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Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and in the forty years since it’s release, Airplane! has been flattered by countless imitators. I have often turned to friends and asked them if they like movies about Gladiators. I’ve seen people raise a cigarette to their lips and say “looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue”. To some around them, It’s puzzling, but more often than not it gets a laugh of recognition. That’s the power of not only a great comedy film, but an influential one. Airplane! was a trend setter, a movie that invented a new genre of comedy film, the modern parody. There have been countless imitators and most of them have been at the low end of the quality scale. For every Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story there is an Epic Movie. But Airplane! Is a movie born from imitation.
Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (collectively known as ZAZ), wrote Airplane! while they were performing with the Kentucky Fried Theatre, a theatre group they had founded in 1971. To obtain material for comedy routines they regularly recorded late night television and reviewed the tapes later primarily to observe the commercials which they would use as inspiration for comedy sketches. It was while reviewing one of these recordings that they discovered the 1957 film Zero Hour!, a serious drama which they then used as the basis for the screenplay for Airplane! They followed the structure of Zero Hour! beat for beat, lifting the entire plot and most of the character names verbatim.
In fact, the script borrowed so much from Zero Hour! (including the exclamation mark) that they believed they needed to negotiate the rights to create the remake of the film and ensure they remained within the allowance for parody within copyright law. They were able to obtain the rights from Warner Bros. and Paramount for about $2,500 at the time. Originally, the script had a series of breaks for fake commercials which were taken out for the final draft which was completed in 1975.
They shopped it around Hollywood but found that no studio wanted to make it. There were so many copies of the script in circulation that there were reports of people finding it on buses. Slowly but surely the script began to get noticed. When Michael Eisner, the future head of Disney who was working for Paramount Pictures, asked his friend, a script reader at United Artists, what she had read lately that she thought was good, her praise of the Airplane! script caught his attention and the film was eventually greenlit at Paramount.
The unique style of Airplane! confused many actors who read the script. Up to that point only comedians had acted in comedy films and the producers initial suggestions for the role of Ted Striker, the damaged ex-fighter pilot with a drinking problem were the comedy stars of the day like Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. Dom Deluise was their choice for the role of the Doctor but ZAZ wanted to cast actors known for their serious roles. They didn’t want comedians acting funny. The joke was that these people weren’t acting in a comedy, the only way the jokes would work is if they were delivered sincerely and without any tongues in any cheeks.
The casting of Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen was instrumental in achieving the serious yet absurd tone of the movie. Robert Stack understood exactly what they were going for and reassured Lloyd Bridges on his first day on set when he couldn’t get his head around exactly what the directors wanted from him. “They just want us to be us,” Stack told Bridges. Leslie Nielsen, who up to that point was an accomplished straight actor, was also initially confused until the directors showed him Zero Hour! Peter Graves, who plays the pilot with an unhealthy relationship towards young boys hated the script which he called “disgusting” and had to be convinced by his family that the movie was going to be hilarious.
The music by Elmer Bernstein, who was known for his work on The Magnificent Seven and To Kill A Mockingbird was a really great, sincere B-Movie score. Even the airport announcers at the beginning of the film having an argument about abortion were a real-life married couple who recorded announcements for airports. The only actor they couldn’t get for the movie was George Kennedy who was the star of the popular big budget series of 1970’s Airport disaster movies that Airplane! was spoofing. The Universal studio heads didn’t like the thought of their star making fun of their movies so he wasn’t made available.
Airplane! was released to critical and commercial acclaim and launched the comedy career of Leslie Nielsen whom Abrahams and the Zucker brothers had described at the time as a “closet comedian.” He had delighted and infuriated the cast and crew during the making of Airplane! with the judicious use of his handheld fart machine on set. They would go on to create the short lived TV series Police Squad! specifically for Nielsen which led directly to the popular trilogy of Naked Gun movies where George Kennedy would eventually get his chance to work with the ZAZ team as Frank’s partner, Ed.
Airplane! has endured as a classic comedy not only because of its incredible amount of visual and verbal gags which all hit the mark but because of its adherence to it’s classic narrative structure. Various members of the ZAZ team would go on to make the Hot Shots! series of films spoofing Top Gun and Rambo that would reunite them with Lloyd Bridges and Top Secret!, a film that features the cinematic debut of Val Kilmer as an Elvis Presley type singer caught up in a wartime plot in Germany that is a silly, undiscovered gem if you haven’t seen it.
It’s the solid structure that makes Airplane! not just a well made comedy but a well-made movie with a love story and a redemptive character arc for its main protagonist. In a world of line-o-rama comedy movies where the use of digital film is cheap and easy and you can keep rolling as the actors come up with variations on a line, it’s refreshing to see a comedy that is lovingly and carefully constructed to make you laugh. Comedy movies today tend to throw so much shit and some of it sticks but for me, it’s nice to have a 40-year-old movie that knows just how much shit to throw and not just at a fan!