'Airplane!' at 25: The Disaster Movie that Wasn't The parody movie Airplane!, a source of favorite comedic bits that are still recalled in conversations today, is marking its 25th anniversary. Brothers Jerry and David Zucker wrote the film with Jim Abrahams, who also directed.
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'Airplane!' at 25: The Disaster Movie that Wasn't

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'Airplane!' at 25: The Disaster Movie that Wasn't

'Airplane!' at 25: The Disaster Movie that Wasn't

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And, Michele, today we are observing an important anniversary on the program.

NORRIS: An anniversary? What is it?

SIEGEL: Well, it's an annual commemoration of something like a birthday, but surely you knew that.

NORRIS: I did, but please don't call me Shirley. Is it a commemoration of an important political event?

SIEGEL: No, this is an entirely different kind of anniversary altogether.

NORRIS: Altogether?

SIEGEL: Altogether.

NORRIS and SIEGEL: (In unison) No, this is an entirely different kind of anniversary.

SIEGEL: That's right. It has been 25 years since those jokes appeared together in the same movie, together with lots of jokes that we can't tell here. Some may remember 1980 as the year of the Reagan landslide or of the Olympic Games that the US boycotted, but for a lot of moviegoers it was the year that pilot Clarence Oveur, co-pilot Roger Murdock and navigator Victor Basta took off from Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of "Airplane!")

Unidentified Male Character #1: LA departure frequency one-two-three-point-niner.

Unidentified Male Character #2: Roger.

Unidentified Male Character #3: Huh?

Unidentified Male Character #2: Request vector, over.

Unidentified Male Character #4: What?

Unidentified Male Character #1: Flight two-zero-niner clear for vector three-two-four.

Unidentified Male Character #2: We have clearance, Clarence.

Unidentified Male Character #3: Roger, Roger. What's our vector, Victor?

Unidentified Male Character #5: Tower radio clearance, over.

Unidentified Male Character #3: That's Clarence Oveur.

SIEGEL: That's right, the movie "Airplane!," which is spelled with an exclamation point, is 25 this summer, and joining us from Los Angeles are the co-creators of "Airplane!"

First, Jerry Zucker, welcome to the program...

Mr. JERRY ZUCKER (Co-creator of "Airplane!"): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: ...and David Zucker...

Mr. DAVID ZUCKER (Co-creator "Airplane!): Nice to be talking to you, Robert.

SIEGEL: ...and Jim Abrahams.

Mr. JIM ABRAHAMS (Co-creator "Airplane!"): Hi. Good to hear you.

SIEGEL: Was it fun actually making this movie?

Mr. J. ZUCKER: It was really fun. Yeah, we had a blast. I mean, partly because it was just fun material and fun to do, but also because it was the first one that we had directed, so it was a really fantastic experience.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And it was cool to be on a movie set.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: Yeah, we were just glad to be working.

SIEGEL: Who among you figured out, by the way, that the likes of Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves could be hilariously funny actors?

Mr. J. ZUCKER: That was always the idea going. I mean, that was really what drove us, the idea of having serious actors play it this way. It wasn't an afterthought. The movie was written not necessarily for those specific actors--although I think we did have Robert Stack in mind when we were writing that part--but we always wrote it for those kinds of actors.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And that's, in fact, why it took us so long to sell it. Studios had trouble getting their minds around it.

SIEGEL: You know, in some cases, this is complete incomprehensible to people under 30 who just assume that Leslie Nielsen is a comic actor. He's a comedian.


Mr. J. ZUCKER: It's kind of like did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?

SIEGEL: And Robert Stack--Robert Stack was the farthest thing from a comic actor when you cast him in this.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: Robert Stack was very famous for "The Untouchables." We were kind of enamored with him and just thought he would be perfect for the role of Rex Kramer.

SIEGEL: Were any of these actors reluctant? I mean, did you have a hard time talking any of them into playing comedy?

Mr. D. ZUCKER: Well, I think Stack--when we first went to Stack, I think we were just obsessed with him and that was before we were with Paramount.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And that's before there were stalkers.

Mr. D. ZUCKER: His agent said you want Stack to be in this movie that you're writing? Well, is this a go picture? And we all said, `What's a go picture?'

SIEGEL: (Laughs) You should have said, at this point...

Mr. D. ZUCKER: So he said come back when you have the financing. And so we did and I think we were prepared to just literally camp out outside his house until he said yes because I think he was the key. The others I think there were probably backups and I think we even called Charlton Heston...

Mr. J. ZUCKER: George Kennedy, I think, perhaps.

Mr. D. ZUCKER: Yeah, George Kennedy.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: In fact we never made a parody movie where we didn't go to Charlton Heston, and he's always turned us down.

SIEGEL: He always turned you down?


SIEGEL: I want to play a bit from the movie. This is the moment when two African-American male passengers are unintelligible to--as one said without objection in 1980--a stewardess who got some surprising assistance from another passenger.

(Soundbite of "Airplane!")

Unidentified Male Passenger #1: Tight me!

Unidentified Stewardess: I'm sorry, I don't understand.

Unidentified Male Passenger #2: Cutty say 'e can't HANG!

Unidentified Female Character: Oh, stewardess, I speak jive.

Unidentified Stewardess: Oh, good.

Unidentified Female Character: He said that he's in great pain and he wants to know if you can help him.

Unidentified Stewardess: All right. Would you tell him to just relax and I'll be back as soon as I can with some medicine?

Unidentified Female Character: Jus' hang loose, blood. She gonna catch ya up on da' rebound on da' med side.

Unidentified Male Passenger #1: What it is, big mama? My mama no raise no no dummies. I dug her rap.

Unidentified Female Character: Cut me some slack, Jack! Chump don' want no help, chump don't GET da' help!

Unidentified Male Passenger #2: Say 'e can't hang, say seven up!

Unidentified Female Character: Jive ass dude don't got no brains anyhow! Hmmph!

SIEGEL: Now you have to explain the bilingual female passenger there--it was played by Barbara Billingsley. Describe who she was for us.

Mr. D. ZUCKER: She was Beaver's mother on "Leave It to Beaver."

SIEGEL: June Cleaver?

Mr. D. ZUCKER: June Cleaver.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: June Cleaver and she was the quintessential TV mom of that era.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And the quintessential TV mom of that era.

Mr. D. ZUCKER: And the quintessential white person, too.

SIEGEL: Which was much of the humor at that moment. You have to explain something to me. The writing credit for "Airplane!" includes a credit for Arthur Hailey.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: I'm actually not aware of a credit for Arthur Hailey on "Airplane!"

SIEGEL: On the IMDB, the Internet Movie Database...

Mr. J. ZUCKER: IMDB. Yeah, sorry, it's not on the movie. You know, the--he wrote a movie that was very influential called "Zero Hour." He was our inspiration because it was a movie about, you know, a plane with food poisoning and one of the passengers has to fly it down. And so we were always very grateful to him. But when the studio's, you know, legal department made the determination, they--you know, "Airplane!" was a completely different film, of course, and a comedy--so there was no credit allocated to him. But we're always--felt in his debt.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: There was an actual line in "Zero Hour"--we wound up purchasing the rights to "Zero Hour" in order to parody it--and there was a line in "Zero Hour" that said, `Stewardess, we have to find somebody who not only can fly this plane but who didn't have fish for dinner.' We just looked at that and we put it directly into "Airplane!"

Mr. D. ZUCKER: And that's preserved intact.


Mr. D. ZUCKER: And also from "The Untouchables" there's `No, that's just what they'll be expecting us to do.' He probably said that half a dozen times.

SIEGEL: Robert Stack had said that?

Mr. D. ZUCKER: Yeah, Robert Stack said that.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: Yeah, there's a lot there from Shakespeare, Moliere and the great philosophers. Not worth going into now.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: It's too obvious.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: Yeah, it's too obvious. I'm sure you've caught all those, too. "Beowulf."

SIEGEL: You've had the opportunity to actually see the movie recently?

Mr. ABRAHAMS: We have.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: But we passed it up.

SIEGEL: What's it like to watch your movie 25 years later with an audience?

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Well, it is one of the real perks of the movie business to be able to sit in the audience and hear the laughter, and to have that opportunity 25 years later was painful.

No, it's actually a lot of fun.

SIEGEL: You went on to do the "Naked Gun" movies together.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: We all wrote the first one and David directed it and then the second two were pretty much David's.

SIEGEL: Did it ever stop being fun doing it together or...

Mr. D. ZUCKER: You talking sexually or...

SIEGEL: No, I'm talking about it creatively...

Mr. D. ZUCKER: Oh, I'm sorry.

SIEGEL: ...movie makingly.

Mr. D. ZUCKER: No, I think it's a great job to have. Our job is--if we're doing our job right we're--we go to the office and we just laugh the whole time. If we're not laughing, then we're not doing our job and it is a lot of fun because you just to have laugh a lot.

SIEGEL: Well, we all sleep more soundly knowing that you're all doing your job. And when we're not sleeping soundly we wake up and watch "Airplane!" is what happens. So thank you very much for the job you did 25 years ago.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Thank you.

Mr. J. ZUCKER: Thank you.

Mr. D. ZUCKER: Thanks.

SIEGEL: It's Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, the co-creators of the movie "Airplane!" which came out 25 years ago this summer.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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