We Have Clearance, Clarence, to Share These Secrets About Airplane!

The madcap comedy came out 40 years ago and remains as absurd and funny as ever

By Natalie Finn Jul 02, 2020 2:00 PMTags
Airplane!, PosterKobal/Shutterstock

Shirley, we're serious.

It's been 40 years since Airplane!, the madcap spoof landed in theaters, packing nonstop gags and countless one-liners into 87 bouncy minutes.

The directorial debut of ZAZ (the filmmaking trio composed of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker) cost a reported $3.5 million to make and raked in $83.5 million, paving the way for a slew of parodies to come and cementing its status as a classic summer blockbuster, as well as the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 1980.

And since we picked the wrong year to quit drinking, there's no better time than the present to revisit the ridiculousness of Airplane!, which the American Film Institute has deemed the 10th-funniest movie of all time.

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"The legacy of Airplane! is wonderful and amazing," Jerry Zucker, whose films as a solo director include Ruthless People and Ghost, told the Baltimore Sun in 2001.

"Although we thought it would be a big hit—we were very headstrong at that time and thought we had something special—I don't think we would ever have guessed that it would last, that 20 years later, it would still be on someone's list," he said.

And 20 years after that, here we are, with a manifest of secrets about what went into making all those timeless laughs.

While the name of the film may at first evoke the 1970 disaster adventure Airport at first glance, and Airplane! does take some inspiration from it, the 1980 comedy is really a faithful on-the-nose parody of the 1957 flight-in-peril-due-to-food-poisoning drama Zero Hour!, starring Sterling Hayden, Dana Andrews (as Ted Stryker), Linda Darnell (Stryker's estranged wife, Ellen) and an exclamation point that would punctuate countless future spoofs.

In fact, parts of the script are used in Airplane! verbatim, further proving that few things are more hilarious than ham-handed melodrama. And though allowance for parody under copyright law likely would have protected Airplane!, the filmmakers bought the rights to Zero Hour!'s story and screenplay for $2,500. Arthur Hailey, who wrote the teleplay on which Zero Hour! is based, also wrote the novel Airport.

But you can tell that to George Zip.

David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the brothers' friend since childhood in Wisconsin, had previously written Kentucky Fried Movie, which was directed by John Landis, but they hadn't yet made a movie themselves and most studios were reluctant to let them start with this one.

Ultimately the addition of veteran producer Howard Koch to the behind-the-scenes team helped encourage Michael Eisner, then the president of Paramount, to greenlight a $3.5 million budget for Airplane!, according to Jim CrynsThe Making of Airplane! A Leaflet.

Eisner let them have fairly free rein, but not so much that they could shoot in black and white and have the action take place on a more antiquated plane (to be even more like Zero Hour!) as opposed to a modern jetliner.

Airplane! was the first movie for both Robert Hays (though he had worked extensively in TV) and Julie Haggerty, and their chemistry was top-notch as traumatized former fighter pilot Ted Striker and the sensible Elaine Dickinson, Ted's flight attendant ex-girlfriend whom he's trying to just have a chat with before both of the plane's pilots pass out and he has no choice but to try and bring her in for a landing.

Despite the zaniness and inane dialogue that at times resembles the work of Christopher Guest, the actors weren't asked to improvise. 

"There was never any ad-libbing," Haggerty told Cryns. "They wrote the script and knew what they wanted. I watched the movie for the first time with ZAZ and Hays. Even they were laughing during the screening. I Just go back and watch it every so often. It's so funny. It broke so much new ground."

Incidentally, a few years prior Hays had read for the role of another iconic pilot, Han Solo, but his audition for Airplane! went better (better than David Letterman's reluctant but agent-arranged audition for the role of Striker, too) and he's been friends with the Zucker brothers ever since.

From the files of You Can't Make This Up, Hays first read the Airplane! script while he was on a flight to Minneapolis and when the flight attendant asked what he was laughing at, he handed her the script and she started laughing (a far better result than his effect on fellow passengers in Airplane!).

"Have you ever woken from a dream feeling so good because you'd dreamed you had just won the lottery?" Hays remarked to Jim Cryns. "Well, I do that now and again. I wake up from a wonderful dream that I had auditioned for a feature—my first—and had gotten the part. Not just a part, but the lead in a comedy that was so fun to make it probably is illegal in some states—certainly in some countries! Every day you couldn't wait to get to the set."

David Leisure, the character actor perhaps best known for Empty Nest, playing Joe Isuzu in an iconic Isuzu ad campaign in the 1980s, and turning up as a Hare Krishna in Airplane!, was college roommates with Robert Hays.

"He's my oldest and best friend," Leisure told Cryns.

"If you're old enough to remember the 1980s you'll recall airports were barraged by people asking for donations, most notably the Hare Krishnas," Hagerty said. Leisure called the scene where Robert Stack strides determinedly through the airport but stops to punch or otherwise fight all the folks asking for money "a brilliant little moment."

The genius of this movie was the parade of actors known for dramatic roles that ZAZ assembled to deliver jokes with utmost seriousness—such as Leslie Nielsen, who in his later life became famous for spoofs like The Naked Gun (directed by David Zucker and written by ZAZ with Pat Proft), but who before Airplane! was largely a mid-level star known for B-pictures like Forbidden Planet and The Poseidon Adventure.

But even if all he had ever done on film was reply to the comment "Surely you can't be serious" with "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley," he'd be a legend.

"My dad said he didn't really recognized how funny it all was until he saw Airplane! at a screening with a test audience," Nielsen's daughter Thea told Cryns. "Dad said audience members were clutching their sides they were laughing so hard."

"It suddenly dawned on him he wasn't being cast against type," Thea said. "The fact was he was always cast against type before Airplane!"

Thea also said that her fun-loving father was a lot like Frank Drebin, the good-hearted and heroic albeit clueless cop he played in The Naked Gun movies—and he sold fart-sound noisemakers to everyone on the Airplane! set, causing so much flatulent levity that David Zucker sent a basket around to collect the toys. 

Hagerty backed that up, recalling how Nielsen "always broke the scene with his fake flatulence. The studio executives would come over and ask what was happening, but it was Leslie so you could forgive him."

Robert Stack, the Emmy-winning star of the 1960s-era series The Untouchables and future host of Unsolved Mysteries, had also starred in the 1954 airplane-in-danger action drama The High and the Mighty. Koch had directed him in a few episodes of The Untouchables and suggested him for the role of the intense Capt. Rex Kramer.

Long before Tom Cruise started doing his own stunts, Peter Graves starred in the classic TV series Mission: Impossible, making Captain Clarence Oveur—"over, Oveur"; "we have clearance, Clarence"—the man to pilot this flight, until he's felled by the fish, of course. 

Like Barbara Billingsley, he didn't understand what he was reading, either, when he first got the script and called it "crap," but his agent assured him it was going to be funny.

Meanwhile, L.A. Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still smack in the middle of his playing career when he signed on to be co-pilot Roger Murdock. "Every few months someone will holler a line at me on the street and give me a thumbs up," he told Cryns in 2019. "...You'd think it would get old or annoying [after 39 years], but it really doesn't. It's gratifying to know that I was part of something that has been giving people pleasure for nearly four decades."

Abdul-Jabbar, who had some acting experience (he had done TV and fought Bruce Lee in The Game of Death), also said that Graves was "very easy to work with" and helped him "stay focused" in his scenes.

According to The Making of Airplane!, however, baseball star Pete Rose (who was not yet banned for life from the sport for betting on the team he was managing) was the first choice to be the athlete-as-co-pilot (just like in Zero Hour!, featuring football player Elroy Leon "Crazylegs" Hirsch) who stays in character unless you question his regular-season effort.

"Graves took one look at the script and just about threw it in the trash," David Zucker acknowledged, talking to The Guardian in 2010. "Well, can you blame him? He's playing a pedophile and every line he has is horrifying."

Jerry Zucker added, "I know—and the defining line of his very varied career will be, 'Billy, have you ever seen a grown man naked?' Stack got it right away, though. Lloyd Bridges was asking once about his motivation or something and Stack says, 'Lloyd, there's a spear gonna fly into the right wall and a watermelon's gonna burst on stage left. Believe me, no one's looking at us!'"

But Bridges, father of Jeff and Beau Bridges and the veteran star of Sea Hunt and dozens of films before he became known for his comedic roles later in life, has the best running joke in the movie with his "I picked the wrong day to quit" everything from smoking and drinking to taking amphetamines and sniffing glue, all vices that air traffic control supervisor Steve McCroskey returns to as the movie goes on. 

"As kids we got such a kick out of it because he was playing a total drug addict," Jeff Bridges recalled, laughing, during an interview in 2017, "and it was the antithesis of who he was in real life, he was such a health freak."

Barbara Billingsley, who played one of the original iconic TV moms, June Cleaver, on Leave It to Beaver, was happy to be in on the joke as the nice lady who spoke Jive.

"I was sent the script and I thought it was the craziest script I ever read," she recalled in an interview for the Archive of American Television, "and my husband said, 'I think it's funny.' Well, my part wasn't written, really. It just said I talk Jive."

Billingsley met with the producers and agreed to do it, and then she met with the actors she plays off in the film, Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White, and they coached the erstwhile Mrs. Cleaver in how to deliver the lines just so. She even read up on the origins of jive as a cultural touchstone. But when they got to the set, Billingsley said, her lines were apparently too coherent—the directors wanted the language to be way more out there—"so I had to redo it...That made me a little nervous 'cause I hadn't worked in a long time.

"But it all turned out fine and they were great, these fellas, and they could rattle Jive off like you have no idea. I could never get a clue into how it was done," she said.

After having not acted in anything but a couple of episodes of F.B.I. since Leave It to Beaver ended in 1963, "I went to New York to be on the Today show because of that role!" Billingsley marveled. And Airplane! really did mark the beginning of a new, very busy chapter for her, including tons of cameos; reprising the role of June on The New Leave It to Beaver, which starred almost all of the original cast and ran from 1983 until 1989; and providing the voice of the recognizable-by-her-stockings-only Nanny in the animated Muppet Babies.

Joey, who gets to visit the cockpit and get asked all sorts of inappropriate questions, is also the name of Stryker's son in Zero Hour!

Ross Harris, who was 10 when he played Joey, was already a veteran child actor, having started doing commercials at the age of 6 and appearing in The Love BoatLittle House on the Prairie and more. In the 1990s he cofounded the electronic band Sukia and, after they broke up, he stayed in the business as a musician, producer and director-photographer, performing on and snapping the photos for Beck's Odelay and directing the music video for Elliot Smith's "Miss Misery," the Oscar-nominated song from Good Will Hunting. He's also a married father of two.

When they shot the flashback bar scene that segues into a Saturday Night Fever parody, John Travolta was also on the lot making Urban Cowboy, and he and Hays did get to meet—but Hays didn't tell Travolta that they were busy spoofing his movie at the moment.

Hays was strapped into a harness for the Russian dance sequence, so both legs could lift off the ground at once while he juggled oranges.

Hagerty, who most recently was in Marriage Story and the Disney+ movie Noelle, said in 2019 that people continued to come up to her to tell her how much they love Airplane!.

"There was one naysayer," she shared with Cryns. "My Grandma Hagerty pulled me aside one day and asked, 'When are you going to make a nice movie?' You can't please everybody. I guess it was a little ahead of her time."

Lorna Patterson, who played the flotation-device-demonstrating flight attendant Randy, told Cryns: "It was about rhythms and how they wanted the jokes played. One of the things that separates the truly inspired from everybody else is ZAZ knew with certainty who they were and what they could do. They didn't let anybody undermine that, even if nobody had attempted the same thing before."

Because of the relatively small budget, they only had two life preservers for her to blow up—and the scene was not as effortless as it looked.

"They used CO2 cartridges to make the rubber expand and fill with air and the duck was to pop up fast," she told Cryns. "In rehearsal, we blocked the scene and I pretended to pull the cord. I'd pantomime it. They strapped the cartridges to my shoulder and I was wearing a thin white blouse. When we shot the scene, I pulled the cord, the cartridges went off and they burned. It was ice cold. We did the shot and I tried to hold still, keep from screaming, but I was in great pain and couldn't continue the scene.

"They asked what the problem was and I told them it was burning, like I was on fire. For the last inflatable duck, they put a pad under the cartridges and we got it."

Add Lee Bryant—the actress who played Mrs. Hammen, whose husband never has a second cup of coffee at home and whom people line up to shake and slap when she starts to lose it during the flight—to the list of people who "couldn't make a lot of sense out of the script" when she first read it.

Coincidentally, she knew Nick Pryor, the actor who played her husband Jim, from working on the SAG board together.

"I told him at the time, I knew why was doing the film, I needed the credit," Bryant told Cryns. "Then I asked him why he was. HE told me he thought the movie would serve us both well in our careers, just had a feeling it would be a hit. Of course he was right."

And though the scene of passengers, including a few nuns, lining up to smack her silly may not make it to the screen these days, it was Bryant who told ZAZ it would be even funnier if people started slapping her. "They were worried I'd get hurt but I told them not to worry," she said, "we'd stage it, the whole bit would be funny. Sometimes they came close to hitting me. Leslie couldn't seem to get the timing right."

That's Jonathan Banks, of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame, as air traffic controller Gunderson!

"There was such an absurdity in that film, such constant fun," Banks recalled to Cryns. "I turn it on and still laugh. Bob Hays and I didn't work at the same time together on Airplane! but we did later on a film titled For Better or For Worse in 1990. Bobby's a kind guy, a good friend. He knows I like beer and around Christmas time I always get a cool selection of different kinds of beer. How cool is that?"

As for that blink-and-you-miss-it scene that we can't refresh for you in a photograph, those bare breasts that appear out of nowhere, basically as an homage to de rigeur frat humor and almost obligatory nude scenes, belonged to Francesca "The Kitten" Natividad, who went on to pose for Playboy.

"I'm a burlesque star so I had no problem getting naked," she told Jim Cryns for The Making of Airplane! A Leaflet. "Jerry just told me to shake them up...It was a great experience."

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"We spent so much time trying to persuade everyone else that it would be funny, that we started to believe it ourselves," Jerry Zucker recalled to The Guardian in 2010. "So we were pretty gung-ho when it came out and weren't that surprised it was a hit. But no one ever envisioned it still being around 30 years later."

Another 10 years later and Airplane!'s vector, Victor, is still pointing ever skyward.