Airplane! is 40 years old? Surely you can’t be serious?
Over the last four decades, this modestly-budgeted comedy movie, headed up by three rookie directors (who also wrote the script), has come to be seen as one of the most highly-regarded examples of the genre, along with being held as a true classic in its own right.
It frequently places towards the very top of any polls of the greatest comedies of all time, and in 2010 it was deemed as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”, when it was picked by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. While there had been other spoofs before Airplane! (like Mel Brooks’ 1977 Hitchcock homage, High Anxiety, for example), it has certainly come to define them like nothing before or since.
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The trio of Jim Abrahams and David & Jerry Zucker grew up together in the state of Wisconsin, attending the same high school, before all moving onto the University of Winconsin-Madison, where in 1971 they formed a comedy troupe called Kentucky Fried Theater. The following year, they moved the whole show over to Los Angeles, and set up Kentucky Fried Theater there, in a warehouse on Pico Boulevard.
When doing Kentucky Fried Theater, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker would leave a VCR running all night long, in order to record TV commercials which they could parody. While they were doing this, they had the idea of writing a film script – ‘The Late Show’ – which would see them doing a spoof of a movie, and then lacing it throughout with their parody ads, in order to recreate the sensation of watching something on late-night television.
It was in 1974 that the VCR caught a screening of a 1957 B-movie called Zero Hour!, about a guilt-ridden wartime pilot called Ted Stryker, who ends up having to step up and save a stricken airliner after passengers and crew alike who chose fish as their in-flight meal succumb to food poisoning. The film was rife with comedic potential, and so they chose to make this the subject of the movie at the heart of ‘The Late Show’ (also known as ‘Kentucky Fried Airplane’).
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Due to their inexperience at writing a feature-length script with a proper structure, ‘The Late Show’ had followed Zero Hour! so closely that it not only reused one of the character names, but also most of the plot, and huge verbatim chunks of dialogue. So concerned about copyright infringement, the trio decided to pay Warner Brothers and Paramount $2,500 for the rights to the script; they ended up winning a Writers Guild Award for best Adapted Screenplay.
Writer Arthur Hailey had co-adapted Zero Hour! for the big screen from a teleplay that he had penned for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the previous year. Entitled Flight Into Danger, it starred James Doohan (who became Scotty in Star Trek a decade later) as George Spencer, an ex-WWII Spitfire pilot who has to land a plane after the pilots as well as half the passengers fall ill from eating fish for dinner. It was screened by the BBC, and played a major role in CBC’s supervising producer of drama – Sydney Newman – being hired to work in the UK; after transferring to the BBC from ITV, he was responsible for devising Doctor Who.
Hailey’s teleplay was adapted into a book in 1958 by John Castle (a pen name for Ronald Payne & John Garrod), with Hailey getting co-writer credit on the novel of Flight Into Danger (retitled Runway Zero-Eight for its publication in America). Flight Into Danger was revisited in 1971, when it was remade as Terror In The Sky, a TV movie starring Doug McClure as George Spencer, with Roddy McDowall playing a doctor who happens to be onboard.
With so much of Hailey’s script having been retained by the ZAZ team, and the trio purchasing the rights, it means that Hailey has the unique distinction of in effect being the co-writer on a send-up of his own work. The 1970 adaptation of Hailey’s 1968 novel Airport helped launch the ‘disaster movie’ genre which proved so dominant during the decade, as well as spawning three sequels – Airport 1975, Airport ‘77, and The Concorde: Airport ‘79 (the latter was retitled Airport ‘80 when it came out in Australia and New Zealand, leading to Airplane! being renamed Flying High!, to avoid Antipodean confusion).
Despite pitching the script to the nearby Hollywood studios, there were no takers, so Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker were encouraged by a young director who they knew called John Landis to write a script which was based on their Kentucky Fried Theater sketches instead. Funding for this new script was raised from outside of the big studios, and John Landis took up the director‘s chair on The Kentucky Fried Movie, which hit cinemas in August of 1977.
It was the success of The Kentucky Fried Movie which led to them trying once again to get some interest in ‘The Late Show’ from Hollywood. United Artists had wanted the Zero Hour! adaptation to form the 20-minute centrepiece of a ‘Kentucky Fried Movie 2‘, much like the Kung-Fu spoof ‘A Fistful Of Yen’ had featured in The Kentucky Fried Movie; however, while touting ‘The Late Show’ about, the producer Lloyd Schwartz told ZAZ the airplane film was funnier than the mock commercials.
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As a result, the writers retooled the script, dropping all the adverts, and focusing solely on the Zero Hour! parody. The new screenplay – Airplane! – was sent round the studios, and there were some positive overtures received; however, when American International Pictures said they wanted to cast comedy actors like Dom DeLuise and Harvey Korman, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker turned them down, as they had envisioned the parts being played completely straight, by actors known for dramatic roles.
The script for Airplane! came to the attention of Paramount Pictures’ Michael Eisner (who later became CEO of The Walt Disney Company from 1984 until 2005), who found himself having a few creative tissues with the writers. When the trio advised Eisner they were adamant they wanted to make the film in black & white using a retro propellor plane (like Zero Hour!), rather than in colour with a modern jet, Eisner said they could make that movie – it just would not be made at Paramount. While they relented, they still dubbed the sound of a prop plane over the exterior shots of the jet.
Bringing the movie to life as they envisaged it proved to be one of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker‘s biggest challenges. It was Eisner’s suggestion that Barry Manilow should pilot the plane, as Manilow happened to be Eisner’s neighbour. When casting the lead role of Ted Striker, Paramount’s wanted to have somebody like Bill Murray or Chevy Chase; there were auditions by future talk show host David Letterman, as well as Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, before Robert Hays ended up getting the part, in what was his first feature film.
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As for Elaine Dickinson (named after an ex-girlfriend of one of the filmmakers), up for contention were Shelley Long and Sigourney Weaver, with Julie Hagerty ultimately landing the part. The Zuckers and Abrahams had approached a number of actors to play Doctor Rumack, including Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Jack Webb and Vince Edwards – all of them turned it down, before Leslie Nielsen took the role. Back in Wisconsin, the Rumacks had been the Zuckers’ neighbours; one of them became a doctor, and had to attend to a sick air passenger a few years after Airplane! came out.
With Lloyd Bridges’ character of Steve McCroskey, the first choice had actually been George Kennedy, who had a similar part in the Airport films; however, Kennedy decided against it, feeling that the makers of the Airport series might hold it against him if any future instalments came up. In writing the part of Captain Rex Kramer, Robert Stack was who they had in mind, basing it upon an impression of Stack by John Byner; ZAZ had to play Stack a tape of Byner impersonating him, so he could mimic it to get his performance how they had pictured it.
In Zero Hour!, the co-pilot part had been played by Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, who was an American Football player. Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker wanted to have a sportsman as their co-pilot character, Roger Murdock, and wanted to get Baseball player Pete Rose, but he was unavailable. The next choice, Basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was initially uninterested, but was looking to buy a $35,000 rug, and his agent said that Abdul-Jabbar would take the role if his fee was increased from their initial offer of $30,000, so that he could afford to purchase the rug.
The Zuckers and Abrahams had difficulties finding anyone to make the airport voiceovers at the beginning of the film sound suitably authentic, and in the end they actually hired the real-life husband and wife couple who had recorded the announcements at Los Angeles International; the duo were even given dialogue which was taken straight out of Arthur Hailey’s Airport. Elsewhere, lines from 1958’s movie Crash Landing were given to two child actors (albeit with most of it being trimmed down in editing), and a passenger being a sick little girl was an idea taken from Airport 1975.
The film was not without its controversies, as there was a protracted battle with the Directors Guild of America over there being three directors – the DGA’s rules traditionally only allowed for one, so one of the trio considered changing his name legally to ‘Zuckers and Abrahams’, to circumvent it. A joke regarding Air Poland’s pilots being blind musicians Jose Feliciano, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder was dropped, over concerns by the Anti-Defamation League in relation to the stereotyping of Polish people as incompetent.
The entire movie was shot in just 34 days, for a budget of $3.5 million; it ended up grossing $80 million, which made it the highest-grossing comedy to that point. While it was successful enough for Paramount to want a sequel, the ZAZ team were not interested; however, as their contract meant Paramount owned the original movie and characters, it was decided to proceed without their involvement, and Airplane II: The Sequel landed at cinemas in 1982, albeit to a much less enthusiastic critical and box office reception.
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Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker went on to co-create Police Squad! (along with big screen Naked Gun spin-off trilogy), as well as Val Kilmer’s film debut, the sadly underrated Top Secret!. Separately, they have brought us other spoofs in a similar vein, such as Hot Shots! (including Part Deux), and Scary Movie 3, 4 and 5. With the success of Airplane!, the floodgates were well and truly opened for a slew of similar spoofs, as well as imitators and copycats, from Robin Hood: Men In Tights and Dracula: Dead And Loving It, to efforts like Epic Movie and Superhero Movie.
Airplane! has certainly secured its place in popular culture, with so many quotable lines, like the “Don’t call me Shirley” joke; the movie has been referenced in other films like Ted and Just Friends, as well as TV shows such as Supernatural (‘Don’t Call Me Shurley’) and Family Guy (‘Airport ‘07’). For a pre-flight safety video in 2014, Delta included a number of ‘80s icons, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a pilot; he also returned to the cockpit the same year, alongside Robert Hays and Otto the autopilot (with David Zucker directing) in a series of adverts for Travel Wisconsin.
40 years later, Airplane! is just as sharp and funny as ever, and set a course for many who have followed, but few have truly equalled. Well, it looks like I picked the wrong week to give up praising Airplane!. Now, do you like movies about gladiators?
Airplane! Was released in the UK on 7th August 1980.