“A lot of comedies in the last 30 years have wanted to be ‘Airplane...But most of those movies took the wrong message from ‘Airplane!’ They were gag, gag, gag, gag, where ‘Airplane!’ is really structured, driving the story along all the time. In a weird way it’s like a Beatles movie. It looks like the easiest thing in the world, but there’s a lot of sweat and blood that went into it.”
"Seeing the movie for the first time taught me a great lesson: You’ve got to play comedy as if it’s deadly serious. You’ve got to play weirdness as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.”
Surely It’s 30 (Don’t Call Me Shirley!)
WHEN the creators of “Airplane!” were lining up actors for their rollicking parody three decades ago, some of the straight-arrow character actors that ended up in the cast worried about the harm it might do to their careers. One of the most skittish participants: Peter Graves, the taciturn “Mission: Impossible” star who played the movie’s pilot, a kindly veteran who welcomes a little boy named Billy into the cockpit and asks questions like “Ever seen a grown man naked?”
“His agent got him the script, and he was totally turned off by it,” Jerry Zucker, who wrote and directed the film with his brother, David Zucker, and their lifelong friend Jim Abrahams, said recently during a phone interview with his erstwhile partners. “He thought it was tasteless trash.”
Mr. Abrahams interjected, his voice perfectly deadpan: “I don’t understand. What did he think was tasteless about pedophilia?”
Graves (who died in March) needn’t have worried. Within months of its release in July 1980 “Airplane!” became the highest-grossing comedy in box office history, a distinction that held until “Ghostbusters” came along in 1984. And it remains one of the most influential. Its anything-goes slapstick and furious pop culture riffs can be seen in the 20-gags-a-minute relentlessness of “The Simpsons,” “South Park” and “Family Guy” and grab-bag big-screen parodies like “Epic Movie, “Date Movie” and the “Scary Movie” franchise (the third and fourth installments of which were directed by none other than David Zucker). It also inspired “Airplane II: The Sequel” in 1982.
“I was in Rhode Island the first time I saw ‘Airplane!’ ” recalled Peter Farrelly, who co-directed “There’s Something About Mary” and many other slapstick comedies with his brother, Bobby. “Seeing it for the first time was like going to a great rock concert, like seeing Led Zeppelin or the Talking Heads. We didn’t realize until later that what we’d seen was a very specific kind of comedy that we now call the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school.”
Peter Farrelly and a writing partner, Bennett Yellin, were so enamored with “Airplane!” that they contrived to get a comedy script (still unproduced) into the hands of David Zucker, who liked it enough to give them their first Hollywood writing job. “I’ll tell you right now,” Peter Farrelly said, “if the Zuckers didn’t exist, there would be no Farrelly brothers.”
Back in 1979, when “Airplane!” was being shot on Universal’s back lot in Los Angeles, it didn’t seem like a potential blockbuster. The three Wisconsin-born filmmakers were rather amazed that anybody would give them a budget — and $3.5 million at that — to make such a lark, one that had no big stars. A follow-up to their 1977 cult film “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” which they had written, this was an extended riff on “Zero Hour!,” a glum thriller from 1957 about an imperiled aircraft that set the template for the next half-century’s worth of disaster pictures.
The plentiful pop cultural references and anything-for-a-laugh attitude of “Airplane!” recalled early films by Mel Brooks (“Blazing Saddles”) and Woody Allen (“Bananas”). But its velocity and density were new. Every scene was packed with surreal, often faintly metafictional sight gags (including a supporting turn by the N.B.A. giant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a co-pilot who denies that he’s really Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a cameo by Ethel Merman playing a psychiatric patient who thinks he’s Ethel Merman). And the film proudly served up jokes so astoundingly corny that they somehow managed to circle around the bend and become hilarious. (“Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious — and don’t call me Shirley!”)
At the same time “Airplane!” wasn’t just a collection of bits. The narrative hewed closely to that of “Zero Hour!,” and if you can factor out all the silliness — no small feat with a movie that segues from a “Casablanca”-inspired romantic flashback to a “Saturday Night Fever”-like dance number — what remains is a compact, even classical piece of filmmaking.
“A lot of comedies in the last 30 years have wanted to be ‘Airplane!,’ ” said Patton Oswalt, a comedian and actor and the voice of the hero in “Ratatouille.” “But most of those movies took the wrong message from ‘Airplane!’ They were gag, gag, gag, gag, where ‘Airplane!’ is really structured, driving the story along all the time. In a weird way it’s like a Beatles movie. It looks like the easiest thing in the world, but there’s a lot of sweat and blood that went into it.”
The filmmakers Z.A.Z. team cast relative unknowns — Robert Hays, a co-star of the sitcom “Angie,” and the angel-voiced, deeply kooky Julie Hagerty — as the film’s estranged lovers. And they filled out the production with sturdy, unglamorous character actors, including Graves, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen, who would build a second career out of playing clueless, comic creators of mayhem.
Mr. Hays, who played Ted Striker, the shell-shocked ex-military pilot with a drinking problem (cue beverage tossed in face), said Mr. Nielsen, a prankster, was a key influence on the movie’s tone. Mr. Nielsen kept the actors off-balance by interrupting their line readings with his favorite comic prop, a hand-held toy simulating flatulence.
“He played that thing like a maestro,” said Mr. Hays, who conveniently was a licensed pilot flying small aircraft since the late 1970s. (“To this day, when I’m heading over to a plane, I sometimes still get looks from people that are like, ‘Are you sure you want to get in there?’ ”)
The nominal plot of “Airplane!” recounts the efforts of a stalwart flight crew trying to land a commercial airliner after spoiled fish incapacitates most of the crew and passengers.
“Originally the movie was kind of trying to continue what we did in our first film, ‘Kentucky Fried Movie,’ ” said Jerry Zucker, who co-directed “Top Secret!” (1984), the cop-show parody television series “Police Squad!” (1982), and its spinoff “Naked Gun” films (starring Mr. Nielsen) with his brother and Mr. Abrahams. Solo, he has directed “Big Business,” “Ghost” and others.
“We had a live revue theater that we operated for one year in Madison starting in 1971, and then we moved the show to L.A. a year later,” he added. “We had a video component of the show that would play onstage in front of the live sketches — satires and spoofs of commercials.”
The team used a reel-to-reel video recorder to capture local television broadcasts and generate ideas. When “Zero Hour!” ended up on one of the tapes, the three knew they had struck comic gold. The first “Airplane!” script, titled “The Late Show,” was a variation on “Kentucky Fried Movie”: a “Zero Hour!” sendup interrupted by parodies of television commercials.
“There is one line in ‘Zero Hour!’ where a stewardess says, completely seriously, ‘The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner,’ ” Mr. Abrahams said. “That was the essence of the movie. We just repeated the line. We didn’t have to change a thing.”
Mr. Oswalt said: “Seeing the movie for the first time taught me a great lesson: You’ve got to play comedy as if it’s deadly serious. You’ve got to play weirdness as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.”
There was plenty of weirdness to play, and while the cast eventually got into the spirit of things, some of the veterans — those who’d cut their acting teeth in solemn television and movie dramas and wholesome sitcoms — were flummoxed at first. Barbara Billingsley never imagined that her long stint as the saintly suburban mom on “Leave It to Beaver” would lead to an “Airplane!” cameo as a woman who volunteers to interpret the subtitled street patois of some passengers. (“Oh, stewardess? I speak jive.”)
“She was totally nervous, but she read the scene pretty much the way you saw it in the movie,” said Mr. Abrahams.
Jerry Zucker added, “She was convincing without trying to be funny, which is what we wanted.” Had the entire film been poker faced, it might not have had the same energizing effect on viewers, Mr. Hays said. He credited the film’s success to its unpredictable mix of droll performances and bursts of anarchic visual humor. One of his favorites: “Reporters end an interview by saying, ‘O.K., guys, let’s get some pictures,’ and they start picking stuff right off the walls.”
He continued: “People tell me, ‘You guys were the first ones to do that kind of comedy,’ and I say, ‘Thank you.’ But the truth of the matter is, we were following in the footsteps of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy and ‘The Goon Show.’ It’s all one long evolution, and we just happened to be one of the steps along that path.’ ” The team has tried to put the experience in perspective and be humbled by it. But not so you’d notice.
“A lot has happened over the last 30 years,” Mr. Abrahams said, “but one thing that David and Jerry and I have all shared is that when we had children, the first thing we would do when we woke them up in the morning was ask, ‘What movie did Daddy direct?’ ”