The Elevator Pitch
Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker—the writing and directing team known as ZAZ—sold studio executives on their idea with just five words: "'Animal House' on a plane."
"Airplane!" is actually a remake: It's based on a 1957 drama called "Zero Hour!" written by "Airport" author Arthur Hailey. ZAZ bought rights to that movie from Paramount Pictures for a nominal fee—and later got Paramount's backing for their own venture. "Zero Hour!" gave "Airplane!" its structure and even some of its dialogue. From there, the writer-director team just kept adding jokes.
Casting the Lead
Before they cast Robert Hays as Ted Striker, the traumatized ex-fighter pilot at the center of the move, the filmmakers considered stars ranging from Bill Murray to Barry Manilow. David Letterman read for the part. So did Bruce Jenner, now known as Caitlyn Jenner.
Leslie Nielsen's 'Machine'
A key to the humor in "Airplane!" is deadpan delivery of lines like:
Striker: "Surely you can't be serious." Dr. Rumack: "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley,"
Leslie Nielsen, who played Dr. Rumack, kept a straight face even off camera but made it difficult for others to do the same. Nielsen went everywhere with a hand-held device that made loud fart noises—fellow cast members referred to it as his "fart machine."
"Have You Ever Been in a Turkish Prison?"
Peter Graves, cast as the pilot, was initially turned off by the script, which is no surprise given lines like, "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?" ("I don't understand—what did he think was tasteless about pedophilia?" Jim Abrahams later deadpanned in the New York Times.) But he came though like a pro and played it straight, without a wink to the audience.
Rossie Harris, the child actor who played Joey, later said he was oblivious to the subtext of Peter Graves' lines. When "Airplane!" came out, however, he was older and wiser—he'd turned 10. As Harris recalled in an A.V. Club oral history of the movie, "I was, like, "OK, this is what was going on. Got it."
The part of the copilot Roger Murdock, played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was originally written for Pete Rose. Kareem was paid $35,000, which he spent on an Oriental rug.
Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays rehearsed their dance moves for a full month—nearly as long as it took to shoot the entire movie—before the "Stayin' Alive" scene was filmed. ZAZ had to obtain special permission from the Bee Gees to speed up the song.
On the Beach
Although "Airplane!" spoofs the "disaster" films of the '70s, its movie references run the gamut from "Jaws" to "From Here to Eternity," which inspired the seaweed-strewn make-out scene (shot, incidentally, on the beach where Charlton Heston discovers the Statue of Liberty in "Planet of the Apes"). None of the directors had seen "Eternity," but they had to know this iconic scene: All three were devoted readers of Mad magazine.
ZAZ made a stab at writing dialogue for the jive scene, giving it as much authenticity as three nice Jewish boys from Milwaukee could muster. But when Al White and Norman Alexander Gibbs auditioned for roles of the Jive Dudes, they were ready with dialogue of their own. As David Zucker recalled in A.V. Club's oral history, "They immediately had the part and we had to apologize for what we had written."
'Oh, Stewardess, I Speak Jive'
Al White also wrote jive dialogue for Barbara Billingsley—aka June Cleaver—and coached her through it. At his request, she chatted on the phone with his mom, who was a fan of "Leave It to Beaver." Billingsley later came to see White in a play and wrote him a note afterward. "I still have that card," White recalled. "She really was lovely."
The Singing Nun
Helen Reddy, best known for "I Am Woman" and a veteran of "Airport 1975," was the original pick to play the nun. But Maureen McGovern was arguably an even better choice. She'd already won two Oscars—for "The Morning After," from "The Poseidon Adventure," and "We May Never Love Like This Again," from "The Towering Inferno."
The Guys in the Control Tower
Robert Hays recalled former "Sea Hunt" star Lloyd Bridges becoming baffled and frustrated by the bizarre direction of the film. But Robert Stack, who had played Elliot Ness on "The Untouchables," set him straight. According to Hays, Stack said, "Ah, c'mon, Lloyd. They just want us to be … us!"
Help! We're Flying!
The movie isn't known everywhere as "Airplane!" Its German title, for example, translated as "The Incredible Trip in a Crazy Airplane." In Brazil, it was "Tighten Your Seatbelts … the Pilot Is Gone." And in Norway: "Help! We're Flying!"
A Fitting Epitaph
Leslie Nielsen, who went on to star in "The Naked Gun" and other comedies, still carried his fart machine many years after "Airplane!" was released, even when promoting the DVD for the film. He died in 2010 at the age of 84. For his gravestone, he had chosen a three-word epitaph: "Let 'er rip."
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