I’ll admit straight out that I’m a bad fan of the greatest film ever made. No, I’m not talking about a popular classic like The Godfather or Citizen Kane, and don’t even mention something like Fight Club in my presence.
I’m talking about the cinematic genius that is Airplane (properly styled as Airplane!), and I’m a bad fan because I completely missed its 38th anniversary earlier this month on July 2. One of my university friends, who shares my passion for the film, had to remind me.
My love — some might say, obsession — for Airplane comes from three things: I’m a huge aviation geek, I love the classic 1970s disaster films that it spoofs and it’s utterly hilarious. I can quote it for days (“By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?”) and I can’t pass through LAX without humming Elmer Bernstein’s catchy opening theme. Bernstein, if you didn’t know, was a musical genius, having composed memorable scores for movies like The Great Escape, Ghostbusters and The Age of Innocence, just to name a few.
It’s impossible to say how many times I’ve seen it or choose my “favorite” part. Though the back-and-forth between the unseen announcers about the airport white and red zones is a top contender (“Listen, Betty, don’t start up with your white zone shit again.”), there’s also Otto the autopilot, the disco scene in the bar and the brilliant bits from Barbara Billingsley, Ethel Merman, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot.”) and Jill Whelan (for the youths out there, River of Jordan is a real song). But I’ll stop now before I get carried away.
From serious to spoof
But Airplane isn’t just funny, the story of how it was conceived is fascinating. Written and directed by Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, it’s a close parody of the 1957 film Zero Hour. The similarities between the two are striking, so much so that the writers bought the remake right to Zero Hour for $2,500 to avoid breaking copyright law. The plot of Airplane is the same with a few minor changes (Zero Hour is set in Canada), its script is almost verbatim and both protagonists share the name Ted Striker. For a scene-by-scene breakdown of how alike they are, check out this fascinating YouTube clip.
The writer of Zero Hour, Arthur Hailey, based his screenplay on Flight into Danger, a 1956 television special he wrote for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation starring James Doohan as the guilt-stricken war veteran turned pilot-savior. Doohan, of course, would later find fame as Star Trek’s Scotty and Hailey would later write both the 1968 book Airport and the screenplay for the 1970 movie of the same name. The Airport series of disaster films in turn inspired Airplane gags including a nun with a guitar and a sick girl on her way to an operation (Whelan’s character).
For their parts, Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker were only getting started in comedy. Together, or individually, the trio would go on to direct hits like Top Secret!, Ruthless People, The Naked Gun, Hot Shots and Rat Race. Jerry Zucker also directed Ghost, but minus Whoopi Goldberg’s scene in the bank, that wasn’t supposed to be funny. They weren’t, however, involved in Airplane II: The Sequel. It had some funny parts (“I’m sorry, I don’t do impressions… my training is in psychiatry.”), but it largely missed the mark.
Almost four decades later, the jokes in Airplane remain razor-sharp — even the line about the sick passenger not feeling that bad since she saw that Ronald Reagan film. But the movie’s success is also due to the fact that the gags rest on a rock-solid, suspenseful plot. Even without Captain Oveur asking young Joey if he likes gladiator movies, you’d still have a pretty compelling drama in a big, pretty white plane that looks like a large Tylenol.
Things you may have not known
Here are more Airplane fun facts, and check out this epic oral history from Will Harris at the AV Club.
- Sigourney Weaver, fresh from Alien, auditioned for flight attendant Elaine Dickinson, a role that eventually went to Julie Hagerty. As we learn from Harris’s oral history, Weaver was reluctant to say the line, “Sit on your face and wriggle.”
- Though Robert Hays played Ted Striker, David Letterman had auditioned.
- Transamerica was a real airline!
- Jimmie Walker, who played J.J. in Good Times, has a small part as the guy who cleans the airplane’s windscreen before takeoff.
- Howard Jarvis, the man behind California’s tax-cutting Proposition 13 (passed in 1978), is the guy who waits in Striker’s taxi at LAX for the entire movie.
- Though the aircraft in the film is a Boeing 707 jet, the sound you hear when the plane is shown on screen is that of a propeller airliner.
- It cost just $3.5 million to film, but it eventually made $83.4 million in the US.
- With listings like “Guy in Charge of Lots of Things,” even the credits are funny.
- George Kennedy, who starred in all four Airport films, was offered the role of Steve McCroskey, the guy who picks the wrong week to stop smoking (and much more). He turned it down and Lloyd Bridges got the part.
- Both Jerry and David Zucker have cameos at the start of the film as ground crew members who direct the 747 through the terminal window. Abrahams has a cameo as a religious zealot who gets punched in the airport.
- Stayin’ Alive was sped up to fit the bar scene where Hays’s and Hagerty’s characters first meet. Listen closely and you’ll hear it.
- Lee Bryant plays the woman who questions why her husband is having a second cup of coffee (and later has the panic attack). She also was in a 1978 Yuban coffee commercial that the movie spoofs.