In the early 1970s, the Zucker brothers, David and Jerry, and their creative partner Jim Abrahams, were performing in a comedy and improv theater group called Kentucky Fried Theater. During nights while the three slept, they had a habit of taping the television shows that ran into the early hours of the morning. They used this procedure to try and find TV commercials which they could satirize in their comedy routines. One night, completely by accident, they happened to record an obscure 1957 movie called Zero Hour!
Zero Hour! was an oh-so-serious drama starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell and Sterling Hayden. The plot of Zero Hour! involved a commercial plane flight, during which the pilots and some of the passengers get food poisoning, which causes one of the passengers, an ex-World War II fighter pilot, to try and land the airplane in a heavy fog. The Zuckers and Abrahams watched the film and found its extreme seriousness highly amusing. It contained lines like: "We have to find someone who can not only fly the plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."
The trio of young writers eagerly wrote a satirical script, mainly using things from Zero Hour! and adding several satirical commercials. They called this original script The Late Show. This script was later changed and the idea of the satirical commercials was eventually dropped from it. The basic premise of satirizing Zero Hour! remained, but instead of the commercial satirization, the boys threw in scores of crazy puns, bizarre sight gags, wild slapstick and hilarious dialogue.
Because it was a film hardly anyone knew of, much less cared about, Abrahams and the Zuckers managed to buy the rights to Zero Hour! for an incredibly cheap $2,500. All that was left now was finding a studio to finance the film. After being rejected by several other studios, a deal with Paramount was soon reached. The movie, now called Airplane!, would be made on a rock-bottom low budget of $3.5 million.
Instead of the obvious casting ideas for such a broad comedy, Abrahams and the Zuckers came up with a brilliant idea, a brainstorm that was to make Airplane! into the classic it was to become and take it out of the realm of every other comedy before it. The three decided to cast Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves in four of the film's main roles. The four actors had each made a career out of playing serious dramatic roles. Instead of the film's comedy coming from comedians and funny actors, the majority of the film's comedy bits would be delivered by actors who had made careers of playing no-nonsense, straight arrow characters.
They knew Robert Stack was the most important piece in the puzzle, they knew his character would be the film's "linchpin." Stack would play captain Rex Kramer, who tries to talk down the nervous young pilot of the seemingly doomed plane.
When they spoke to Stack about his role, they explained that he had to do the gags, but do them "like Elliot Ness" (the hard-boiled lead character he played in the classic TV crime-drama The Untouchables). They showed Stack a film of impressionist John Byner impersonating Robert Stack. Basically, what they wanted was "Robert Stack doing John Byner doing Robert Stack." Instead of being insulted or arguing, Stack saw the humor of the idea and agreed to join the cast.
Lloyd Bridges was wary of participating, but his sons, Jeff and Beau, finally convinced him to join the cast. Bridges was cast as tower supervisor Steve McCroskey, an ex-addict of various and sundry mind stimulants.
Leslie Nielsen was actually glad to be offered a comedic role. He felt that at his age, the only things he'd be offered for the rest of his career would be "elderly grandfather" roles. Nielsen took the role of Doctor Rumack, a passenger on the plane. Paramount Studios, thinking in more conventional comedy terms, wanted Dom Deluise instead, but the Zuckers' and Abrahams' preference prevailed.
Peter Graves had read the script and thought it "tasteless," but like his three counterparts, finally was talked into signing on. Graves would be the solemn-faced pilot Captain Oever.
The three directors had originally wanted to cast Pete Rose as Stryker's co-pilot Roger Murdoch, but because the film was shot during the summer of 1979, Pete was busy playing baseball. Instead they offered NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the role for a salary of $30,000. Kareem held out for $35,000 because he wanted to buy an oriental rug.
For the film's lead character, the shell-shocked pilot Ted Stryker, a young actor named Robert Hays was chosen. True, Hays was currently working in a sitcom called Angie at the time, but he had leading man good looks and wasn't an outright comedian. Chevy Chase and Bill Murray had both been considered for the Stryker role, and David Letterman actually was screen tested.
Julie Hagerty, in her film debut, was cast as Stryker's girlfriend Elaine. As with their older co-stars, Hays and Hagerty were directed, in every scene, to "play it straight."
The Zuckers and Abrahams co-directed the film, i.e. Jerry Zucker stood beside the camera for every take, while Jim Abrahams and David Zucker watched the video feed to see how the film looked. After each take, the three would huddle up and confer.
For the role of the lady who does "jive talk," the first choice of the directors was Harriet Nelson of TV's straight-laced series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. But Harriet was concerned about the film's language and declined the offer. Barbara Billingsley of TV's Leave it to Beaver took the role instead (Harriet was later to regret her decision).
Maureen McGovern played a singing nun in the film, this being a satire of her being the singer of two Oscar-winning disaster film themes- "The Morning After" from 1972's The Poseidon Adventure and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from 1974's The Towering Inferno.
Attempts were made to cast both Helen Reddy and George Kennedy because each had roles in the disaster film Airport '74, but Universal Studios threatened legal action if either joined the cast. Besides spoofing Zero Hour!, several parts of Airplane! poked fun at Airport '74, too.
Stephen Stucker was the film's biggest scene stealer. Unlike the rest of the cast, who pretty much all played their roles straight-faced, Stephen, as Johnny, a zany madcap who worked at the airport, was let loose to act as broadly as possible. All of Stucker's dialogue was ad-libbed.
Hays and Hagerty rehearsed their Saturday Night Fever take-off dance scene for a full month before filming. By an odd coincidence, Hays was filming his TV show Angie concurrently while shooting Airplane!, and his co-star in the show was Donna Pescow, who had a role in Saturday Night Fever. For the dance scene, some Saturday Night Fever songs had to be sped up for comic effect. To do this, the Zuckers and Abrahams had to get personal permission from the Bee Gees, and the band agreed.
Ethel Merman was cast as Lieutenant Hurwitz, an ex-soldier who's convinced he's Ethel Merman- in what would be her final film appearance. Merman died in 1984. Ethel only accepted the role with the agreement that she get to use her own hairdresser. Because so much time was spent on getting her hair done just right, Ethel was never available to work before noon.
The Zucker's mother, Charlotte, has a cameo in the film as a lady trying to put on makeup during rough turbulence. The Zucker brothers themselves make an appearance as the guys from ground control who steer the plane as it goes crashing through an airport wall. And Jim Abrahams appears as a religious zealot in Chicago International Airport. The two Girl Scouts fighting in the flashback sequence were actually two guys in drag.
There were a few dialogue changes during filming. For the scene where Joey, the young boy, has a conversation with Captain Oever (Graves), the directors originally wanted Graves to use the line "Joey, have you ever seen a grown man's (term deleted)?" This line was (wisely) deemed too risqué and dropped.
In another scene, where McCroskey (Bridges) tells Johnny (Stucker) "Get me someone who won't crack under pressure," to which Johnny replies "How about Mamie Eisenhower?" Airplane! was filmed mainly in August of 1979, and sadly, the former First Lady died a few months later, in November of '79. Out of respect for the Eisenhower family, Johnny's line was later changed to "How about Mister Rogers?"
Filmed in 34 days, Airplane! was released on July 2, 1980. A box office smash, it earned back its meager budget in its first two days of release. Garnering unanimous rave reviews, Airplane! was eventually to earn $84 million dollars at the U.S. box office and $130 million worldwide. It was to be the fourth highest-grossing film of 1980 in America.
The film's most immortal line of dialogue (said in response to Robert Hays' "Surely you can't be serious?") Leslie Nielsen's "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley." was voted number 79 on AFI's list of 100 Greatest Movie Quotes. In 2000, AFI named Airplane! number 10 on its list of 100 Funniest American Films.
More Airplane! Trivia
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalled how once, on a European flight, he was asked to sit in the empty seat in his plane's cockpit, so the entire crew could brag how they "flew with Roger Murdoch."
After filming came to an end, Otto, the inflatable blow-up doll pilot, found a home in Jerry Zucker's garage for many years.
Aermexico was to be the only airline to buy the film for its in-flight entertainment.
David Zucker said that years after the movie's release, Woody Allen told him how much he loved Airplane! Zucker and his fellow writer/directors were heavily influenced by Woody's early films and he was very touched.
The Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams had a tough time with the Screen Actors Guild in trying to get their proper three director billing when the film was released, but eventually prevailed.
A sequel to the film, Airplane! II: The Sequel (1982), was made and of course, the Zuckers and Abrahams were offered the directing reins once again. The trio declined, saying they'd exhausted every possible airport gag with the original. To this day, neither the Zucker brothers nor Jim Abrahams say they have ever seen, or have any desire to see, Airplane! II: The Sequel.