Alisande Ullman (1958–1973)
Brooks Oliver (1981–1983)
Barbaree Earl (2001–present)

Leslie William Nielsen, OC (born February 11, 1926) is a Canadian actor and comedian. Although Nielsen's acting career crosses a variety of genres in both television and films, he has achieved his greatest film success as Commander John J. Adams in the film Forbidden Planet, and also in comic movies, including Airplane! and The Naked Gun series. His portrayal of serious characters seemingly oblivious of (and complicit in) their absurd surroundings gives Nielsen a reputation as a comedian.[1]

Leading roles in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet and as the ship's captain in The Poseidon Adventure came long before Nielsen considered a turn to comedy. His deadpan delivery as a doctor in 1980's Airplane! marked a turning point in Nielsen's career, one that would make him, in the words of film critic Roger Ebert, "the Olivier of spoofs."[2] He may be best known for his roles as Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, as well as President Harris in the Scary Movie series. Nielsen has appeared in over 100 films and 1,500 television programs over the span of his career, portraying over 220 characters.


Early life

Nielsen's uncle Jean Hersholt (pictured here in the 1936 film His Brother's Wife) inspired him to become an actor.

Nielsen was born on February 11, 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan,[3] to Ingvard and Maybelle Nielsen.[4] His father was Danish, and his mother was Welsh.[5] Nielsen had two brothers, his older brother, Erik Nielsen (1924–2008), was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada during the 1980s.[6] Their uncle Jean Hersholt was a prominent silent-film actor best known for his portrayal of Dr. Christian in the long-running radio series of the same name and the subsequent television series and films.[7] In a 1994 The Boston Globe article, Nielsen explained "I did learn very early that when I would mention my uncle, people would look at me as if I were the biggest liar in the world. Then I would take them home and show them 8-by-10 glossies, and things changed quite drastically. So I began to think that maybe this acting business was not a bad idea, much as I was very shy about it and certainly without courage regarding it. My uncle died not too long after I was in a position to know him. I regret that I had not a chance to know him better."[7]

Nielsen spent several years living in Fort Norman, Northwest Territories when his father was stationed there with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.[7][8] Following his graduation from Victoria Composite High School in Edmonton, at the age of seventeen, Nielsen enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was trained as an aerial gunner during the latter part of World War II (but was too young to be fully trained and sent overseas).[9] He briefly worked as a disc jockey at a radio station in Calgary, Alberta, before enrolling at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto.[7][10] When he was studying in Toronto, Nielsen received a scholarship for the Neighborhood Playhouse, he noted "I couldn't refuse, but I must say when you come from the land of the snow goose, the moose and wool to New York, you're bringing every ton of hayseed and country bumpkin that you packed. As long as I didn't open my mouth, I felt a certain security. But I always thought I was going to be unmasked: 'OK, pack your stuff.' 'Well, what's the matter?' 'We've discovered you have no talent; we're shipping you back to Canada.'"[7] He moved to New York City for his scholarship,[3] and studied theater and music at the Neighborhood Playhouse, while performing in summer stock theatre.[11] Afterward, he attended the Actors Studio,[12] before making his first television appearance, in 1948, on an episode of Studio One, alongside Charlton Heston,[13] for which he was paid US$75.[7]


Early career

"It was a strange era, the tail end of the golden age. A time when the Tiffany's of filmmakers was burying its head in the sand and trying to pretend that this new medium (television) was not happening."

Nielsen reflecting on the era when he started acting.[14]

Nielsen's career began in dramatic roles on television during what is now known as "Television's Golden Age",[15] appearing in almost 50 live programs in in 1950 alone.[16] Nielsen reported that for his salary that there "[...] was very little gold, we only got $75 or $100 per show."[16] His distinctive voice narrated several documentaries and commercials, but, with a handful of exceptions, his early work as a dramatic actor was uneventful.[17] Hal Erickson of Allmovie noted, "...much of Nielsen's early work was undistinguished; he was merely a handsome leading man in an industry overstocked with handsome leading men."[17] It was not until 1956 when he made his feature film debut in the Michael Curtiz-directed musical film The Vagabond King.[18] In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nielsen pointed out that he remembers Curtiz as "a sadist, a charming sadist, but a sadist".[14] Though the film was not a box office success, Nielsen caught the eye of producer Nicholas Nayfack who offered him to audition for a role in the science fiction film Forbidden Planet, following which Nielsen was signed to a long-term contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM).[14][19]

Nielsen along with co-star Anne Francis in his second film, Forbidden Planet (1956). Nielsen: "Supposedly a science fiction version of Shakespeare's The Tempest, it was all about the id, or something like that. Who knows? The Trekkies today regard it as the forerunner of Star Trek. I just had to wear a tight uniform and make eyes at Anne Francis. I was pretty thin back then."[20]

Forbidden Planet became an instant success,[21] and roles in other MGM films such as Ransom! (1956), The Opposite Sex (1956) and Hot Summer Night (1957) followed.[22] In 1957 he got the lead role opposite to Debbie Reynolds in the romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor, which, as a Chicago Tribune critic wrote in 1998 made people consider Nielsen as both a dramatic actor and a handsome romantic lead.[23] However, dissatisfied with the quality of the films he was offered to audition for, calling the studios "[..] a Tiffany, which had forgotten how to make silver", Nielsen left MGM, but not before auditioning for the role of Messala in the 1959 historical piece Ben-Hur, though Stephen Boyd was eventually given the role.[24][25] After leaving the studios Nielsen landed the lead role in the Disney miniseries The Swamp Fox, as war hero Francis Marion.[26] In a 1988 interview, he reflected on the series, stating "That was a great experience, because the Disney people didn't do their shows like everyone else, knocking out an episode a week. [...] We only had to do an episode a month, and the budgets were extremely high for TV at that time. So we had location shooting rather than cheap studio backdrops, and very authentic costumes."[27] Eight episodes were produced and aired between 1959 and 1961.[26]

Nielsen has appeared in over 100 films and 1,500 television programs over the span of his career, portraying over 220 characters.[28][29] His early television appearances include parts in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Virginian, and The Wild Wild West. In 1961, he was the lead in a taut Los Angeles police drama called The New Breed. In 1968, he had a major role in the pilot film for the popular police series Hawaii Five-O, and also later appeared in one of the episodes in the seventh season. In 1969, he had the leading role as a police officer in The Bold Ones: The Protectors.

Nielsen also starred in the William Girdler-directed 1977 action film Project: Kill. His last role before portraying mainly comedy roles was the Canadian disaster film City on Fire in which he played a corrupt mayor. In 1980, he guest starred as Sinclair on the CBS miniseries The Chisholms.

Airplane! and The Naked Gun

Nielsen's comedic breakthrough came with a supporting role in 1980's Airplane!, a parody of Zero Hour!, Airport, and other movies that dealt with air travel. Nielsen played a doctor aboard an airliner whose crew had been struck with food poisoning. Airplane! spawned his iconic catchphrase; "I just want to wish you all good luck, we're all counting on you..." that would go on to be parodied itself in many television shows and movies. In Airplane! his deadpan delivery contrasted with the continual absurdity surrounding him. In the film when asked "Surely you can't be serious?", he responds with a curt, "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." He later reflected in several interviews on the significance of the comedic line: "I thought it was amusing, but it never occurred to me that it was going to become a trademark. It's such a surprise...the thing comes out, people say 'What did he say?!'"[30] Nielsen has also stated that he was "...pleased and honored that [he] had a chance to deliver that line."[31] The comedic exchange was at #79 on the American Film Institute's list of Top 100 movie quotes.[32] The American Film Institute also included the film in its list of the top ten comedy films of all time.[33]

Nielsen in 1982

Critics praised the film, which proved to be a success with its audiences as well.[34] The film's directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker, decided to choose Nielsen for the role of the doctor due to his ability to play "a fish in water", stating that "You could have cast funny people and done it with everybody winking, goofing off, and silly...we wanted people to be oblivious to the comedy."[33] The directors, interested in the success of the new comedy, decided to bring the slapstick style of comedy to television. They asked Nielsen to play the lead role in their new series, Police Squad!. The series introduced Nielsen as Frank Drebin, the stereotypical police officer modeled after characters in earlier police TV series.

Police Squad's opening sequence was based on the 1950s cop show M Squad, (which starred Lee Marvin), that opened with footage of a police car roving through in an after-dark urban setting as a big band played a jazz theme song. The voice-over and the show's organization into "acts" with an epilogue was homage to classic Quinn Martin police dramas including The Fugitive, Barnaby Jones, The F.B.I., and Cannon. Much like in Airplane!, Nielsen portrayed a serious character whose one-liners appeared accidental next to the pratfalls and sight gags around him. Although the show was quickly canceled, lasting only six episodes after being juggled between time slots, Nielsen received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.[35]

With the exception of Airplane!, Nielsen had not been known as a comedian. His roles continued to be small and sporadic, such as Prom Night (1980) and Creepshow (1982), which were both horror films. Nielsen's most recent non-comedy role was the cameo appearance as Allen Green, a sleazy character who is murdered by Barbra Streisand's character Claudia Draper in Martin Ritt's courtroom drama Nuts.

Six years after the cancellation of Police Squad!, its directors decided to make a feature length version for theaters. Titled The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, the film returned Nielsen to his role as Frank Drebin. The film involved a comical scheme of a hypnotized baseball player's attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II. Drebin, like the doctor in Airplane!, seemed unaware of the absurdity even when unintentionally contributing toward it. Nielsen later said in an interview that he had done many of his own stunts, saying "You have an idea of how you're going to do something, and it's your vision... unless you do it, it really doesn't stand a chance."[30] This movie grossed over $78 million at the box office and was well-received by critics.[36][37] Ebert's 3½–star review (out of four) noted, "You laugh, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing."[38]

The movie The Naked Gun spawned two sequels, The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994). Naked Gun 2½ grossed more money than the original one, with $86,930,400, while Naked Gun 33⅓ grossed less than the previous two movies with $51,132,600 in receipts.[39][40] Nielsen remains open to the prospects of acting in a fourth Naked Gun film, although he doubts that it will ever be produced—"I don't think so. If there hasn't been one by now, I doubt it. I think it would be wonderful."[41]

Nielsen briefly appeared at the World Wrestling Federation's Summerslam in the summer of 1994. Capitalizing on his Frank Drebin character, Nielsen (and George Kennedy) were hired as "super-sleuths" to unravel the mystery of The Undertaker, who had disappeared at January's Royal Rumble event. At SummerSlam 1994, in a Naked Gun parody, they were hot on the case (in fact, they were literally standing on a case). Although they did not actually find The Undertaker, the case had been closed (the literal case had been shut) and thus, they solved the mystery.[42]

Later comedies

Nielsen attempted a variety of similar roles which never achieved the success of Frank Drebin. Many of the films emulated the style of The Naked Gun films, but with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. Many of the films were panned by critics and most performed poorly. In 1986, Nielsen played against recent type as a dramatic (and unsympathetic) character in the comedy, Soul Man.

Although The Naked Gun series parodied police dramas in general, Nielsen's later parody films focused on specific targets. Critics panned Repossessed (1990) and 2001: A Space Travesty (2001), parodies of The Exorcist and 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively. Both films attempted the absurdist comedy Nielsen is recognized for, but were poorly received.[43][44] Even a leading role in a Mel Brooks comic horror parody, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, failed to generate much box office excitement, although it did gain somewhat of a following on its later release to video. Both 1996's Spy Hard and 1998's Wrongfully Accused, a parody of The Fugitive, received even more popularity on home video and were not-well received by critics.[45][46]

His attempt at children's comedies met additional criticism. Surf Ninjas (1993) and Mr. Magoo (1997) faced scathing reviews. Several critics were disappointed that Nielsen's role in Surf Ninjas was only "an extended cameo" and film critic Chris Hicks recommended that viewers "...avoid any comedy that features Leslie Nielsen outside of the Naked Gun series."[47][48] Jeff Miller of the Houston Chronicle panned Mr. Magoo, a live action remake of the 1950s cartoon, by saying, "I'm supposed to suggest how the film might be better. But I can't think of anything to say other than to make the film again."[49]

Nielsen's first major slapstick success since The Naked Gun came in a supporting role in Scary Movie 3. His appearance as President Harris proved popular enough for a second appearance in its sequel, Scary Movie 4. This became the first time Nielsen reprised a character since his numerous appearances as Frank Drebin. In one scene in the film, Nielsen appeared almost fully nude, and one critic referred to the scene as putting "the 'scary' in Scary Movie 4."[50]

Nielsen also hosted a series of golf instructional videos beginning with 1993's Bad Golf Made Easier. The videos were not serious, instead combining absurd comedy with golf techniques. The series were popular enough to spawn two additional sequels, Bad Golf My Way (1994) and Stupid Little Golf Video (1997). Nielsen also co-wrote a fictional autobiography titled The Naked Truth. The book portrayed Nielsen as a popular actor with a long history of prestigious films.

Recent work

Leslie Nielsen in 2009 at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Even in his eighties, Nielsen continues to have an active career. He performs serious roles on screen and stage (such as his one-man theatre show Darrow, playing Clarence Darrow), as well as providing voice-overs and on-camera appearances for commercials; cartoons like Zeroman where he has the leading role/voice; children's shows, such as Pumper Pups, which he narrates, in addition to comedic film roles. The sibling relationship with his elder brother, the Honourable Erik Nielsen, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, serves as the premise of an HBO mockumentary entitled The Canadian Conspiracy in which Leslie Nielsen appears, along with other prominent Canadian-born media personalities. Recently, he was a celebrity contestant on CBS's Gameshow Marathon, where he played The Price is Right, Let's Make a Deal, Beat the Clock, and Press Your Luck for charity.[16]

Beginning in February 2007, Nielsen began playing a small role as a doctor in the humorous yet educational television show Doctor*Ology. The show chronicles real-life medical techniques and technology, and airs on the Discovery Channel. In an interview, Nielsen admitted his admiration for the doctors on the show: "There are any number of things that you think about when you ponder if you hadn't been an actor, what would you be, and I've always said I'd like to be an astronaut or a doctor. I have such admiration for doctors. I just don't know how you go around to thank them enough for coming up with the world's most remarkable new discoveries."[31] In 2007, Nielsen starred in the drama Music Within. In 2008, he portrayed a version of Uncle Ben for Superhero Movie, a spoof of superhero films with co-star Drake Bell. He then appeared in David Zucker's 2008 parody An American Carol, which Zucker directed, produced, and co-wrote.

In 2009, the sequel to Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult was announced.[51] Naked Gun 4: Rhythm of Evil, is in early stages of production and is expected to be released in late 2010. No details were revealed if Nielsen is to reprise his role as Detective Frank Drebin.

Nielsen portrayed the Doctor in the Spanish horror comedy Spanish Movie[52], a spoof comedy like Scary Movie, but making fun of popular Spanish films.[53]

Personal life

"I'm afraid if I don't keep moving, they're going to catch me ... I am 81 years old and I want to see what's around the corner, and I don't see any reason in the world not to keep working. But I am starting to value my down time a great deal because I am realizing there might be other things to do that I am overlooking."

–Nielsen reflecting on his career in 2007[31]

Nielsen has married four times: Monica Boyer (1950–1956), Alisande Ullman (1958–1973), Brooks Oliver (1981–1983) and Barbaree Earl (2001).[54][55] Nielsen also has two children from his second marriage, Maura and Thea Nielsen.[55]

Nielsen is a fan of golf, and often plays it in his free time.[56] In an interview he stated that "I don't play golf to feel bad, I play bad golf but I feel good."[30] Nielsen's interest in the sport led him to star in several comedic instructional films.

Nielsen has stated in several interviews that he has a few medical problems such as hearing impairment.[57] Because of this impairment, he has publicly supported the Better Hearing Institute.[58]


Among his numerous awards, Leslie Nielsen received UCLA's Jack Benny Award for his comedic roles in 1995.[35] In 1988, he became the 1,884th personality to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6541 Hollywood Blvd.[59] In 2001 he was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame.[59] The following year he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, although he is also a naturalized U.S. citizen.[60] With his American status, he still maintains his Canadian heritage: "There's no way you can be a Canadian and think you can lose it ... Canadians are a goodly group. They are very aware of caring and helping."[61] On May 19, 2005, during the centennial gala of his birth province, Saskatchewan, Leslie Nielsen was introduced to HM Queen Elizabeth II.[62]

In 2003, in honor of Nielsen, Grant MacEwan College named its school of communications after him.[63] Also in 2003, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists awarded him the ACTRA Award of Excellence.[63]



Year Film Role Other notes
1956 Ransom! Charlie Telfer Film debut
Forbidden Planet Commander John J. Adams
The Vagabond King Thibault
The Opposite Sex Steve Hilliard
1957 Hot Summer Night William Joel Partain
Tammy and the Bachelor Peter Brent
1958 The Sheepman Col. Stephen Bedford/Johnny Bledsoe
1964 See How They Run Elliot Green First television movie
Night Train To Paris Alan Holiday
1965 Dark Intruder Brett Kingsford
Harlow Richard Manley
1966 The Plainsman Col. George Armstrong Custer
Beau Geste Lieutenant De Ruse
1967 Code Name: Heraclitus Fryer
The Reluctant Astronaut Major Fred Gifford
Gunfight in Abilene Grant Evers
Rosie! Cabot Shaw
1968 How to Steal the World General Maximilian Harmon The Man From U.N.C.L.E. film
Counterpoint Victor Rice
Dayton's Devils Frank Dayton
Companions in Nightmare Dr. Neesden
1969 Trial Run Jason Harkness
Deadlock Lieutenant Sam Danforth
How to Commit Marriage Phil Fletcher
Change of Mind Sherrif Webb
1970 Night Slaves Sherrif Henshaw
The Aquarians Official
Hauser's Memory Joseph Slaughter
1971 Incident In San Francisco Lieutenant Brubaker
Four Rode Out Mr. Brown
They Call It Murder Frank Antrim
1972 The Poseidon Adventure Captain Harrison
1973 ...And Millions Die! Jack Gallagher
Snatched Bill Sutting
Amanda Fallon Mr. Cummings
The Return Of Charlie Chan Alexander Hadrachi
1975 Can Ellen Be Saved Arnold Lindsey
1976 Grand Jury John Williams
Project: Kill Jonathan Trevor
Brinks: The Great Robbery Agent Norman Houston
1977 Sixth and Main John Doe
Day of the Animals Paul Jenson
Viva Knievel Stanley Millard
The Kentucky Fried Movie Man in Feel-O-Rama Movie Uncredited cameo; Feel-O-Rama segment
The Amsterdam Kill Riley Knight
1978 Little Mo Nelson Fisher
1979 Institute for Revenge Counselor Hollis Barnes
The Albertans Don MacIntosh
Riel Major Crozier
City on Fire Mayor William Dudley
1980 OHMS Governor
Airplane! Dr. Rumack first comedy role
Prom Night Mr. Raymond Hammond
1981 A Choice of Two Unknown
1982 Twilight Theater Various Characters
Foxfire Light Reece Morgan
Wrong is Right Mallory
Creepshow Richard Vickers Something To Tide You Over segment
1983 Prime Times Unknown
The Night the Bridge Fell Down Paul Warren
Cave-In! Joseph 'Joe' Johnson
The Creature Wasn't Nice Capt. Jamieson
1985 Murder Among Friends Unknown
Reckless Disregard Bob Franklin
Blade in Hong Kong Harry Ingersoll
Striker's Mountain Jim McKay
1986 The Patriot Admiral Frazer
Soul Man Mr. Dunbar
1987 Nightstick Thad Evans
Nuts Allen Green Final non-comedy role
Home Is Where The Hart Is Sherrif Nashville Schwartz
1988 Dangerous Curves Greg Krevske
The Railway Dragon Narrator First animated film
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! Lt. Frank Drebin First starring role
1990 Repossessed Father Jebedaiah Mayii
1991 All I Want for Christmas Santa Claus Family holiday film
The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear Lt. Frank Drebin
Chance of A Lifetime Lloyd Dixon
1993 Digger Arthur Evrensel
Surf Ninjas Colonel Chi
1994 S.P.Q.R. 2000 e 1/2 anni fa Lucio Cinico
Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult Lt. Frank Drebin
1995 Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree Willowby's butler
Rent-a-Kid Harry Haber
Dracula: Dead and Loving It Count Dracula
1996 Spy Hard Dick Steele, Agent WD-40
1997 Mr. Magoo Mr. Magoo
1998 Safety Patrol Mr. Penn
Family Plan Harry Haber
Harvey Dr. Chumley
Wrongfully Accused Ryan Harrison
1999 Pirates 4D Captain Lucky 4D Cinema Show at Thorpe Park, Surrey and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia
2000 Santa Who? Santa Claus
2001: A Space Travesty Richard 'Dick' Dix
2001 Camouflage Jack Potter
Kevin of the North Clive Thornton
2002 Men with Brooms Gordon Cutter
2003 Scary Movie 3 President Harris
Noel Noel English Narrator
2004 The Nutcracker and the Mouseking Mouseking
2006 Scary Movie 4 President Harris
2007 Music Within Bill Austin
2008 Superhero Movie Uncle Albert
An American Carol Grampa / Himself
Slap Shot 3: The Junior League Mayor of Charlestown
2009 Spanish Movie Doctor
Stan Helsing Kay


Year Title Role Other notes
1958–1961 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Lloyd Ashley & DA Rudolph Cox Two episodes
1959 The Swamp Fox Colonel Francis Marion
1961 The New Breed Lt. Price Adams Regular
1963 Channing Professor Paul Stafford Single episode
1964 Your First Impression As himself Single episode
1964 The Alfred Hitchcock Hour Steven Grainger Single episode
1964–1969 The Virginian Ben Stratton Five episodes
1969 The Bold Ones: The Protectors Deputy Police Chief Sam Danforth Seven episodes
1969–1974 Hawaii Five-O Brent & Colonel Faraday Two episodes
1971–1975 Columbo Peter Hamilton & Geronimo Two episodes
1971 Bearcats! Col. Ted Donovan Single episode
1973 M*A*S*H Col. Buzz Brighton One episode
1973–1974 The Streets of San Francisco Ofc. Joe Landers, Insp. John T. Connor, & Big Jake Wilson Three episodes
1974 Cannon Eric Strauss Single episode
1975 Kung Fu Vincent Corbino Four episodes
1979 Backstairs at the White House Ike Hoover Three episodes
1982 Police Squad! Det. Frank Drebin
1985–1986 Murder, She Wrote Captain Daniels & David Everett Two episodes
1988 Day By Day Jack Harper One Episode, Nominated for an Emmy Award
1989 Saturday Night Live Himself Single episode
1992 The Golden Girls Lucas Hollingsworth Series finale
1994–1999 Due South Sgt. Buck Frobisher Four episodes
1994–1996, 2001–2002 Katie and Orbie Narrator
1995 Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree Mr. Willowby's Butler, Baxter Television Christmas special
2000 Santa Who? Santa Claus television movie
2001 Scrubs cross-dresser Uncredited
2002 Liocracy Terrence Brynne McKennie
2004 Zeroman Les Mutton/Zeroman
2007 Doctorology Himself, Host
Lipshitz Saves the World Lipshitz's mentor Pilot
Robson Arms Cado Vasco




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