Thursday, July 2, 2020

Happy (Belated) 40th Anniversary To Airplane!

Happy Belated 40th Anniversary to the movie Airplane!, which premiered back on June 27, 1980. Wow, hard to believe we've had forty years of "Don't call me Shirley" jokes!

The film was written and directed by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, collectively known as "ZAZ." They're the group that also gave us Police Squad!, Top Secret! and Ruthless People (adding exclamation points to their titles seems to be a running them with them).

Back in the 1970s, the ZAZ boys were watching TV, looking for material they could spoof. Late one night they came across the 1957 airline disaster movie Zero Hour, and were fascinated with its over the top, melodramatic tone. They realized that with just a bit of tweaking it could be turned into a comedy, and began working on a script which became Airplane!
Airplane! follows the exact same plot as Zero Hour, and features the same characters as well. Amazingly it even uses much of the original film's dialogue verbatim. 

For the major roles, the directors deliberately cast serious actors like Robert Stack, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges— none of whom had ever done comedy before. ZAZ instructed them to play their roles absolutely straight, with no winking at the camera. This approach highlighted the hammy dialogue and made their performances all the more hilarious.

For the role of Dr. Rumack, ZAZ considered Dom DeLuise (!), Christopher Lee and even Jack Webb (!!!). Eventually they settled on actor Leslie Nielsen. He'd spent his career playing serious, stern authority figures such as ship captains and lawyers.

Supposedly Nielsen had always wanted to be a comedy actor, so he jumped at the chance to star in the film. Oddly enough Nielsen used pretty much the same deadpan acting style in Airplane! as he did in his dramatic roles, but somehow he was hilarious in the part.

The movie launched an entire new career for Nielsen, and he spent the rest of his life starring in comedies and spoofs. 

The role of main character Ted Striker was originally written for comedian/talk show host David Letterman (!??). He auditioned for the part in 1979, but ZAZ opted not to go with him. They then considered Bruce Jenner (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) before ultimately picking actor Robert Hays. Let's thank the Movie Gods for that particular decision!

The film also cast Barbara Billingsley— aka June Cleaver of Leave It To Beaver, and possibly the whitest woman ever— as a passenger who translated the "jive speak" of two black men for a befuddled stewardess. 

As with Leslie Nielsen, Billingsley said her small role in the film jumpstarted her stalled career and gave it new life. As funny as it was, I have a feeling they wouldn't be able to get away with that scene here in hypersensitive 2020.

Airplane! was a massive hit for Paramount, raking in a whopping $158 million on its tiny $3.5 million budget. And that $158 million was in 1980 dollars! That'd be the equivalent of almost $500 million today!

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