15 High-Flying Facts About Airplane!
Shot on a budget of $3.5 million, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker wrote and directed Airplane!, a movie intended to parody all of the disaster movies that graced movie theaters throughout the recently concluded 1970s. The film ended up making over $83.4 million in theaters in the United States alone, and resurrecting a few acting careers in the process. Today, it's still widely regarded as a very funny and extremely influential comedy classic.
1. IT WAS AN ALMOST DIRECT PARODY OF THE 1957 MOVIE ZERO HOUR!
Shorewood, Wisconsin childhood friends Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker grew up and moved to Los Angeles, where they were responsible for the sketch comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater. The trio made a habit of recording late-night television, looking for commercials to make fun of for their video and film parodies, which is how they discovered Zero Hour!, which also featured a protagonist named Ted Stryker (in Airplane! it's Ted Striker). In order to make sure the camera angles and lighting on Airplane! were matching those of Zero Hour!, the trio always had the movie queued up on set. Yes, the three filmmakers did buy the rights to their semi source material.
2. UNIVERSAL THOUGHT IT WAS TOO SIMILAR TO THEIR AIRPORT FRANCHISE.
Universal released four plane disaster movies in the seventies: Airport in 1970; Airport 1975 (confusingly in 1974); Airport ‘77; and The Concorde ... Airport ‘79. Helen Reddy portrayed Sister Ruth in Airport 1975 and was game to play Sister Angelina in Airplane! before Universal stepped in and threatened to sue. Instead the role went to Maureen McGovern, who sang the Oscar-winning theme songs to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, two movies that were also “disaster” movies, albeit ones not involving a plane.
3. DAVID LETTERMAN, BRUCE JENNER, SIGOURNEY WEAVER. AND OTHERS CAME IN TO AUDITION.
Paramount Studios suggested Dom DeLuise in Leslie Nielsen’s eventual role, and Barry Manilow for Ted Striker, but they were never asked to audition. Chevy Chase was erroneously announced as the star of the movie in a 1979 news item in The Hollywood Reporter.
4. ROGER MURDOCK WAS WRITTEN WITH PETE ROSE IN MIND.
Rose was busy playing baseball when Airplane! was shot in August, so they cast Kareem Abdul-Jabbar instead. Abdul-Jabbar’s agent insisted on an extra $5,000 to the original offer of $30,000 salary so that his client could purchase an oriental rug.
5. PETER GRAVES THOUGHT THE SCRIPT WAS "TASTELESS TRASH."
6. NO, THE ACTOR PLAYING JOEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT PETER GRAVES WAS ACTUALLY SAYING.
Rossie Harris was only nine years old when he played the role of Joey, so did not understand the humor in Turkish prisons or any of Oveur’s other comments. But by the time he turned 10 and saw the movie, Harris had figured it out.
7. IT WAS ETHEL MERMAN’S FINAL FILM APPEARANCE.
"The undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage” played a disturbed soldier who believed he was Ethel Merman. Merman passed away in 1984.
8. MIKE FROM BREAKING BAD AND BETTER CALL SAUL WAS IN IT.
Jonathan Banks plays air traffic controller Gunderson.
9. THE THREE DIRECTOR SET-UP CAUSED LEGAL PROBLEMS.
The Directors Guild of America ruled that Abrahams and the two Zuckers couldn’t all be credited for directing a movie, nor be credited under the single “fictitious name of Abrahams N. Zuckers.” A DGA rep was on set to make sure that only Jerry Zucker spoke to the actors. What he saw was Jerry Zucker next to the camera, who would then go to a nearby trailer where the other two were watching the takes on a video feed, and come back to give notes to the actors after conferring with his partners. A DGA executive board eventually gave the three one-time rights to all share the credit.
10. A BIT ABOUT BLIND POLISH AIRLINE PILOTS WAS WRITTEN AND FILMED.
Blind singer José Feliciano, and lookalikes of blind singers Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, played Polish airline co-pilots. The Polish-American League protested, and it was determined by the writer-directors that the idea wasn’t funny enough to stay in the movie.
11. ROBERT HAYS WAS STARRING IN A TV SHOW AT THE SAME TIME.
Ted Striker raced back and forth between the sets of Angie and Airplane! for two very busy weeks. The theme song to Angie was performed by the one and only Maureen McGovern.
12. HAYS WAS, AND IS, A LICENSED PILOT.
He can even fly the ones with four engines.
13. LESLIE NIELSEN PLAYED WITH HIS FART MACHINE CONSTANTLY.
He sold portable fart machines for $7.00 apiece on set, causing a brief epidemic of fart noises emanating from most of the cast and crew and delaying production. When they were shooting Hays’s close-up, Nielsen used the machine after every other word of his line, “Mr. Striker, can you land this plane?”
14. STEPHEN STUCKER CAME UP WITH ALL OF JOHNNY’S LINES.
Stucker was a member of the Kentucky Fried Theater. His line “Me John, Big Tree” was part of an old riff he used to do, which continued with him going down on his knees and putting an ear to the ground to hear when a wagon train was arriving.
15. THE ROUGH CUT WAS 115 MINUTES LONG.
After screenings at three college campuses and two theaters, it was cut to 88 minutes.