Airplane! is 40 years old, you say? Surely you can’t be serious! Well, we are serious — and don’t call us Shirley. Since this silly-yet-clever spoof of Airport and other disaster movies opened on June 2, 1980, audiences haven’t stopped laughing. The plot follows a war veteran (Robert Hays) who chases after his stewardess girlfriend (Julie Hagerty) and is forced to land a commercial airliner when the pilots and passengers get food poisoning. But that’s just an excuse for actors Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen to satirize themselves with deadpan dialogue, double entendres and sight gags galore — making Airplane! a huge hit. (The $3.2 million film made $83 million in theaters — or $291 million in 2020 dollars.)
For its anniversary, Closer talked with some of its stars as well as David Zucker, who cowrote and codirected Airplane! with brother Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams to get the equally funny behind-the-scenes stories. By the way, is there anyone out there who knows how to fly a plane?
David Zucker (co-writer/co-director):
My brother Jerry, Jim Abrahams and I ran the Kentucky Fried Theater in L.A. One night, we left the VCR on to get commercials to spoof and found this movie we thought was unintentionally funny, Zero Hour! [from Airport writer Arthur Hailey]. So we paid about $2,500 to option the rights and wrote a script in 1975 — and it was turned down by everyone. Then we wrote Kentucky Fried Movie and it was a hit, so we rewrote the [Airplane!] script and everyone turned us down again except Paramount, [which] guided us through another rewrite. We were apprehensive, but they made it better.
The other fight was trying to get to direct it. Paramount didn’t want three of us and we’d never directed a movie, but we knew there was no one else who could do this kind of comedy, because we invented it. They made a deal to give us an executive producer, Howard W. Koch, and they could fire us in two weeks if they wanted. We said sure!
David: Bruce Jenner read about three times [for Ted] but wasn’t really right for it. We had David Letterman screen-test, but he was never enthusiastic. Jerry said to his agent, “It would be great if David did it.” He said, “Fat chance!”
Robert Hays (Ted): My agent was told they couldn’t find people. She said to Koch, “I’ve got your Ted.” I was doing [ABC’s] Angie at the time. So she brought me over, I met with the boys and we got along. I screen-tested and that was it!
David: Some other stars like Sigourney Weaver and Shelley Long read for the part of Elaine, and they were very nice. But when Julie came in, she just blew us away. We knew.
Julie Hagerty (Elaine): I was working at my brother’s off-off-off-Broadway theater in my first play. A wonderful casting director saw me and invited me to do a screen test. Later on, there were more people on set than I’d ever performed for because the theater was so small!
David: Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but he collected Oriental rugs and his manager apparently said, “If you want this rug, you’re going to have to do this [movie].” So he took it!
Joyce Bulifant (Mrs. Davis): I said, “I just read the dumbest script in the world! People are coming down the baggage claim instead of the bags! Why do they think that’s funny?” My husband said, “You’re an actress. You act!” So I did it!
Jill Whelan (Lisa Davis, the heart patient whose IV is knocked out):
I auditioned and Howard asked me to make a funny face, so I made the fish lips I make in the movie. That’s just what came to my mind!
Robert: Peter Graves told me he read the script, threw it across the room and said it was the lousiest piece of junk he’d ever read! He was disgusted, but his agent and daughters said to take another look. Lloyd Bridges was like, “What are we doing?” And Robert Stack, who got it immediately, said “Come on, Lloyd, they just want us to be us!” Then he really got into it!
David: Leslie Nielsen put a comic spin on things, so we said, “Play it like you don’t know you’re in a comedy.” We offered his doctor role to Vincent Price and Jack Webb, but they turned it down. Vincent Price said that his greatest career regret was turning down Airplane!
Julie: When we were doing the beach scene [spoofing From Here to Eternity], Bob said, “Hold on to me as tight as you can.” Then they released the water and I felt like we were going to be swept out to sea! And they didn’t say they were going to put catfish in my hair …
Robert: There wasn’t [ad-libbing], but they would call Stephen Stucker, who played Johnny in the tower, and ask, “What would Johnny say here?” Because nobody could come up with ridiculous responses like him! And Al White and Norman Gibbs changed [their “jive” talk] a little. Al told me he got a dictionary of Black slang.
Jill: Leslie always had this little contraption: the fart machine.
Robert: At first, everyone thought it was him! That he had a problem.
Jill: When we were promoting the movie, we got in an elevator with all these Asian tourists and he let it rip. They got out on the next floor!
Julie: One time he called me over, made that noise, and went, “Julie!” Everyone looked. I wanted to die.
David: Peter Graves was sitting behind me at the premiere, and he was laughing harder than anyone!
Joyce: At a screening, I said “This is going to be a disaster.” But people were literally rolling in the aisles!
Julie: When I go on airplanes, it’s still hilarious. There are so many classic lines people love to quote: “A hospital — what is it?” “It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.” They’re so clever and fun. It’s amazing that it stands the test of time.
Reporting by Katie Bruno
For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.