Imitation is considered the sincerest form of flattery, but when it comes to parody, that’s a bit more hit-or-miss. This is particularly evident within the parody-film genre, which has been watered down by movie studios looking for ways to cash in on the latest pop culture phenomenon without having any particular comedic aspirations, resulting in critically-maligned efforts which have a limited shelf life and rarely rise above the level of lowbrow. But it wasn’t always this way.
In 1980, a trio of gentlemen from Wisconsin - Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker - took a cast of predominantly non-comedic actors, put a parodic spin on the disaster-film genre, and created a film which not only made moviegoers howl with laughter but also earned critical acclaim. Airplane! celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, and if you happen to be in Nashville this weekend, you’ll have a chance to catch the film flying high on the big screen once again: The Wild West Comedy Festival will be holding a screening at The Belcourt on Saturday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m., after which special guests David and Jerry Zucker will participate in a Q&A.
In an effort to increase awareness of the screening as well as apply salve to the wound of those who aren’t able to attend, we spoke with as many people involved in Airplane! as we possibly could—including the Zuckers, Jim Abrahams, and cast members Robert Hays, Frank Ashmore, Al White, Lee Bryant, Ross Harris, Jill Whelan, Maureen McGovern, David Leisure, Gregory Itzin, Marcy Goldman, and Jimmie Walker—and asked them to reflect on their experiences while making the film as well as their astonishment that audiences still love Airplane! Sadly, Otto declined to go on the record with his reminiscences, but those who were willing to open up had quite a story to tell, which you can read straight through or use the section guide on the right to flip around.
“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking…”
Jim Abrahams (director/co-writer): The way we used to get material for Kentucky Fried Theater was like seining for fish: We’d throw our net out at night and just record stuff—whatever was on TV, it didn’t matter—so that we’d have grist to make fun of. And one morning we just got to work and there was Zero Hour!
Jerry Zucker (director/co-writer): We’d never heard of Zero Hour! before then, and at first we were probably sort of just fast-forwarding to the commercials, or maybe looking at but mostly just waiting for the commercials—but then we started really watching it and getting into the movie. And, you know, Zero Hour! actually works. It was written by Arthur Hailey, who also wrote Airport. You could teach film structure using Zero Hour. It’s a perfectly classically structured film.
Abrahams: It’s like a classic three-act play: You meet a guy in the first act, you throw stones at him in the second act, and in the third act everything is resolved.
David Zucker (director/co-writer): Since we did Airplane! we’ve never had as good of a plot as that. [Laughs.] The first draft of the script came in either 1974 or 1975. It was after we had done our first live show. We used to have a theater on Pico Boulevard called Kentucky Fried Theater, and I think after the first show, which was called “Vegetables,” we did a second show and cast other people so we didn’t have to be onstage, and that’s when we started writing Airplane! That would’ve been ’75, I think.
J. Zucker: We had an early script before we made Kentucky Fried Movie, but… it was not good. [Laughs.] It’s a good thing it didn’t get made.
D. Zucker: I think it featured Beaver and Wally flying down the plane.
J. Zucker: Something like that. It had some of the great jokes from the movie, but it really was nowhere near what it needed to be.
Abrahams: Our first draft of Airplane! had fake commercials throughout it, because we didn’t realize at first just how strong a story Arthur Hailey had written. We weren’t screenwriters at all—we were joke writers—so we really stuck to the plot of Zero Hour! In fact, we actually ended up optioning the rights to the film. I guess we must’ve gotten some advice from our attorney. [Laughs.] But I remember we had to find out what the legal definition of “parody” was, and as I recall, the legal thing was that you could take plot and occasional dialogue. But we were so close to Zero Hour! that we knew it never would’ve passed muster.
J. Zucker: Actually, it’s funny: we bought the rights to do a remake or whatever, and now it’s getting harder and harder to do that, but even though we didn’t have a lot of money at the time—this was before we were at Paramount—they gave it to us for very little.
D. Zucker: It was probably $2,500 or something.
J. Zucker: Not a lot. But Warners owned Zero Hour! and then we found out after the lawyers dug into it that, uh-oh, they only owned half of it, and someone else owns the other half. But it turned out that the studio that owned the other half was Paramount!
Abrahams: I know we didn’t appreciate it at the time, but over the years we found that the jokes in the scenes that stayed closest to the plot of Zero Hour! were the ones that stuck around. Meanwhile, some of the other jokes that we thought were great but which didn’t have that much to do with the plot, they just sort of fell by the wayside.
J. Zucker: It was a major struggle to get Airplane! greenlit. There was a little bit of interest here and there, but nobody was biting. And then we made Kentucky Fried Movie. As soon as the check cleared for that, we stopped doing the live show and we got a little bungalow up in Santa Monica and wrote Airplane! And then we took it out and shopped it, at which point we got turned down by all the studios until we finally got to Paramount.
Abrahams: We were sort of credible after Kentucky Fried Movie, but we attached ourselves as directors, so that was a dealbreaker in most places. But we shopped it everywhere. Somebody told me that they’d read a copy of the screenplay. I said, “Oh, yeah? Where’d you find it?” And they said, “I found it on a bus.” [Laughs.] I think that’s probably actually a true story, because there were copies all over the place.
D. Zucker: It was really only one person who saved us and got Airplane! made, and that was Michael Eisner at Paramount.
J. Zucker: Well, Eisner and [Jeffrey] Katzenberg.
D. Zucker: Eisner and Katzenberg, yeah. Eisner heard about the script, called Katzenberg, and asked him to call these guys who did this Airplane! script, whatever it is, and have them in the office on Monday. And that’s how we ended up at Paramount.
J. Zucker: Eisner was having dinner with a woman named Susan Baerwald, who at the time was a reader for United Artists, and they were friends. And he asked her, “So what have you read that you liked?” And she said, “Well, there’s this one script that United Artists passed on, but I thought it was really, really funny.” And she told them a little bit about it, and I think Eisner just thought, “A comedy on an airplane? That’s a good idea!” So they immediately had it tracked down, and then we got a call from Katzenberg, saying, “Come on in, we want to hear about this.”
Abrahams: Even when Paramount were expressing interest and were willing to take a shot on us as directors, at the same time there was a company called Avco Embassy—I think Bob Rehme ran it back then—and they were equally interested and actually offered us a little more money for it. So one weekend, David and Jerry and I kind of decided we’d take off in order to make the decision whether we were going to go with Avco and Paramount, and we just anguished over it.
We spent a lot of time weighing pros and cons of both the companies. In fact, at one point, we said, “We’re definitely going with Avco.” It just seemed like the better decision. So we called up Jeffrey Katzenberg to tell him, and I don’t think the conversation was five minutes. But at the end of the conversation, we were at Paramount. He was really good. [Laughs.] And, of course, we’re forever grateful that he changed our minds.
D. Zucker: Landing at Paramount turned out to be such a great thing. I remember at the time we had a lot of fears that the studio would try to rewrite it and ruin it, but instead they really helped us. Katzenberg took us through a rewrite, and it was at Paramount that we added all of those flashbacks. They also helped us develop the love story.
Abrahams: I’m not sure when the commercials from the original draft went away, but the Paramount executives were very helpful in making sure we stuck to the plot while trimming away some of the excess stuff.
J. Zucker: We were so fortunate to have had Zero Hour! as our blueprint, because we really knew nothing about film structure. We were funny guys, but we knew nothing about crafting a movie. The people at Paramount really taught us about making plot points into jokes, about making jokes into plot points, and showed us places where we were probably taking too much time with plot and needed to make cuts.
We were influenced by many things, but certainly by MAD magazine. There was a regular feature in MAD – I think it still may be today – called “Scenes We’d Like to See,” and the way they’d do it was to have each panel leading up to the final panel be completely straight, nothing was silly, and the characters weren’t caricature-y, and then in the last panel they’d make the joke and sort of pull the rug out from under you. We always felt we’d learned subliminally from that. So we cast straight actors and used serious music, and instead of having silly sets, we put it on a real airplane. That kind of stuff allowed us to get more ridiculous with the jokes.
J. Zucker: With the music, we told Elmer Bernstein, “Look, we don’t want any of this Magnificent Seven garbage.” [Laughs.] “We’re looking for a really great B-movie score.” And he got it. The thing about Elmer that we loved was that he had a great sense of humor, and he would watch scenes when we would, just to talk about the music.
Abrahams: We screened it for a preview audience when we were cutting it, when there was a temp score on it, but when we showed it to Elmer, I remember him laughing through the whole movie.
J. Zucker: But on the 10th viewing, he’d still be cackling. He was a comedy writer’s dream, in a sense. [Laughs.] But he understood what he was doing. He understood the tone of the film, and I think he wrote a fantastic score.
Abrahams: The way it was cast, the way it looked, the way it was shot, the whole B-movie attitude… Elmer completely got it.
D. Zucker: He’d done so many serious films, but then suddenly he does Animal House and Airplane! and for decades afterward he’s the comedy composer!
J. Zucker: Paramount wanted… Well, they suggested that we could use a lot of the people that they had in TV shows on the lot – you know, the comedy people of the day – but we were so intent on keeping it serious. But they were so great that we tried to compromise with them as much as we felt we could. Oh, but one thing that we didn’t want to bend on was that we had originally written the movie to be on a prop plane, because that was Zero Hour! and to us, that was an aspect of the ‘50s drama that made it so epic.
D. Zucker: We also wanted to shoot it in black and white.
J. Zucker: Yeah, originally. But Eisner said, “If you do it at Paramount, it’s got to be on a jet plane and in color.” That’s where he put his foot down. That, and color versus black and white—I might be wrong, but my recollection is that that one wasn’t as big a deal.
D. Zucker: Yeah, that wasn’t as big a deal as the prop plane.
J. Zucker: But if you can believe it, there was actually a moment where the three of us were kind of going, “God, should we do it? Should we not? I mean, will it work?” And he was completely correct.
D. Zucker: The most amazing thing is the way Eisner handled the situation. We had this meeting with him on Friday where we really put our foot down, and we explained why it was correct to have this thing on a prop plane and in black and white.” And he listened very politely, and when we were done, he said, “Well, you’ve stated your case very well. In fact, you may be right, and you may go on to make this movie in black and white and on a prop plane, and it may be very successful. But it won’t be at this studio.” That’s what he said. And so there’s this silence, and then I think he broke it. He said, “Why don’t you guys think it over, and then we’ll talk again on Monday.” He was so good at handling us. Of course, on Monday, we said, “Okay, we’re fine.”
J. Zucker: The amazing thing is how young and naive we were. Also, for guys who hadn’t really done much of anything in the movie business—I don’t know if the word is “pigheaded,” but we were very—
D. Zucker: Determined.
J. Zucker: Determined and obsessed with our own vision of the movie. Which is partly good, but you’ve got to listen to logic, too. I think we probably just said, “All right, all right, we can’t hold out for this,” and we figured out that we could still do it, and they were giving us Stack and Bridges and all the serious guys. Also, it wasn’t like there were other studios clamoring to make the movie. So we said, “Yes.” But we’ve spoken to Eisner since then and thanked him more than once for being firm about that, because he was absolutely right.
D. Zucker: But, you know, the punchline to the whole story is that if you watch the movie, the sound is that of a piston engine. It’s subtle, but—
J. Zucker: No, it’s not.
Corralling The Cast
“I want the best available man on this. A man who knows this plane inside and out and won’t crack under pressure.”
J. Zucker: Paramount would suggest actors like Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, but I have to say, they never really insisted or tried to bully us at all with the casting. It was just that that was how comedies were made then—and now, I guess.
Abrahams: There was some resistance, though. I specifically remember Dom Deluise as a suggestion for the doctor [Leslie Nielsen’s role], and I specifically remember Barry Manilow as a suggestion for Ted Striker. But the key to the whole Airplane! concept and to our shared sense of humor was to do everything straight, so we did.
J. Zucker: So we went about our business casting Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and they didn’t say anything. The main thing that we could see was that the casting director was getting increasingly annoyed. He was a great guy, but I remember when Leslie’s name came up, he just said, “Leslie Nielsen? Leslie Nielsen is the guy you cast the night before!” [Laughs.] And here we were probably six weeks out from shooting. But we were thrilled to get Leslie. At the time, I think people recognized his face for having been in hundreds of television and movie roles but didn’t necessarily know his name.
Abrahams: Robert Stack was the linchpin in our minds to the straight casting.
D. Zucker: I think Robert Stack was the only one who was our first choice.
J. Zucker: Yeah, we actually wrote it with him in mind, for that role.
D. Zucker: In fact, even before we did Kentucky Fried Movie, we called his agent and we said, “We have a great role for him.” Because we’d written the script. But we didn’t have the financing, so I remember the guy said, “Is this a go picture?” And our reply was, “What’s a go picture?” And then he said, “Come back when you have the money.”
J. Zucker: So we were really excited when we got Stack, because we had always had him in mind. And as far as the others… Well, obviously, in the end, we think we ended up with the perfect people, but that’s happened with almost every movie I’ve ever done, and I’m sure it’s the same with David, and with Jim, too: You have your eye set on one actor, and then they turn it down, and you end up getting someone who becomes your first choice. I think for almost every movie where we wanted to cast a straight actor in a funny role, we went to Charlton Heston first. He always very politely turned us down. It wasn’t his interest.
Abrahams: I just don’t think it was his sense of humor. He was would always be very polite about the way he’d dump on us, but dump he did. [Laughs.] George Kennedy we always liked, and we offered the McCroskey role to George Kennedy, but he was doing the Airport movies at the time, and that was a big deal. We weren’t offering a lot of money. We were a little film.
D. Zucker: I think George wanted to do it. I think Universal stepped in.
J. Zucker: Yeah, he asked them if it was all right. He wanted to check. And whether it was Universal or the producers of that movie, they said, “No, no, don’t do that.” They didn’t want him to spoil his image in an airplane comedy. Beyond who we got, though, we really didn’t go to that many people. We were pretty lucky. One thing that was helpful was that the studio put Howard W. Koch on as a producer on the film. At first, we were, like, “Oh, God, they’re putting this old guy on. What’s that gonna be like?”
D. Zucker: Of course, he was younger than we are now!
J. Zucker: But that turned out to be the best thing they could’ve ever done, because he was really helpful. First of all, we all just totally loved Howard, and we all got along great. He was a wonderful guy, and he taught us a lot. But in addition, he knew all these guys, and he had credibility. In other words, if it was just some independent shoot with a bunch of guys, maybe not, but Howard could call their agents and say, “These are good guys, and it’s a really funny script.”
D. Zucker: Well, I think the scariest thing for an actor facing possibly being cast in the movie was that we were first-time directors, and there were three directors. So it sounded kind of crazy, and Howard really kind of signed for us. He said, “These guys are gonna be okay.”
Abrahams: I always felt that part of what made it so endearing to have those guys in the movie was that everyone knew that Stack and Bridges and Leslie and Peter Graves were having a laugh at the expense of their own images. That kind of self-effacing humor is endearing, and as we reflect on Airplane! and the fact that it’s lived so long, I think that’s part of the reason why: It’s not really mean-spirited, it’s actually sort of sweet.
J. Zucker: Everyone was terrific, really, but Leslie was the one who was just a fish in water. Leslie just loved it, every minute of it, and practically didn’t need direction, because once he got what we were doing, that was just his thing. He loved it.
D. Zucker: You know, my memory is that we actually showed Leslie the video of Zero Hour!
J. Zucker: Yeah. The first rehearsal, for some reason, he was off. It wasn’t working quite right. Something was wrong, and we were trying to explain it to him, so we showed him this doctor in Zero Hour! We showed him the whole movie, and he got it. He said, “Okay, now I get this.” And he was perfect.
Robert Hays (“Ted Striker”): Leslie Nielsen had done sophisticated comedies, he’d been a leading man, and he’d played a lot of bad guys, especially on TV, but he’d always wanted to be really goofy, and he needed somebody to give him a shot. And those guys, they not only opened the door for him, but they pushed him through. That’s the way he always said it, anyway.
J. Zucker: Leslie is different than all the rest of those guys because Leslie really was always a closet comedian. The amazing thing is that he could’ve done all those dramas for all those years.
Hays: I remember rehearsing one day—they had a little rehearsal room with a hardwood floor, mirrors around, and a dance bar around the edges so that no matter what you were going to rehearse, you’d be ready—and we were rehearsing a bit with Julie Hagerty and me, and then Lloyd Bridges and Bob Stack in the control tower. And I remember Lloyd being kind of a little frustrated and confused, and being, like, “What the hell’s going on here?” [Laughs.] Because it was so stupid! It was so crazy, and he didn’t quite get it. But Bob got it. He just got it right off, and I remember him saying, “Ah, c’mon, Lloyd: They just want us to be… us!” And the boys are over off the side, thinking, “Well, Lloyd’s kind of getting upset,” but when Bob said that, Lloyd kind of went, “Oh, well, all right, I’ll try it.” And then he got into it, and he was great.
Abrahams: I wound up making three more movies with Lloyd, and we’d kind of become buddies and gotten friendly, so on the last one—we’d already worked together on the two Hot Shots! movies, so this was for Jane Austen’s Mafia!—I called him up, and I said, “Hey, Lloyd, this is Jim Abrahams. We just finished a script.” And he said, “Yeah…?” Like, “Right, and so why are you calling me?” So I said, “And, you know, we wanted to pitch it to you, since we’ve worked together on Airplane! and Hot Shots! and everything.” And he said, “Oh! Oh! I thought you said you were Jim Nabors!” [Laughs.] So he was, like, “Why is Jim Nabors calling to pitch me a script?” I guess that’s what I get for slurring my words.
Finding Ted Striker
“Striker, you’re coming in too fast!”
D. Zucker: You know who came in to read for Ted Striker? Bruce Jenner came in to read.
J. Zucker: That’s right. That was funny. And David Letterman tested, too. Letterman was really funny, because… I’m not sure why he tested. I think maybe his agents pushed him to come in or something, because he really didn’t want to. It’s funny, because Letterman’s a satirist and a comic, and he doesn’t take himself seriously enough, in a way, to be an actor.
D. Zucker: Yeah, he didn’t want to be an actor, although—I don’t know if you remember, but he actually came in to read for Kentucky Fried Movie.
J. Zucker: Oh, did he really? I’d forgotten about that!
D. Zucker: Yeah. So we knew him from then, and every time he came in to read, he would have us cracked up for five or 10 minutes before he actually went through with the reading.
J. Zucker: I think acting, to David, there’s something phony about it. I don’t know if he thinks about it that way, but I just feel it’s not his thing. But he actually wasn’t bad. He’s just not an actor. He looked great, and his comic delivery for all those lines was good, but I’ll never forget when we were on the set and did a screen test with him. One of his managers was there, and I sort of came up to him with a big, optimistic smile and said, “Well, I think we’re making an actor out of him!” And his manager’s response was, “Fat chance.” [Laughs.] I must’ve drawn the short straw—and I say that because nobody wants to tell someone that they didn’t get the role—but I ended up being the one to call David and tell him. And he was just relieved. I’ve never seen an actor so happy to be told that he didn’t get the role. A few years later, though, we ended up going on Late Night With David Letterman, all three of us, and we showed the clip of his screen test for Airplane!.
Abrahams: David Letterman is a guy who’s brilliant at being a talk show and a stand-up. In fact, we went and watched him do stand-up before he came in, when he was at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and he was so good, especially when this one heckler started to get on him. He was so good, you almost couldn’t laugh. He was jaw-dropping. So he clearly was—and is—a brilliant guy… and clearly was not an actor. But he’s managed to do okay. [Laughs.] But I remember that when Bob Hays came in, we just thought he was perfect.
J. Zucker: Robert Hays was on Angie at the time, which was a Paramount series, but I think maybe that was a coincidence, because Bob’s agent… I don’t know if she knew Howard or just came into the office, but she said, “Hey, how about Bob Hays for this Airplane! movie you’re doing?” And I remember Howard bringing in Bob’s photo-on-resume, the typical 8 by 10 thing, and he plunked it down and he said, “Hey, what do you think about this guy?” I mean, Howard didn’t particularly know him. I don’t even know if he’d seen Angie. But at that point, we just hadn’t found anyone, so it was, like, “Sure, he looks nice. Bring him in!” [Laughs.] But I don’t think he was ever, like, the great hope. Like, “God, this guy could really be it!” He was just Tuesday at 10 o’clock. But then he came in, and it was like, “Thank God!”
Robert Hays: What actually happened with me was that my agent, Arnie Soloway, had a new agent that’d just come into his office—her name was Beth Voiku—and she had worked a bit in the past with Howard Koch, so she called up Howard. The guys had already been to New York and Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle, all over the place, looking for their Ted Striker. So when she called Howard and said, “I’ve got your Ted Striker!” he said, “Bring him in!” So she brought me in, and I met with the boys and Howard, and we all got along well, and I read for them, and they liked my reading. And then they had me do a screen test, and fortunately I got to do the screen test with Julie Hagerty, so they liked the screen test. And then they came over to me—I was filming Angie at the time—and they came backstage and said, “Okay, you’re it! You’re the one we want!” And it was funny, because all four of us were jumping up and down like silly kids. “You got it!” “That’s great!” It was just very silly.
But after all the jumping up and down, they told me as they left, “You know, we ought to watch this show Angie that you’re doing. We haven’t even seen it yet!” So they watched it, but, of course, that’s a three-camera, live-audience show, which is totally different style of acting from film. So after they went home and watched it, they said, “Uh-oh. We made a big mistake.” [Laughs.] But then we got on the set, and I guess my true lunacy came out, which was pretty much along the same lines as theirs—I was twisted from way back—and every day, Beth Voiku, because she’d gotten me over there, she’d come by and visit the set all the time, and she said that every day they were running up to her and saying, “Oh, thank God you brought him in! Thank God you brought him in!” And that made me feel great.
Airplane! was also my first feature film, and it was when I was right in the middle of doing Angie. In fact, it was supposed to be in the summer break between the first and second seasons, but it ended up overlapping with the second season by two weeks, so I was doing both Angie and Airplane! for those two weeks. Up until that time, I don’t ever remember being that exhausted. I mean, it was unbelievably exhausting.
I’d come in, start rehearsing Angie, we’d have the read-through and start blocking it, and then we’d break for lunch. And when we broke for lunch, I’d literally just start running for the door, someone would throw me a little sandwich wrapped in a Ziploc baggie, and then I’d eat that while we’re driving across the lot to the other side of Paramount, where we were doing the dance sequence in the bar for Airplane! And we’d be doing that ’til the Angie set called to say, “Okay, we’re back, so we need him back.” And they’d say, “Yeah, okay!” And we’d keep filming. And they’d call again and say, “Okay, we’re back! We need him!” “Okay!” [Laughs.] And we’d keep filming! And pretty soon they’d call and say, “Goddammit, we need him back here!” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, okay.” And then finally I’d go back, and they’re all grumbling. So we keep rehearsing, and then I’d go back over and we’d keep filming on Airplane! And then I’d finally get home late, get up the next morning, go in, and start doing Angie, and then during the lunch break I’d make a mad dash for the door again.
Oh, it was amazing. And it was incredibly fun. But I was complaining that I was so exhausted. I mean, it was the kind of exhaustion where you feel like you’ll never recover. You need to sleep for three years straight, and then maybe you’ll feel a little bit better. It’s like being up for days and starting to be sleep-deprived. And Sharon Spelman, who played my sister on Angie, said, “I don’t want to hear about it!” Because it was a film. I was doing a film! It was, like, “You lucky asshole, I don’t want hear a word. Shut up!” [Laughs.] And then when it was over with and it was just Angie, it was, like, “Ahhhhhhh…” I just wanted to lay down and collapse, but I had to keep working on Angie. But even at that, it was just so much fun.
What You See Is What You Get
“Can you tell me if Elaine Dickinson is on this flight?”
J. Zucker: When we were casting for the role of Elaine, we were doing auditions at Paramount in New York, and a number of people came in, one of which was Sigourney Weaver, actually.
D. Zucker: She was dressed in a full-on 1940s stewardess costume, made up and everything. I remember she said she didn’t want to do the line, “Sit on your face and wriggle.”
J. Zucker: Did she really? I don’t remember that. You know, had we only known then that she was Sigourney Weaver, we could’ve at least had our photos taken or something. [Laughs.] Julie Hagerty came in to audition in New York, too, and she was really nervous, but we did our usual hellos, and then she read, and that was it.
Abrahams: Linda Darnell played Julie’s role in Zero Hour! so I think we had more of a Linda Darnell type in mind for the part. [Laughs.] But, you know, you can have whatever you want in mind, but when an actor like Julie comes in and reads, she was so endearing, so sweet, and so sincere that my recollection is that we all instantly liked her a lot.
J. Zucker: I don’t think it was even much of a debate at all. It was just, like, “Oh, my God, she’s perfect!”
D. Zucker: Yeah, we did not direct her to do it that way. She’s just that way.
Lee Bryant (“Mrs. Hammen”): I remember that Julie was kind of a brand-new baby actor at the time, and they didn’t ever want her to see dailies, because they were afraid she’d figure out what she was doing. [Laughs.] She was so brilliant, so instinctive, and so funny that they were scared she might change something!
Hays: I didn’t know Julie at all. I think she had done some commercials and maybe one off-off-off-Broadway show—or maybe farther off-Broadway than that! [Laughs.] But I didn’t know anything about her. I’d never even heard of her. But she was just perfect. I can’t imagine anybody being more perfect for that role. She’s just the sweetest thing on the planet. She still is. And she still looks the same! It’s amazing. People ask, “What was she like?” And I say that there’s one scene which describes what she’s like more than anything else to me, but it’s not in the film. The scene is, but what happened isn’t.
We were filming right behind the cockpit, we were standing there, and it was a two shot, with both of us standing in profile, talking to each other. They said, “Action!” We started to film, and as we went along, she flubbed a line, and they said, “Cut!” And she said, with that little voice of hers, “I’m sorry.” “No, no, no, Julie, that’s okay, don’t worry about it. Script! Have you got her line for her?” And she said, “I’m sorry.” “Don’t worry about it! That’s okay!” And so they went over the line, and she said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got it. I’m just… I’m so sorry.” “No, don’t worry about it, Julie!”
Now, I was doing Angie at the time, and we’d have guest stars coming on and doing parts and bits, and if they blew a line, it was in front of the cameras, the crew and everybody, and also 300 or however many people in the audience. So the very next take, I’d blow a line, just to make them feel better. I’d say, “It’s contagious!” or “It’s all your fault!” or some goofy thing, and they’d laugh. Because I know what it’s like. You want everybody in your corner that you can get when you’re odd man out, when you’ve just come in as an outsider onto a show, so that was just kind of something that I’d do.
So I may have done that with Julie, or I may have just been a little bit distracted by something, but Julie and I started again, and I blew a line. Or I think maybe I knew I wasn’t quite there with the take, so I just blew it on purpose. But either way, I blew it, and they said, “Cut!” And she said, “I’m sorry!” “No, no, no, Julie, that wasn’t you. That was Bob.” And she said, “Oh.” And then she said, “I’m sorry.” [Laughs.] It was so cute!
She was so sweet. I remember one time some guy came to the set to take her to lunch—it was, like, a lunch date—and Jerry and David and Jim and I, the four of us, stood there at the big soundstage door that was open, and we said [Gruffly.] “All right, now, you have her back at such and such a time.” We were like dads with shotguns. “Now you be nice, and you take care of her, and you have her back on time.”
Abrahams: What you see on-screen, that’s Julie. She was so unique and beautiful and innocent.
Filling Out The Cast
“Wait a minute, I know you! You’re Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!”
J. Zucker: When we offered the role [of Murdock] to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I think we offered him $30,000, and then the agent asked for $35,000 because that’s how much this rug cost that Kareem wanted to buy. It was an oriental rug—an art piece, not one to walk on, I don’t think—so our initial reaction was, “That’s got to be the best line we’ve ever heard from an agent.” It was like, “Boy, this guy’s really creative!” But then a couple of weeks later, there’s an article in Time with a picture of Kareem standing in front of the oriental rug that he’d bought for $35,000 after we’d paid him.
D. Zucker: That was another lucky break that we got, because Kareem himself was not the first choice for that role. We actually wrote it for Pete Rose.
Abrahams: I’m not sure if Pete Rose actually accepted the role or not, or if we’d even gotten the green light from Paramount to use him. We may never have even sent him the script. I just know that we ended up having to film in August, so he was still in the middle of baseball season.
I couldn’t even have told you if Kareem had even done any acting at that point, but he was fine. I mean, he couldn’t have been better in a million years as far as being what we were looking for. He wasn’t supposed to be able to act. [Laughs.] So that just played into it all the more. But he’s a really bright, fascinating man. He’s the original Renaissance man and just a very interesting guy. Basketball never defined him, ever. Not even during his heyday. He was about a lot more stuff than just basketball.
Frank Ashmore (“Victor Basta”): The Lakers had just won the championship, and Kareem was the MVP, so he was a big deal. But I had no idea he was on the film until he got there. I had arrived for my call time that day, and there he was! I don’t even think I looked at the call sheet: I just walked up, and there he was, standing there in his airline uniform. I was just, like, “Oh, my God, this is so cool! This is awesome!” He’s a very kind, gentle, gracious man. He’s somewhat shy, though, to tell you the truth. Although maybe “humbleness” would be the word you’d use to describe Kareem after meeting him for the first time. But he was always very available, and he was just a really cool guy. Putting Kareem in the cockpit was a hilarious sight gag to begin with, a 7 foot 2 man trying to make his way into that space, but then having to pull him out, with his jock strap hanging down through his jersey. It was just absolutely hilarious stuff.
J. Zucker: Maureen McGovern, who played the nun, was another second choice. Our initial choice was Helen Reddy, who was in the Airport movies.
Maureen McGovern (“Sister Angelina”): My manager, Ron Barron, saw a blurb in one of the trade papers saying that Paramount and ZAZ were looking for someone to play the role of Sister Angelina in a tongue-in-cheek disaster film. The article indicated that Helen Reddy was to play the singing nun as a send-up of her role as Sister Ruth in Airport ’74 but had to bow out due to contractual commitments, but recently I listened to an interview with ZAZ where they said that Universal threatened to sue them if they used Helen as the nun.
D. Zucker: Helen Reddy loved the script and wanted to do it, but—again—Universal stepped in. They were very nervous about us doing a parody of their Airport series.
McGovern: After reading the blurb, my manager immediately called ZAZ’s production office and spoke with Betty Moss, their assistant, who happened to be a big fan of of mine, and she quickly set up a meeting for me on set with Howard Koch and Jerry Zucker the following day. So thank you, Betty!
The Friday meeting with Howard and “The Boys,” as ZAZ were called on the lot, was quick and pleasant. Given that I’m a survivor of—and a refugee from—the Catholic school experience, I knew from nuns. Eight years of them! I also played guitar, which was required. So I was given the script and asked to learn “Respect” and “I Enjoy Being A Girl” and be ready to shoot with guitar in hand on Monday. I was thrilled. Beyond thrilled. I felt like it was a fitting and hilarious end to my “Disaster Theme Queen” decade.
Bryant: It was just an audition. I read for them, I got called back a couple of times, and I got the part. I hadn’t done that many films at that point – I think I’d done maybe one other feature –but I was doing a lot of television and a lot of commercials. In fact, I don’t know that they knew this, but I’d actually done one of those (Yuban Coffee) commercials that one of my scenes was based on. I never actually told them that I’d done one, though, so I don’t think they ever knew!
I was thrilled to do it, and it was great fun, but I remember we were all being paid scale. Nobody was being paid any money at all, because it was – for its time – a low-budget movie. I was sitting on the plane next to Nick Pryor, who played my husband and who I’d known and worked with before, and Nick had been doing a lot of features and had a nice career going, so I said, “Well, I know I need the feature credit, so that’s why I’m doing this, but how come you’re doing this?” [Laughs.] And he said, “Because I read the script, and I figured that it will simply have served us all very well in our lives to have done this movie.”
Ross Harris (“Joey”): I was a child actor, I did a ton of commercials and a lot of the basic TV stuff, like Little House On The Prairie, CHiPs, Love Boat, and that kind of stuff, so Airplane! was just another call, like any other call. I went to Paramount Studios, read a couple of times, and got the part. That was just my life back then: trying out for basically anything. I guess the whole idea was to push the acting towards the broadest, most “gee golly whiz” acting in the world, which I was very well trained in from doing a ton of commercials for Band Aids and Ovaltine and all that kind of stuff. So it was definitely in my wheelhouse to go broad. [Laughs.]
Bryant: Oh, he was so cute. He was just darling. [Laughs.] And Nick and I were always a little bit concerned about him. We kind of got into being his parents, because, you know, there were blue things happening! So we were always kind of putting our hands over his ears. But he just had the best attitude, and he was hard-working and adorable. He couldn’t have been cuter. Nick and I kept saying, “Is he going to be some creepy little Hollywood kid actor who’s going to sneak out at some point?” But he never did. He was just exactly what you saw on the screen.
J. Zucker: We wrote Ethel Merman’s part especially for her, and that’s a joke that—I guess it still would’ve worked with others, but it was really all about Ethel Merman. Anyone else would’ve paled. There’s just something about her. And she was great. I think Howard Koch had known her or met her before, so that was another one that he was able to help with.
D. Zucker: Howard knew everyone.
J. Zucker: So she came, and whatever her deal was, it was reasonable, as far as her travel and accommodations and all that kind of stuff. But the one thing she insisted on was her own hair person to do her hair. So if you look at her hair in the movie—
D. Zucker: The movie was made in the ’80s, but she was in the ’60s.
J. Zucker: Yeah, right. [Laughs.] But she was delightful. And to tell you the truth, she was one of those people where it was worth it just to get to meet her. It was really a sweet treat.
D. Zucker: And that also started our string of many actors with whom we did their last film, and then they’d die. [Laughs.] We also did that with John Houseman and Rodney Dangerfield!
Abrahams: Stephen Stucker [who played Johnny] came into the mix because he was part of the Kentucky Fried Theater.
J. Zucker: He was like Julie: What you saw was what you got.
Abrahams: He wrote his own lines that were in the Airplane! script, and one of them was actually from something he used to do for the Theater. There’s no way I can do it justice, so I’ll just try to explain it. I think what remained in the movie was him saying, “Me John, Big Tree.” That was the front end of a joke that he used to do, where he’d say, “Me John, Big Tree,” then he’d put his arms out like he was a big tree, and then he’d get down on his knees and put his ear to the ground and say, “Wagon train comes three, maybe four day away,” like how the Native Americans in the old Westerns used to put their ear to the ground to hear what was coming. Anyway, he did it really funny, and it must not have gotten a laugh when we previewed it, but we’ve talked even in recent years about how it’s too bad we cut that, because it was a really good joke, and he was great.
J. Zucker: We met Jonathan Banks [who played Gunderson] because we had the same law firm, so our attorney said, “Hey, what do you think of this guy?” And he put a picture down, and—once again—you can’t tell anything from a picture, so we said, “Sure, have him come in.” And I remember his reading was just perfect for what we were looking for. He was great.
Ashmore: I was aware of Kentucky Fried Movie, although I hadn’t seen it. But I’d heard it was funny, and I’d also heard of Kentucky Fried Theater and that they were doing some really funny sketch comedy stuff, so they were on my radar. My audition for Airplane! was pretty standard: My agent at the time submitted me, and I was brought in. The role of Victor didn’t have a whole lot of dialogue attached to it, so I did some improv with Jerry and David, and they all seemed to love it. The next thing I knew, I’d gotten an offer. I guess I was what they were looking for: a good-looking blond guy to be in the cockpit with Peter. And it’s never spoken, but…only your imagination can tell you what that relationship might’ve been about. [Laughs.]
Old Friends, New Faces, And Untested Directors
“First, I want you to familiarize yourself with the controls. Later we’ll run through the landing procedure.”
Hays: Whenever David, Jerry, and Jim are asked how challenging it was for all three of them to direct the film, they always answer at the same time, each talking about something completely different. [Laughs.] But it was actually very smooth. Jim and David were either in a little booth or, if we were on location, in a tiny little trailer with a monitor inside. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked through a camera when you’re doing a film or a television series, but you see a large border around the area, so the camera operator can see something that’s going to be coming into frame, so he’s not taken by surprise. And he can also see if something’s coming up to frame but doesn’t quite get into frame, so it’s not in the shot, but he can tell how far out it was. Rather than confuse the guys with that, what they did was take black tape and tape off the monitor so it was just what we the audience would see up on screen. David was out with the camera, yelling, “Cut!” and talking with the actors, then after he’d say, “Cut!” the three of them would get together. “How was that?” “Oh, I thought it was great. “”Well, that didn’t come in enough.” “Okay, then let’s shoot it again!” Or, “Yeah, it was great for us!” “Okay, that’s good. Let’s print it and move on!” They’re like three bodies with one brain, because they think so much alike, but they’re all so different, and they bring those differences and all their different flavors into the comedy. I just can’t say enough good stuff about them. They’re great.
Marcy Goldman (“Mrs. Geline”): I went to high school and college with the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams. There are a lot of people in the film who were old friends of David’s and Jim’s and Jerry’s. When they first brought the film up to me, they said that they wanted me for the role of Mrs. Hammond, which was a much larger role. But the problem they had was that they were nobodies at the time. They only they had going for them was Kentucky Fried Movie, which had done well, but it still wasn’t enough for a studio like Paramount to put tons of money into a cast filled with people who didn’t have a lot of credits. So they ended up going with Lee Bryant for Mrs. Hammond, and that was fine. I was just thrilled to death to be a part of it. Of course, they wound up cutting about three-quarters of what we shot, which is to be expected, but it was still a lot of fun.
Gregory Itzin (“Religious Zealot #1”): Airplane! was my first film. I happened to have gone to college with the Zucker brothers. They were recently out in Los Angeles, where they’d done Kentucky Fried Movie, but they started doing Kentucky Fried Theater back in Wisconsin, at the University Of Wisconsin. They were sort of a crazy bunch. I did Guys And Dolls with them back at college and that sort of stuff. But once they were out here, I got a call to go for Airplane! and I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. [Laughs.] I was still kind of new to the whole thing, but I knew these guys, so that was okay. I think they had me read for the Robert Hays part—and Bob’s now a good friend of mine, so that’s funny—but I got the part of the first religious zealot, or whatever it was. David Leisure, who went on to be Joe Isuzu, he was also in the film, and he’s now a good friend of mine, too. And then the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams—they went on to do other movies, and they didn’t use me. But so it goes.
But, you know, you build a history of things you’ve done when you’re in this business, and one of the things I really remember from the beginning and one of my first early dine-out things was that I was the first on-camera speaker in Airplane! You know, the first speaker is, “The loading zone is for loading and unloading,” and so on and so forth, but that’s voice-over. But when [Julie Hagerty] comes in the door, I offer her a flower and ask, “Would you like to make a donation?” And that was pretty much it. [Laughs.] So I missed being punched out and all that sort of thing, like some of the other religious guys, but I was the first person to speak on camera. So there’s that.
David Leisure (“First Krishna”): That was my very first job. I mean, I hadn’t even been in front of a camera before. I had an agent who set me up with the audition, I read three times, and I basically got the job for two reasons: the other guy [John David Wilder] and I looked a lot alike, and I was willing to shave my head. [Laughs.]
Hays: David Leisure and I go all the way back to Grossmont College, and then we were roommates at San Diego State University. I remember being up in the offices, and there were different people they were suggesting and saying, “These are potential folks.” And I pointed at David and said, “Oh! He’s a buddy of mine! We went to school together. He’s a great guy!” So I don’t know if they said, “Oh, okay, yeah, he’s in, we’ll use him,” or if they’d chosen him already. I really can’t remember. I just remember saying, “Oh, that’s my buddy Dave!”
Leisure: A lot of people at the time thought, “Oh, Bob got you the job.” But, no, I was in there three times to read. The job definitely wasn’t handed to me. But when I first read the script, I hate to admit it, but I didn’t get the joke. I was like, “This just looks like words to me. I don’t see what’s so funny.” And it wasn’t until I realized they’d used all of these really, really serious guys and had them be really, really serious, which turned out to be funny, that I finally got the joke. I’m a little slow.
I didn’t have an opinion about the Krishna movement one way or the other when I got the role, but I will say that it was really hard to figure out how to put on what they wear, because it wraps around, and you have to pull it between your legs, and then you tuck it in. Also, when I was going to shave my head, I figured, “I’m gonna be completely bald, like Mr. Clean,” but it didn’t turn out that way, because they all have pony tails! [Laughs.] So I had to stay like that for six months, and if I didn’t wear a baseball cap, you could hear people whispering and muttering, “Hey, look at that guy over there!”
Jill Whelan (“Lisa Davis”): I went into Howard Koch’s office, he asked me to make a funny face, and that’s the face that’s in the film. If only all auditions could go that smoothly! [Laughs.] Airplane! wasn’t my first time in front of the camera, but it was my first film. Being a kid, though, the funny thing is that even though it was my first film, it wasn’t overwhelming at all to me. I just looked at it as a really fun time. I didn’t get the scope of it being a film. I just took it all in stride as a fun place to go and something fun to do with nice people. What’s funny, though, is that Joyce Bulifant played my mother in the film, but she’d just played Gavin MacLeod’s wife on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and soon thereafter I would become Gavin MacLeod’s daughter on The Love Boat!
“Just hang loose, blood.”
Al White (“Second Jive Dude”): I went in for my first audition, and then when I came in for the callback, that’s when I met Norman [Gibbs, a.k.a. “First Jive Dude”]. We basically met while we were waiting, and it was just a matter of both of us seeing what the other was doing and feeding off each other. He seemed to be doing all the talking, and I just started thinking, “You know, if we both try and talk at the same time, it’ll just get in the way of what should be accomplished with two people working together.” So I just pulled back and fed off of him and responded, and then I jumped in when I could. And I guess we blew ’em away, ’cause we got the part!
D. Zucker: When they did it for us in the reading, we cracked up. We just thought they were great. There was no question that we were going to cast them.
J. Zucker: In the original script, we just wrote, “Mo fo, shi’ man, wha’ fo’.” I mean, it was just nothing. And when Al and Norman came in, we apologized profusely and explained that that was the best that three Jewish guys from Milwaukee could do.
White: I looked at the script and couldn’t make hide nor hair of the actual verbiage. [Laughs.] But I got a sense of what they wanted. They wanted jive as a language, which it is not: It’s a word here and a phrase there, originated by the jazz musicians back in the 1920s. So we had to first understand what they wanted, and then Norman and I tried to work together on it, but we couldn’t seem to gel on what we each wanted to do, so I said, “Well, okay, you work on yours and I’ll work on mine.” So what I did was, I went and got a couple of books—one was on black English by J.L. Dillard, and another was on black language—and I just saw what they had in standard English and tried to come up with what I felt was jive. I tried to jive it down, if you know what I mean, using actual words and actual meaning. So what we ended up saying does mean something. It’s not a bunch of gibberish or whatever. It did actually mean something.
Just to give you an example, in one of the scenes I say, “Mack herself a pro, slick! That gray matter back, lotta performers down, not take TCB-in’, man!” So “Mack” was taken from one of these books—the black English book, I think—and means to “to speak.” “Mack herself a pro,” she said she was a pro, or professional. “Slick,” that was his name I gave him. “Gray matter back,” I needed a word to jive down the word “remember,” but I didn’t find it in either of the books, so I said, “Well, let me see: ‘gray matter,’ that’s the thinking part of the brain, and ‘back’ for remember back. “Gray matter back.” And from there I’m just saying that a lot of performers stayed down and weren’t taking care of business on the technical side… man! [Laughs.]
When we got to the set and sat down, I said, “Okay, what do you have?” And Norman went over exactly what he had, and I went over what I had, and then I said, “Oh, okay, well, when you get to that part where it says, ‘See a broad a booty yak ’em,’ I’ll come in with, ‘Lay ’ down and smack ’em, yak ’em!’” So we gelled it together right there, just before we shot. Jerry came over and said, “You guys ready?” or something to that effect, and we said, “Yeah!” So we shot it, and he came back and said, “Can you throw a ‘man’ in there or something?” We said, “Yeah, we’ll throw a ‘man’ in there.” [Laughs.] Jerry was the only one who spoke to us, because David and Jim were in the back, watching on the monitor. But after every take, Jerry would go back and confer with David and Jim, and then he’d come back and give us whatever notes all three of them had come up with. So a lot of work went into it, but if it came off like it was easy to come up with it, then we did our job!
McGovern: I sang “Respect” to the two “jive dudes,” as they were billed, while one was puking his guts out.
White: Yeah, I don’t think I had any dialogue in that scene. I think I was too busy puking. [Laughs.]
McGovern: They also shot me doing “I Enjoy Being A Girl”—which has many verses—sung à la a camp song, but it was left out of the film because it took way too long to get to the punchline. At one point while filming it, I lost my way in the lyrics and blurted out, “Oh, shit!” The song may not have made the final cut, but my “Oh, shit!” made a random appearance in the dailies, or so I’ve been told. I sure wish I had an outtake of that one!
D. Zucker: For the lady who speaks jive, I think Harriet Nelson was our first choice. It was going to be either Barbara Billingsley or Harriet Nelson, one of those two.
J. Zucker: We definitely had a type. [Laughs.] We were sort of obsessed with those ’60s family shows, and we watched all of them, but particularly—and obviously—Leave It To Beaver. I mean, David and I were Beaver and Wally!
Hays: I met Harriet Nelson when she came to a filming of Angie, and I said, “You know, I heard you were supposed to be the woman who spoke jive.” And she said, “Oh, yes, but…I was worried about the language! I’m so sorry I didn’t do it!”
White: I ended up writing Barbara Billingsley’s jive dialogue and instructing her in its proper elocution. [Laughs.] She was very intent on getting it right. I worked with her for two hours on her dialogue, so when she got up and said, “Excuse me, stewardess, I speak jive,” she did! But when she says, “Cut me some slack, jack,” now that she had a little trouble with. Because she read it as I wrote it: “Cut. Me. Some. Slack. Jack.” I said, “No, you have to kind of bring those words together, you know, kind of truncate, so ‘cut me some’ is ‘cummesome.’” So we worked on that a little bit, and when she finally got it, she was so pleased. She really did a wonderful job on that.
It was such a pleasure working with Barbara. And as a matter of fact, my mother just loved Leave It To Beaver, and what I did was, I asked Barbara if she wouldn’t mind speaking to my mother. That was the crowning moment, because I called my mother, and I said, “Mom, I have Barbara Billingsley here, and she’d actually like to speak to you.” She was so excited, and Barbara was so gracious. That was really wonderful of her to do that for me and my mother. In fact, several years later, Barbara came to see me in Gem Of The Ocean, an August Wilson play I was doing at the Taper [Forum in Los Angeles], and she sent me a beautiful card, thanking me and telling me how wonderful it was to see me onstage and to have worked with me. I still have that card. She really was lovely.
Into The Cockpit
“Joey, here’s something we give our special visitors. Would you like to have it?”
Ashmore: The day before Kareem came onboard, I worked with Peter in the cockpit, the scene with Jimmie Walker.
Jimmie Walker (“Windshield Washer Man”): I was in a movie that Howard Koch had produced called Badge 373. I was in it for maybe five seconds. After I got Good Times, Howard would always say, “My film got you the part!” And I’d go, “Well, not really, Howard, but…all right.” [Laughs.] And I knew the Zuckers from Kentucky Fried Theater, and I’d see them in restaurants or whatever, and they’d be, like, “Oh, we’re working on this Airplane! movie.” And then about a year after that, I saw them, and they said, “We sold Airplane! to Warner Brothers, but we’re not doing it because they won’t let us direct.” And I went [Skeptically.] “Really. All right.” Because I thought it was a little crazy that they would do that. But then I saw them about a year after that, and they said, “We sold it to Paramount…and we’re directing!” I said, “Are you kidding me? Really?” Because at that time they really hadn’t done anything. But I said, “All right.”
And then I’m driving down Sunset, and I see Howard Koch in his car. I’d just finished working with his wife on Airport whatever it was (The Concorde: Airport ’79), and he says to me, “Hey, I’m doing the Academy Awards, but I’ve got a deal with Paramount, and I’m producing this movie. You wanna be in it?” I said, “Sure.” Because people in this business just lie, so you always say “yes” to everything. If even half the things people promised me came true, I’d have no time to do anything, because people will always make you promises but lie incessantly. But he says, “Okay, I’m gonna call you after I do the Academy Awards,” and I said, “Okay.” Well, damned if he didn’t call me to do this film. So I went over there…and it was the Zuckers’ film! I said, “Oh, my God! This thing is really happening!”
Abrahams: That was our big compromise with Paramount. Nothing against Jimmie – he’s fine and everything – but we really didn’t want famous actors. He was really the only guy in the movie who was known for his comedy.
Ashmore: It was a one-day gig for Jimmie. He was onboard for a day, he did his thing, and then he waltzed off and cashed his check, I guess. [Laughs.] But that was a funny gag. I mean, him just coming up on the lift is a sight gag in and of itself. You don’t even have to do too much after that. But the fact that Peter Graves gives him the credit card for the gas like he’s at a service station is just hilarious.
J. Zucker: I think Peter Graves’ kids and wife loved the script and talked him into it.
D. Zucker: Yeah, when he read it, his comment was, “This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I’ve ever read.” But his wife loved it, and his daughter loved it, so they convinced him to do it. But once he was on the set, he was completely on board.
J. Zucker: He was great. Peter was just terrific, but—I can’t say this for certain, but I’m not sure he really got it until he saw it.
Hays: Peter said they sent it to him and he threw it down and said, “What kind of crap is this? What the hell is this crap?” And his agent said, “Look, this thing has got a lot of buzz going on about it. They say it’s gonna be very funny and really good. You ought to look at it again.” So he looked at it again, and he said, “I don’t get this crap. What the hell is this?” And his agent said, “Look, just go on in and meet them with them.” So he met with the guys, and he said, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe. It looks like it might be kind of funny. They seem like pretty funny guys.” [Laughs.] And the next thing you know, there he is, just absolutely perfect.
Ashmore: Peter had a really hard time with all of that gladiator, Turkish prison, and Scraps stuff. [Laughs.] He had a real hard time getting through that. But he did, and he did it absolutely right on the money. No tongue in the cheek whatsoever. He was just dead-on serious, and he was funnier than hell.
Harris: The number one question that people ask is, “Did you have any idea about the innuendos?” And the funny thing is, I really didn’t when I read the script. But even though it was only a year or a year and a half later between filming and when the movie came out, something happened between 9 and 10 years old where—I don’t know if I gained some sort of carnal knowledge? [Laughs.] But when the movie came out and I saw it all edited together, I was sitting there with my family, watching it, and all of a sudden all of the innuendos were revealed to me, and I got it all. And I was, like, “Oh, that’s what was going on…” It’s hard for me to believe, but I really don’t remember being cognizant of that at all. I just thought people were just being silly. And I think that that worked to the directors’ advantage, because I really was not reacting to it because I really had no idea what was going on. But then when the movie came out, I was, like, “Okay, this is what was going on. Got it.”
Peter Graves was very cognizant of the subtleties and the undertones or actual overt overtones of the script, so he was very, very wary. I think he had to be talked into doing it at all. Really, between scenes, he did not want any untoward contact with me and stuff. So he was a bit standoffish, and I didn’t really understand it at the time. Both he and Kareem were like that, but Kareem was just a really quiet, shy person in general, so he didn’t want to talk whatsoever, not just to me. But everybody else on the set was just really jovial. There was lots of camaraderie, they were joking around offset, and everybody was having a great time. I didn’t get it about Peter at the time, but later on, once it all became clear, I was, like, “Oh, okay, so this is what his deal was.”
Hays: There was a screening at the Director’s Guild, and my folks were there – my little 5’2” mom, and my 6’3” dad, who was a retired colonel in the Marine Corps, a fighter pilot – and here’s Peter Graves, the all-American dad from Fury and from Mission: Impossible, so I thought, “Oh, my folks might like to meet Peter!” So I said, “Peter, this is my mom and dad!” And, you know, they say “hello” and “nice to meet you.” Dad was always the strong and silent type and never was a loudmouth, and my mother wasn’t, either, so there was one of those awkward little moments where everyone’s run out of things to say. So I turned to Peter and said, “So, Peter, how’ve you been?” And he said, “Great! I’ve been great. I’ve had a strange hankering for little boys, but…” I looked at my dad, and his face was, like, “What? What did he just say?” [Laughs.] Peter really could be outrageous and just so silly. He said that he’d be in the market, walking down the vegetable aisle or wherever, and there was a woman with her little boy, and if he looked down at the boy and say, “Oh, hello!” And the mother would grab the kid and run. It was, like, “Get away! Get away from the pervert!”
Harris: I ended up seeing Peter at a screening about a year before he died, which was really cool. I was invited to the screening, ended up reuniting with him, and he really got into it, which was funny. We were up onstage, and people were doing a Q&A, and he really started hamming it up, and he got really handsy with me. [Laughs.] Which to me…I mean, an 80-year-old getting handsy with a 40-year-old? That seemed even more awkward! So, yeah, it’s been a weird road.
“I’ve got to get out of here! I’ve got to get out of here!”
McGovern: As I recall, the “slap scene” was not originally in the script but was improvised on the spot.
Bryant: It was not originally written that way. What was written was that Lorna Patterson was going to be shaking me when I went into hysterics, and then she gets called away and another passenger takes over, and that was the end of the joke. But I went to the guys, and I said, “You know, in all those films like that, the hysterical person always seems to get slapped. How about that?” And they said, “Oh, gosh, you might get hurt. We could never let you do that.” But I said, “No, no, we’ll rehearse it, and then we’ll stage it. And what if it’s people you didn’t expect, like the doctor or the nun?” And they said, “Oh, you’ve opened up such a can of worms.” [Laughs.] And the next thing you know, they’ve got a tire iron, brass knuckles—
McGovern: I had never done any acting prior to Airplane! Or couldn’t you tell? [Laughs.] But because of that, I think I was afraid of hurting Lee, so I was giving a rather timid slap.
Bryant: Oh, she was so upset, the poor baby! She got so into her nun’s habit that here she is, this brilliant singer with brilliant timing, and we were following a pattern—shake-shake-slap, shake-shake-slap—but she couldn’t get the timing, and she was so upset at the idea of accidentally slapping me.
McGovern: Jerry took me aside and asked me to be more forceful, which I thought I did the next time, but after seeing the film… Sorry, guys: I should have channeled a certain grade school nun of mine. I definitely owed them a stronger slap. And yet I had no problem choking the Krishna. Go figure.
Leisure: I’m not quite sure if I got to shake Lee in the movie. We all got to shake her, but there was so much stuff left on the cutting room floor that I don’t know if you actually get to see me shake her. But I know Leslie got to slap her. And then he came back and slapped her one more time. [Laughs.] Which is great. It’s like, “Well, that’s it. Oh, okay, just one more slap.”
Bryant: Leslie was the only one who actually slapped me. He kept throwing in an extra one. I guess he was improvising. [Laughs.] So, anyway, I may suffer more abuse than anyone else in the film, but it was kind of self-inflicted!
Welcome To The Machine
“What was it we had for dinner tonight?”
Leisure: Leslie Nielsen’s whole persona up to that moment—Airplane! absolutely changed his career—was that he was the big, handsome, staid leading man. But he was the goofiest motherfucker you’ve ever met in your life.
D. Zucker: In person, Leslie was a silly practical joker, as probably everyone knows by now. He had that little fart machine of his, so that every time he was interviewed on a show or something—and in real life—he would be talking with a straight face, and then he would appear to be farting. That’s just what he liked to do.
Leisure: He was a virtuoso fart musician. He had a little fart machine that he would keep in his hand, and he would, like, sit down next to you. [Adopts deep voice.] “Hi, I’m Leslie Nielsen. You’ve probably seen me in the movies and things.” [Belches.] “Sorry, I had some onions at lunch.” And then he would have this thing tucked under his arm, and you’d hear this loud, boisterous fart come out, and you’d go, “Oh, my God!” And then you’d realize he was pulling a gag on you, and he’d go sit down next to some girl, some extra, and he’d do the same thing. You’d see her face just blanch, waiting for the invisible thing to hit her nostrils.
Bryant: The first day I walked on the set, Leslie introduced himself, and then I heard these horrible noises. [Laughs.] This rubber and metal thing fit in the palm in his hand, and it would make farting noises. People would walk by, and they’d think, “Oh, that poor man!”
Ashmore: Leslie’s little device just made the most incredible flatulence sounds. He had us going for, like, a day. When he first sat down, he said, “Gentlemen! Very nice to meet you!” And then he blew one off. I remember Peter [Graves] looking over at me, and he had kind of a smirk on his face, like, “Oh, my God, is this guy for real?” And then Leslie blew another one off, and he says, “Oh! I’m so sorry, guys. I just ate a burrito off the lunch truck, and I’m having some real problems here.” And then it came out after a day, maybe even two days later, that some prop guy had made this thing for him that he worked in his hand. Oh, man, it was a magic trick and a sound gag all rolled into one.
McGovern: I will always remember Leslie Nielsen for his hand farts.
White: Was I a victim? Yes, I was. [Laughs.] That was too funny. We were backstage, we had a little break and I was waiting to go back on, and we were talking… and then he sets it off. [Fart noise.] And I’m like, “Oh…” But I let it go by. You don’t want to mention anything like that. But then he did it again, and I was trying to not breathe for a minute, to let the air clear. I was thinking he might’ve had a little problem, you know. But that’s life. The human mechanism works that way. But then he pulled out his little whoopee cushion thing and showed it to me, and I was, like, “Oh, man…” So, yeah, he got me.
Whelan: Leslie and I knew each other for several years after Airplane!—he also did The Love Boat—and he always had that fart machine with him. Always. I remember being in an elevator with him, and a herd of Japanese tourist got into the elevator, and the fart machine, which was in his hand, he let it go. And they all immediately got out on the next floor. [Laughs.]
Hays: Oh, God, there are so many Leslie Nielsen fart machine stories. But I remember sitting on the set early on, Leslie was sitting there, too, and I think I knew about it already by this time, because he did it all the time. But two girls came on the set—they were nice-looking girls who were extras—and they were sitting on the plane as passengers, and one of them said to the other, “Oh, look, it’s Leslie Nielsen! I’m going to go over and say hello!” And a minute later, she came walking back, just horrified, and she said, “Do you know what he did?” [Laughs.] And, of course, he was farting away with his little machine.
Once we knew what he was doing, he just started playing with the thing. He’d lean against the wall and start talking with that voice of his, saying something really profound, and then [Fart noise.]. And then he’d play like he had an attack of it, so he’d start making faces and putting his hands or his fists on his stomach, groaning and stretching his neck out, and then [Repeated fart noises.]. He’d fart in different ways. We were just on the floor.
But the one that got me most of all was when I go into the cockpit and say, “Both pilots?” and Leslie says, “Mr. Striker, can you land this plane?” It cuts to a close-up of me, and my line is, “I flew single-engine fighters in the war, but this plane has four engines. It’s an entirely different kind of flying altogether!” And it cuts to them, and – all together – they say, “It’s an entirely different kind of flying.” And then it cuts back to me for a reaction that’s, like, “What was that?” Like, “Something strange just happened. Why did they do that?” Because I was always reacting to these weird things going on around me. But all the time the close-up was on me, Leslie was saying, “Mr. Striker.” [Fart sound.] “Can you…” [Fart sound.] “…fly this plane?” [Fart sound.] And I had to keep a straight face through all of that!” A doctor friend of his made the things, and Leslie brought a whole shoebox full of ‘em in and was selling them to people for…five bucks? I don’t remember.
Bryant: He was selling them for $7.00 apiece, and I think he sold them to every single person in the cast and crew, so I’m sure he made more money from that than he did from shooting the movie! But we would all sit around with our farting machines during rehearsals, and there’d be just this cacophony of farts.
Hays: The camera operator had one, the sound guy had one, and when the first A.D. would say, “Okay, roll sound!” you’d hear [Fart sound.] “Speed!” “Roll camera!” [Fart sound.] “Speed!” And pretty soon Jerry would just scream, “Goddammit, get those things off the set!”
Bryant: It finally got a point where David and Jerry would have to say, “All right, we’re going pass the basket around now, and you guys are all going to have to turn these things in, because we’re going do a take now, and if I hear one sound…”
Ross Harris: The funny thing is, when we did the commentary and interviews and stuff for the anniversary DVD, Leslie was still carrying his fart machine around. It was the last couple of years of his life, and I think he was starting to get a bit senile, but he was still carrying that thing around. And, you know, you’d think that it would’ve become kind of a tired joke, or even a little bit sad, but I’ll tell you, when you combined that thing with the old age or senility or whatever, he really caught people off guard. So, yeah, he was blasting that thing off even then, and people were, like, “Oh, my God: He’s still at it!”
Advance Screenings, Avoiding The Sequel, And Scoring Long-Term Success
“There are some of us here, particularly me, who’d like to buy you
a drink and shake your hand.”
Abrahams: Michael Eisner wanted to have the premiere on the lot at Paramount, so we did, and of course we were anxious and all that kind of stuff. I remember going out to a restaurant nearby and having a couple of cocktails before the screening. But we didn’t sit together, David, Jerry, and I, and when the movie started to play, they put the reels up out of order. In other words, the movie was on five reels, and it went one, two, three, and then five.
So when the fifth reel came up instead of the fourth—and keeping in mind that I was a couple of cocktails into it—my reaction was, “Oh, wow, this movie really does step along! We thought there was going to be a pace problem, but it’s really cooking!” And David’s reaction was to think, “Oh, great, now we have an excuse why everyone hates it!” And Jerry’s reaction was to get up out of his seat, run up to the projection booth, and tell the guy who was showing it that the reel was out of order. So he did. He busted into the projection booth and said, “You put the wrong reel up!” And the projection guy said, “No, I didn’t. I do this all the time.” And Jerry said, “Yes, you did. I’m the director!” So he turned off the projector at the premiere, rewound the fifth reel, and then put up the fourth reel, and then the fifth reel. But they had to literally stop the movie and turn on the house lights for about 10 minutes.
Goldman: After the screening, I was standing with Jim when Robert Stack came up. His eyes looked like Little Orphan Annie—I mean, they were just bulging out of his head—and he said, “Jim… Thank you. Thank you so much. I don’t know what to say. That’s just the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t thank you enough.” I don’t think any of those guys expected that it was going to turn out the way it did. I think they were just doing it as a lark, but all of a sudden, everyone in town was seeing the film, and it just reinvigorated their careers, all of those guys.
J. Zucker: They offered Airplane II to us, they wanted us to do it, but we just—I mean, some movies are great for sequels ’cause there’s more you can do, but the idea of trying to come up with another 90 minutes of airplane jokes or airplane-in-trouble jokes was just not what we wanted to do. So we just said, “Thank you, but no.”
D. Zucker: We just didn’t want do it. And I don’t think any of us ever saw it.
J. Zucker: It was just too weird. I think I saw the trailer when it was played on TV, or maybe it was in a movie theater I was in, and it was just strange. Just the idea that it was, what, a future mission to outer space or something like that? To do satire on something that doesn’t exist, that’s a rule broken. Or at least it’s one of ours, anyway.
D. Zucker: But I will say that there were evidently some good jokes in it, because sometimes people come up to me and say, “Oh, I loved your Airplane! movie, and my favorite joke was…” And then they’ll say some joke I’ve never heard before, and I’ll say, “Oh, that must be from Airplane II!” [Laughs.] I mean, it doesn’t happen often. But it has happened.
McGovern: With Airplane! ZAZ knew exactly what they wanted and they kept very true to their script. You just knew that, given a chance, it was bound to be a classic. I know that I have, framed in my office, a press pic of my Sister Angelina looking puzzled at Boy’s Life partnered with Joey savoring Nun’s Life.
Harris: I remember shooting it and being very excited about being in it, because I just knew that it was going to be something great. I can’t say that I remember a lot of things from that age, but it’s surprising how much of the shoot I do remember, because it was very impactful. I was, like, “Oh, something really amazing is going on right now.” So I knew it was going to be a great film, but to say that I thought we’d be talking about it 35 years later, no, I really didn’t have any expectation of that. But it’s really been a very cool thing for me, because I did a lot of work when I was a kid, a lot of TV shows and commercials that are never going to be seen or talked about again. [Laughs.] So to get one or two that are, it’s very special and very cool. I’m really happy to be a part of it.
Leisure: As an actor, I’m so critical about what I did personally, so I basically watched everything that I did in the movie through my fingers. [Laughs.] Because I’m just insecure that way. And, of course, they ended up cutting out just about every line of dialogue I had, so I was just crestfallen. But it was my first job, so what did I expect? I didn’t even know what I was doing. So it’s okay. They probably cut out so much of what I did because it wasn’t delivered as well as it should’ve been. Also, it was superfluous to moving the plot along. The things that worked really well worked really well, and then there was a bunch of stuff left on the floor. But what’s in there, it all works.
Whelan: When we were making the film, my mother will tell you—because she obviously had a better perspective at that time than I did—that she felt that it was either going to be a huge success or a huge flop, but that there would definitely not be anything in between. There was too much of a commitment made to the comedy in that, and one way or the other, people would feel an emotion, but it definitely wouldn’t be something in the center. [Laughs.]
Ashmore: I thought the script was funny, but I certainly didn’t have any idea it was going to enter into the realm of an iconic cult classic film. I was a huge Mel Brooks fan, and it kind of smacked a little bit of what Mel was doing. I mean, it’s different, in that the sense of humor of the Zucker brothers as well as Jim Abrahams is obviously a bit different from Mel’s, but I think maybe they may have been inspired by a lot of that stuff that Mel was doing at the time. I didn’t realize it was going to be as funny as it ended up being, though. Seeing it was a heck of a lot more pleasing an experience than reading it. [Laughs.] But when my wife at the time and I went to the screening, and the airplane came busting out of the clouds to the tune of the Jaws theme, it was, “Buckle your seat belts, here we go!” You never know as an actor what’s going to be a success, though. You show up, you do your work, you’re having fun, and you experience the talent of these people firsthand, so you can see where it’s going and you kind of have a hunch that something’s afoot. But where did the AFI put Airplane! on their list of The Funniest American Movies of All Time? I mean, it’s in the top 10. That’s not something you can really see coming.
Hays: You know, they still have the fuselage over at Air Hollywood, and that’s where Jerry, David, Jim, Kareem, and I filmed the commercials that they did for the Wisconsin Tourism Board, which was great fun. That was also right around when they called up and asked me to do a cameo in Sharknado 2. My son said, “You’ve got to do it, Dad! You’ve got to do it!” I didn’t even know what Sharknado was! [Laughs.] I maybe vaguely had heard of it, but I didn’t really even know anything about it at all. But I went ahead and did it, and I had the greatest time…and the fuselage that we used was literally right next to the old Airplane! fuselage!
Bryant: What’s amazing to me is that I still get recognized. Some college kid will come up to me and say something about Airplane! I don’t even look like that anymore! [Laughs.] But my son, when he was in college, he said, “Mom, you just Google ‘Airplane slap’ or ‘movie slap,’ and there you are! You’re everywhere!”
J. Zucker: I don’t think we ever thought that it would have this kind of a following. I mean, we were obviously hopeful that it would be a hit.
D. Zucker: We were just focused on it being successful at the time.
J. Zucker: I think we’d spent so much time—years—convincing other people that it was going to be a hit that we started to believe it. [Laughs.] But we had our ups and downs, and we had moments of “Oh, my God, it’s never going to work.” We were certainly bullish on the movie when it came out, but, you know, this was in the days before VHS, really, or DVD or anything else, let alone hundreds and hundreds of cable channels. After movies came out, they didn’t mean much. They just sort of died. And I don’t think we thought, “Okay, this is our first real film, it did well, we’re on our way, that’s great, we can now have a career.” But it really is amazing that it’s lasted all these years. That was definitely a surprise.
Abrahams: If you’d told us at the time that it’d still be this popular, I’m not sure we would’ve believed you. I don’t even think we were thinking about that. I think we were just thinking, “Hey, wow, we made a movie!” We thought it was funny, but that it’s lasted this long? No. A couple of months ago, I was at a party somewhere, and a boy came up to me who was, like, 8 or 10 years old, and he said, “Oh, I really liked Airplane! I thought it was really funny!” And I said, “How was it that you came to see it?” And he said, “Well, my grandfather made me watch it.” [Laughs.] If you’d told us in 1980 that the grandkids of the audience would be the ones who’d keep the movie going, it would’ve been very gratifying. But I don’t think we ever anticipated it. And it’s one of the great thrills, I think, of all of our lives that it still remains well known.