No joke, Leslie Nielsen once played a Disney Revolutionary War hero

"The Swamp Fox" is a mostly forgotten 1950s Disney Revolutionary War adventure but notable for starring a young Leslie Nielsen as its heroic (singing) character!
Leslie Nielsen
Leslie Nielsen / United Archives/GettyImages

In the ranks of actors with pasts with Disney, it's easy to think of some A-list actors, from Kurt Russell to the current pack of Disney Channel stars. Yet, it's amazing to look at some actors who did stints with Disney that have been long forgotten but still notable. 

In this case, it's that before he was known for some terrific comedies, Leslie Nielsen was not only the star of a Disney show but played a Revolutionary War hero. Somehow The Swamp Fox has been the ignored show among the pantheon of classic Disney series yet has a fun charm thanks to the leading man. 

The background of The Swamp Fox

There's an unofficial rule of television that when a show becomes a hit, you're going to see copycats. So when Disney made Davy Crockett a massive phenomenon, it was no wonder other producers tried to replicate that with shows based on historical figures.

Walt Disney decided to get a jump on it by crafting another series based on a unique historical figure. He settled on Frances Marion, a soldier in the Revolutionary War. While not a commissioned officer, Marion was fmous as one of the fathers of what became known as guerilla warfare. Rather than tackle the British head-on, Marion made hit-and-run attacks and heading into the swamp, thus earning the nickname of "The Swamp Fox." 

It was a good story, even if the show had to water down some of the…rougher…parts of Marion's background, from owning slaves to abandoning men for a political career and some attacks on Native American tribes. 

Still, Disney wanted to do the show, dramatizing it for viewers of the time. For the role of Marion, he chose a man whom Walt had no idea would find much bigger fame down the road. 

Leslie Nielsen….Serious actor?

The little-known 1990s Fox comedy Herman's Head focused on the four aspects of a guy's personality in his head. In one episode, the characters imagine God in the form of Leslie Nielsen, and when asked why they'd choose him, he replies, "Why not me? I have white hair and a deep voice…I didn't just do all those Naked Gun movies, I'm also a fine dramatic actor! Surely you remember my performance in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet?"

The emotions' baffled reactions may speak for many viewers, but it's true that at one point, Nielsen was known for dramatic roles. He broke out in Forbidden Planet and other films, even auditioning for Ben-Hur. That led to slews of movies and TV shows that played on his serious manner, often as a cop but also a crook at times.

That's why the Zucker Brothers cast Nielsen in their comedy classic Airplane! They wanted someone with a history of dramatic roles and told Nielsen to play it like he was in a straight drama, which made his delivery of iconic lines like "I am serious and don't call me Shirley" all the better.

The Zuckers then cast Nielsen in the short-lived Police Squad! Again, Nielsen played Frank Drebin like he was in a standard police show of the time, rather than the off-the-wall comedy it was. The show lasted only six episodes but later spawned The Naked Gun and its sequels. From there, Nielsen became the unofficial king of the parody comedy from Dracula: Dead and Loving It to Mr. Magoo and more. 

Thus, Nielsen wasn't always known for comedy but was a talented actor, which served well for this show.

The Swamp Fox's setup

The series began on the October 23, 1959 episode of Walt Disney Presents. This was coming just as color televisions were starting to appear and so Disney pushed to film this in color. There was also the plan that, like other TV shows of the time, Disney hoped to link episodes together for a theatrical release. Each episode would have Walt in a replica of a log cabin, giving a history lesson about 1780 and the state of the war while recapping previous stories. 

The show began with the fittingly titled "Birth of the Swamp Fox" as Marion is a straight-laced soldier who learns of plans by the British to capture the governor of South Carolina. Unfortunately, a British loyalist is throwing a party to ensure the main pack of officers are too inebriated to defend it and Marion takes off to regroup at his ranch home. He then hides out in the swamps, organizing a band of malita to strike out at the british.

The supporting cast included Myron Healey as Marion's main aide, Peter Horry, Joy Page as Mary, his British fiancee, and a few future famous faces like Patrick MacNee as a British officer. While there was violence in battle, it was more fitting for the time with no blood and not quite grand clashes of armies. 

Just like Davy Crockett, Marion got his own theme song in "The Swamp Fox," sung by various members of the cast, including Nielsen. And you haven't lived until you've heard Leslie Nielsen sing. 

Those who only know Nielsen by his comedic roles may be taken aback by how well he plays the adventurer. Marion is a smart fighter, using his wits against the British with clever tricks, some sly humor but believable issuing commands. He's also a proud man, ready to resign if he'd not given more help and backs up his word to his men. There's good action and some character work, such as Marion having to face a vigilante group burning out the British. Mary gets a good showcase of her own drive, rescuing prisoners from a ship. Each episode ended with Marion and his men triumphantly riding off singing that theme song. 

Despite Walt's hopes, the Swamp Fox never came near the level of success Davy Crockett did and after the initial eight-episode series, it was dropped. The series languished in obscurity until the 1990s when Nielsen's newfound fame led to Disney reairing it. The first three episodes were also included in a 2005 DVD set but today, places like YouTube are the only way to catch the run. 

It's not a great show with predictable plots and no doubt Revolutionary War scholars will have a grand time picking apart the inaccuracies. However, it has a charm matching 1950s Disney efforts and Nielsen is engaging in the lead. Thus, The Swamp Fox is one of those unique undiscovered gems of Disney's past and how they had a future comedic star in a far more heroic role than most would imagine.