Before Total Film even sits down and says a single word to Airplane! co-writer/ director Jim Abrahams, we’ve been punked. We should have known. Among the interview tidbits that accompanied the film in the 2005 Blu-ray release was an in-joke Abrahams shared with his co-writer/directors, brothers David and Jerry Zucker.
In one of the film’s many classic sight gags, the nun (Maureen McGovern) on Trans American flight 209 is reading a magazine called Boy’s Life. The film then cuts to little Joey (Rossie Harris) reading a magazine called Nun’s Life, which shows a nun in full habit on the cover, riding a surfboard off the waters of Malibu.
While discussing how such a shot would simply be Photoshopped today, the trio talk about how Jim – a keen surfer back in the day – dressed as a nun and caught a few waves for the shot. So we start our interview by asking the now 71-year-old if that was fun. “I’m the surfer?” Abrahams asks with genuine surprise. “No, that’s a lie.”
Turns out that whenever the three got together to do publicity for the film, they had a contest between them to see who could get the biggest lie printed in an interview.
It not only entertained them mightily, it gave them the idea for their next film.
“We were doing publicity somewhere in Europe for Airplane! and somebody asked us “What do you guys do in southern California for entertainment?’,” Abrahams says. “Somebody made up skeet surfing. “We go surfing and shoot skeet.’ That got printed. Eventually it wound up in Top Secret [in the 1984 film’s opening credits].
If you’re on the interview circuit trying to publicise something, you tend to get similar questions. It spiced things up for us.”
Spice is exactly what the godfathers of the spoof comedy brought to the genre. So how did Airplane! take off? The Zuckers/Abrahams’ first film, The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), was a series of sketches, inspiration for many of them coming from cheesy late-night TV commercials; they’d often tape films overnight, and later view them on fast-forward, skim-watching for the ads.
During one such viewing, they couldn’t take their eyes off the 1957 disaster flick they’d recorded, Zero Hour!. The straight-arrow thriller was directed by Hall Bartlett, starred Dana Andrews and Sterling Hayden, and had the guys in stitches.
Airplane! became a virtual remake of Zero Hour!, complete with the jokes the guys imagined as they’d watched it. They transposed the story – of PTSD-suffering air force pilot Ted Striker forced to land a passenger plane after the pilots get food poisoning – to such a degree the production had to secure the rights to Zero Hour! to move ahead.
It’s a key reason why Airplane! is still so funny. As long as Hollywood pumps out pompous, self-important disaster films, there’ll be a market for writers and directors out there to stick pins in them.
“Today we’d spoof San Andreas,” Abrahams says with a laugh. “I don’t think David or Jerry saw San Andreas but I did. I sat there thinking, “Oh, gosh we could have used this.’ It had all the same clichés as Zero Hour! or any disaster movie. They’re riding along in some flood in downtown San Francisco. I mean, it was pretty ridiculous.”
By their own admission, Abrahams and the Zuckers weren’t screenwriters. Luckily, basing the story on that of Zero Hour!, Airplane! virtually wrote itself. They didn’t only lift the story and structure, verbatim quotes and complete scenes made the leap. (Dr Rumack’s (Leslie Nielsen) illustrious line – “The life of everyone aboard depends on just one thing, finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner,” came straight from Zero Hour!.)
“We’d go through a scene at a time and say, “It’d be funny in this scene if…’,” Abrahams says. “The guy picking the wrong week to quit smoking was in Zero Hour!, so we thought it’d be funny if it escalated to all these other drugs he picked the wrong week to give up.”
Buoyed by the success of Airplane!, the trio didn’t know just what a blessing Arthur Hailey’s script had been. “We were joke writers,” Abrahams recalls. “It wasn’t until after Top Secret came out and didn’t do so well that we started to genuinely appreciate the gift of Zero Hour!. When you think about it, it’s a well-structured three-act play – very well-structured comedically, but it dealt with real human problems.”
Whatever the approach or template, Abrahams and the Zuckers were smart enough to know the big sell wasn’t in the characters or corny plotting. It was all going to be in the tone.
“To an extent, I guess you buy into if the plane is going to land or not, or Bob and Julie’s love story, but you don’t really because we keep pulling the rug out from under it,” Abrahams says. “By definition, parodies run out of gas somewhere before 90 minutes. You’re just kind of motoring along from joke to joke, they run out of steam because you’re not genuinely invested in the story or the characters.”
The original vision for Airplane! was for it to be the centrepiece of another sketch collection, like The Kentucky Fried Movie. That film had earned Abrahams and the Zuckers some attention, so they didn’t have much trouble getting meetings, but Airplane! was still a hard sell.
In the end there were two firm offers. One was from Avco, which had formerly been known as Embassy Pictures Corporation and enjoyed great success with The Graduate, This Is Spinal Tap and Escape From New York. The other was Paramount, then under the stewardship of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Along with producer Jon Davison, Abrahams and the Zuckers agonised over the course of an entire weekend about which offer to accept, and finally decided on Avco. When they called Katzenberg the following Monday to tell him the bad news, the legendary producer and later DreamWorks studio head convinced the writer/directors to change their minds within the space of the three-minute phone call.
Abrahams doesn’t remember the exact content of the conversation. “We ruminated and weighed up and measured everything and made up our mind,” he says, “but Jeffery is really good. He’s had a long and successful career. I think at the time he was in his twenties, he was one of the vice presidents or something. Very persuasive.”
Jon Davison remembers it being a no-brainer. “Given a choice between going with a major studio that was enthusiastic about the picture and a struggling independent that was lukewarm, I don’t think we should have taken much convincing,” he says. “We were almost with American International Pictures but I couldn’t convince their production chief, Jere Henshaw, that it wasn’t a good idea to have Dom DeLuise star.”
Yep, early discussions with backers included the idea to fill out the cast with some of the biggest comedy names of the day such as DeLuise and frequent Mel Brooks collaborator Harvey Korman Korman (“Oh yeah,” Abrahams confirms, “it would have been awful.”)
The Zuckers – in their wisdom/naiveté – put their feet down, but it was the masterstroke that made Airplane! the classic that it is to this day. The comedy works so well because the characters have no idea they’re in a comedy. No matter how ridiculous the hijinks, Ted (Robert Hays), Elaine (Julie Hagerty), Clarence (Peter Graves), Rex (Robert Stack), Steve (Lloyd Bridges) and the gang all think they’re in a crisis of great solemnity. They knew there was only one way to deliver zingers that skirted the hair’s-breadth line between serious and side-splitting, and that was to get straight dramatic actors to deliver them. It’s still the biggest innovation the Zuckers and Abrahams brought to screen comedy.
Abrahams can understand the reservations. None of them had ever directed a movie before (Kentucky Fried Movie was directed by then-newcomer John Landis from their script), but they knew exactly what they were doing – even some of the cast didn’t understand the intent on set but chose to roll with it.
The studio certainly didn’t get it either.
“It was sort of a leap for them,” Abrahams remembers. “Why would you cast Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges? Parodies had been done – Woody Allen and Mel Brooks had done them – but nobody had done a parody that cast serious actors.”
Graves recalls almost not agreeing to the movie because he found the script so tasteless. Throughout filming and right up until Airplane! was readying for release, he was terrified he might be lynched over some of the more controversial lines.
Leslie Nielsen, an iron-jawed Hollywood leading man throughout the 1950s and ’60s “there’s so much we couldn’t begin to get away with now. some of the jokes are so outrageous” (he’d headlined Forbidden Planet in 1956 with the iconic Robby the Robot), didn’t really understand the whole idea until Abrahams and the Zuckers showed him a video recording of Zero Hour! – ironic considering the career reinvention made him the public face of big-screen parody until his death in 2010.
But Abrahams remembers there came a point when everyone knew it was going to work. “Fortunately we started in the cockpit on the first day of shooting with Leslie saying, “Don’t call me Shirley’, and that relaxed the studio quite a bit. After that we weren’t really questioned.”
Still, it was a challenge to get their chosen cast locked down. David Letterman auditioned for the role of Ted Striker, the footage of which is still supposed to exist. A then 30-year-old Bruce [now Caitlyn] Jenner screentested. The studio expressed their desire to see Barry Manilow play the lead.
Abrahams now remembers the studio being collaborative about everything, but one of the weirdest demands actually came from Michael Eisner himself. The script originally had the flight take place on a propeller-driven passenger plane, just like in Zero Hour!. Eisner told the Airplane! team that if they didn’t use a jet airliner, they wouldn’t be making the film at his studio. So Trans American flight 209 is a shiny new Boeing 707 on screen, but the Zuckers and Abrahams got the last laugh – the sound effect for the exteriors of the plane flying through the storm is taken from a propeller plane after all.
The shoot crisscrossed Los Angeles for a total of 37 days. The cabin and cockpit scenes were shot on a soundstage at Culver Studios (now the Sony lot), and it’s a pleasant surprise to learn parts are still in service in movies and TV, the original cockpit having starred in the likes of We Bought A Zoo and the video for Foo Fighters’ Learn To Fly.
But the most incredible location was LAX itself, which played both itself and Chicago’s O’Hare airport in the introduction to the characters and the ill-fated flight’s take-off and emergency landing. Imagine the red tape a production company has to go through to film even close to an airport in the post-9/11 world, let alone throughout one of the terminals and on the runway.
But Davison remembers they had a film crew all over the airport for days. “I don’t recall any restrictions being placed on the shooting company,” he says, “it was practically like we were shooting in a private home. It was a different time.”
The funny business
The Airplane! creators left the jokes that survived to the final arbiters of any art – the audience – playing the film at universities around LA and cutting jokes that didn’t get big laughs. To back-up their decisions, they took audio recordings of screenings, so they had proof a joke worked if a Paramount exec wanted it cut. And as history proves, Airplane! killed it. Every now and then an ultra-low-budget movie breaks out to return its budget hundreds of times over (The Blair Witch Project, Saw, Deep Throat) and Airplane! should be remembered among them. After costing just under $3.5m, it made over $83m at the US domestic box office (and a further $40m on home video since), covering the cost of production in just two days.
A sequel was nearly inevitable. Everybody came back to reprise their roles for Airplane II: The Sequel (from where else was the SyFy Network inspired to come up with the name Sharknado 2: The Second One?), even Howard H. Koch as producer and Elmer Bernstein as composer, who’d hit the perfect sweet spot between serious thriller and bombastically camp with the Airplane! score.
Everyone, that is, except the Zuckers and Abrahams – to this day they’ve never seen it. With Airplane! behind them they’d done every airport and plane gag they could see themselves ever doing, and they wanted to move on to serious comedy careers.
“We were very young and very full of ourselves back in those days,” Abrahams laughs. “I don’t think there are any regrets. We went on and all had careers. Paramount had responsibility to the stock holders.”
There’s never been talk of an Airplane III, but Hollywood’s not been shy lately about endlessly rehashing or resurrecting classics. Could an Airplane! remake possibly work? “If Paramount wanted to remake Airplane! I’m sure I’d be the last person they’d call,” says Davison. “But most of their executives are probably savvy enough to know it’s not a commercial idea.”
Abrahams is more circumspect, but he tends to agree, raising a good point about how well jokes involving paedophilia and substance abuse would land nowadays. “You never say never,” he says, “but I can’t imagine how it could be improved. There’s so much we couldn’t begin to get away with now. Some of the jokes are so outrageous. That movie today would be at least an R.”
Neither the Zuckers nor Abrahams are known for anything as much as their 35-year-old, $3.5m comedy smash. “I’m just fine with it,” Abrahams says. “We were very fortunate. We used to say the seas divided for us. Everything worked out, we got all the actors we wanted, we were a little scared about opening the movie that summer because of the [Moscow] Olympics but Jimmy Carter was nice enough to boycott it. It opened the door for each of us to have a really nice career in the movie business. I’m grateful to have my name on Airplane! and it will always be there.”
Classic Scene – Don’t call me Shirley
Why was “Don’t call me Shirley’ the first scene to be shot?
Scheduling. Basically Jon Davison [producer] scheduled it that way because David, Jerry and I had never directed a movie and that was such an easy scene. I think we shot all the cockpit stuff first because it was the easiest stuff to shoot and we had to prove to the studio we could shoot a movie. The studio didn’t quite get the concept of casting straight dramatic actors but when they saw Leslie Nielsen read that line they got it.
When did Leslie get it?
For all those guys, the whole idea of being able to do a comedy and play it the way they did in all their serious movies was a bit of a leap. They loved it, but it took them a day or two to get comfortable and to think it was funny.
Was the scene delivered as written?
Exactly as written. I can remember one or two improvisations in the whole movie. It was very tightly scripted. We’d been working on the script for years.
How many takes were there?
It’s a long time ago but it couldn’t have been more than one or two – he just nailed it.
Obviously Leslie and Bob Hays (Ted Striker) were pros but did they have trouble delivering the line with a straight face?
I think the first few takes everybody giggles a bit but they’re very professional. They were really fun and nice, but incredibly professional – they came to work, they were always prepared. They were also great to hang out with between scenes.
Was it a simple two-camera shot?
That was one camera and we covered both sides, I don’t think there was a master. There were scenes with two cameras but very, very few. The scene of the plane crashing into the airport had multiple cameras.
Did you have any sense the line would become so symbolic?
We always thought it was funny but there’s no way to guess that 35 years later it will still be around and people will know it. Even today when you hear “Shirley this’ or “Shirley that’ – I like to think people everywhere are giggling. Even if it’s in conversation or on the news people will find the name Shirley funny.
The original Airplane! gave all three writer/directors careers, even though they didn’t return for the sequel.
Their follow-up spoof in 1984 was Top Secret (starring a young Val Kilmer). It has become something of a cult favourite, although it was not a box-office hit at the time. The trio also collaborated on short-lived TV series Police Squad (1982), which pre-empted The Naked Gun film series, starring Airplane!‘s breakout star, Leslie Nielsen.
In the early ’90s, Abrahams directed the Charlie Sheen-starring Hot Shots movies, parodying military action flicks of the ’80s such as Top Gun and Rambo.
In 1997, he directed the Meryl Streep TV movie First Do No Harm, based on the real-life case of a specialised diet that gave his own son relief from crippling epilepsy. Today he’s active in the foundation that bears his son’s name.
David Zucker, now 67, took over the reigns of the Scary Movie series from the Wayans Brothers and continues producing and writing. Jerry, now 65, is still making films and has an eclectic resume – bet you didn’t know he directed the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore weepie Ghost that conquered the 1990 box office, made pottery-wheel sculpting erotic and gave The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody a new lease of life.