Theatrical release poster by Robert Grossman
|Produced by||Jon Davison|
|Music by||Elmer Bernstein|
|Edited by||Patrick Kennedy|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||>$140 million|
Airplane! (alternatively titled Flying High!) is a 1980 American satirical disaster film written and directed by David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, and produced by Jon Davison. It stars Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty and features Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Lorna Patterson. The film is a parody of the disaster film genre, particularly the 1957 Paramount film Zero Hour!, from which it borrows the plot and the central characters, as well as many elements from Airport 1975 and other films in the Airport film series. The film is known for its use of surreal humor and its fast-paced slapstick comedy, including visual and verbal puns, gags, and obscure humor.
Airplane! was released by Paramount Pictures and was a critical and financial success, grossing over $140 million worldwide against a budget of $3.5 million. The film’s creators received the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Comedy, and nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and for the BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay.
In the years since its release, the film’s reputation has grown substantially. The film was ranked sixth on Bravo’s 100 Funniest Movies. In a 2007 survey by Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, it was judged the second greatest comedy film of all time, after Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In 2008, it was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time and in 2012 was voted number one in The 50 Funniest Comedies Ever poll. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Ex-fighter pilot Ted Striker is a traumatized war veteran turned taxi driver. Because of his pathological fear of flying and “drinking problem” (being unable to take a drink without splashing it on his face), he has been unable to hold a responsible job. His wartime girlfriend, Elaine Dickinson, now a flight attendant, leaves him before boarding her assigned flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Ted abandons his taxi and buys a ticket on the same flight to try to win her back. However, she still continues to reject him during the flight.
After the in-flight meal is served, several of the passengers and the flight crew fall ill, including Captain Oveur. Passenger Dr. Rumack discovers one of the offered courses caused food poisoning. With the flight crew incapacitated, Elaine contacts the Chicago control tower for help, and is instructed by tower supervisor Steve McCroskey to activate the plane’s autopilot, a large inflatable pilot doll named “Otto”, which will get them to Chicago, but will not be able to land the plane. Elaine and Dr. Rumack convince Ted to take the controls. When Steve learns that Ted is piloting, he contacts Ted’s former commanding officer, Rex Kramer, now serving as a commercial pilot, so that he can help talk Ted through landing the plane. Ted becomes troubled when Rex starts giving instructions, and briefly stresses out from flashbacks to the war. Both Elaine and Dr. Rumack bolster Ted’s confidence and he takes the controls under Rex’s guidance.
As the plane nears Chicago, the weather becomes harsh, making landing difficult. With Elaine’s help as co-pilot and Rex’s guidance, Ted is able to land the plane safely with the passengers suffering only minor injuries, despite the landing gear being sheared off. Rescue vehicles arrive to help unload the plane. Impressed by Ted’s display of courage, Elaine embraces and kisses him, rekindling their relationship. The two watch as “Otto” takes control of the plane, inflates a female companion, and takes off.
- Robert Hays as Ted Striker
- Julie Hagerty as Elaine Dickinson
- Leslie Nielsen as Dr. Rumack
- Peter Graves as Capt. Clarence Oveur
- Lloyd Bridges as Steve McCroskey
- Robert Stack as Capt. Rex Kramer
- Lorna Patterson as Randy
- Stephen Stucker as Air Traffic Controller Johnny Henshaw-Jacobs
- Frank Ashmore as Victor Basta
- Jonathan Banks as Gunderson
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as Roger Murdock
- Craig Berenson as Paul Carey
- Barbara Billingsley as Jive Lady
- Lee Bryant as Mrs. Hammen
- Nicholas Pryor as Jim Hammen
- Joyce Bulifant as Mrs. Davis
- Maureen McGovern as Nun
- Kenneth Tobey as Air Controller Neubauer
- Marcy Goldman as Mrs. Geline
- Barbara Stuart as Mrs. Kramer
- Rossie Harris as Joey Hammen
- Norman Alexander Gibbs as 1st Jive Dude
- Al White as 2nd Jive Dude
- David Hollander as the young boy with coffee
- Michelle Stacy as the young girl with coffee
- David Leisure as First Krishna
- Jason Wingreen as Dr. Brody
- Jill Whelan as Lisa Davis
- Ethel Merman as Lt. Hurwitz
- Lee Terri as Mrs. Linda Oveur
- Jimmie Walker as Windshield Wiper Man
- James Hong as Japanese General
- Howard Jarvis as the Man in the Taxi
- Otto as Himself
Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker (collectively known as Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, or 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 routinely recorded late night television and reviewed the tapes later primarily to pull the commercials, a process Abrahams compared to “seining for fish“. During one such taping process, they unintentionally recorded the 1957 film Zero Hour!, and while scanning the commercials, found that the film was a “perfectly classically structured film” according to Jerry Zucker. Abrahams later described Zero Hour! as “the serious version of Airplane!“. It was the first film script they wrote, completed around 1975, and was originally called The Late Show. The script originally stayed close to the dialog and plot of Zero Hour!, as ZAZ considered they did not have a sufficient understanding of film at the time to structure a proper script. ZAZ’s script borrowed so much from Zero Hour! that they believed they needed to negotiate the rights to create the remake of the film and ensure they remain 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. The original script contained spoofs of television commercials but people who proofread the script advised them to shorten the commercials, and, eventually, they removed them. When their script was finished they were unable to sell it.
The trio knew director John Landis, who encouraged them to write a film based on their theatre sketches. They managed to put the film, called The Kentucky Fried Movie, in production in the late 1970s, and entered a movie set for the first time. David Zucker said “It was the first time we had ever been on a movie set. We learned a lot. We learned that if you really wanted a movie to come out the way you wanted it to, you had to direct. So on the next movie, Airplane!, we insisted on directing.”
Principal photography began on June 20 and wrapped on August 31, 1979, with the bulk of filming having been done in August. Jerry Zucker stood beside the camera during shooting, while David Zucker and Jim Abrahams would be watching the video feed to see how the film would look; they would confer after each take.
During filming, Leslie Nielsen used a whoopee cushion to keep the cast off-balance. Hays said that Nielsen “played that thing like a maestro”.
David Zucker explained that “the trick was to cast actors like Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges. These were people who, up to that time, had never done comedy. We thought they were much funnier than the comedians of that time were.” David Zucker felt Stack was the most important actor to be cast, since he was the “linchpin” of the film’s plot. Stack initially played his role in a way that was different from what the directors had in mind. They showed him a tape of impressionist John Byner impersonating Robert Stack. According to the producers, Stack was “doing an impression of John Byner doing an impression of Stack.” Stack was not initially interested in the part, but ZAZ persuaded him. Bridges’ children advised him to take the part. Graves rejected the script at first, considering it tasteless. On the DVD commentary, Abrahams said, “I don’t understand. What did he think was tasteless about pedophilia?” The role of Ted Striker was written for David Letterman, who had previously auditioned the role of the news anchor in Kentucky Fried Movie. Letterman screen tested for the role in 1979, but ultimately was not selected. They cast the relatively unknown Robert Hays, who was a co-star of Angie, and Julie Hagerty to round out the cast, whom the directors advised to play it straight.
For the “red zone/white zone” send-up of curbside terminal announcements in which public address announcers “Betty” and “Vernon” argue over the red and white zones, ZAZ went through the usual process of auditioning professional voice actors but failed to find ones who could provide the desired verisimilitude. Instead, the filmmakers ultimately sought out and hired the real-life married couple who had recorded the announcement tapes which were then being used at Los Angeles International Airport.
In 1980, an LP soundtrack for the film was released by Regency Records and included dialog and songs from the film. It was also narrated by Shadoe Stevens, and only featured one score track, the “Love Theme from Airplane” composed by Elmer Bernstein. The soundtrack was altered for the European ‘Flying High’ release, with several of the featured tracks swapped for pieces original to the LP.
On April 28, 2009 La-La Land Records announced that it would release the first official score album for Airplane!, containing Bernstein’s complete score. The soundtrack was released digitally on February 19, 2013, by Paramount Music.
Before its release, the directors had been apprehensive, owing to a mediocre response at one of the pre-screenings. But the film earned its entire budget of about $3.5 million in its first five days of wide release.
The film opened on June 27, 1980 in 7 theatres in Toronto, grossing $83,058 in its opening weekend. It also opened in 2 theatres in Buffalo, grossing $14,000 in its first week. The film then expanded on Wednesday, July 2, 1980 to 705 theatres in the United States and Canada grossing $6,052,514 in its first 5 days of wide release, finishing second for the weekend with a gross of $4,540,000. Overall, it grossed $83 million at the US and Canadian box office returning $40 million in rentals, making it the fourth highest-grossing film of 1980. By April 1981, the film had grossed $58 million overseas and had a projected overseas gross of $80 million, giving it a worldwide gross in excess of $140 million.
Airplane! received universal acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1980. Based on 63 reviews, compiled retrospectively, Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 97% “Fresh” with an average rating of 8.4/10. The site’s critical consensus reads, “Though unabashedly juvenile and silly, Airplane! is nevertheless an uproarious spoof comedy full of quotable lines and slapstick gags that endure to this day.” On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 78 out of 100 based on 18 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote “Airplane! is sophomoric, obvious, predictable, corny, and quite often very funny. And the reason it’s funny is frequently because it’s sophomoric, predictable, corny, etc”. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote “Airplane! is more than a pleasant surprise… As a remedy for the bloated self-importance of too many other current efforts, it’s just what the doctor ordered”.
In 2008 Airplane! was selected by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. It was also placed on a similar list by The New York Times, a list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made. In November 2015, the film was ranked the 4th funniest screenplay by the Writers Guild of America in its list of 101 Funniest Screenplays.
MaximOnline.com named the airplane crash in Airplane! number four on its list of “Most Horrific Movie Plane Crashes.” Leslie Nielsen’s line (in response to Hays’ question ‘surely you can’t be serious’), “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley”, was 79th on AFI’s list of the best 100 movie quotes. In 2000 the American Film Institute listed Airplane! as number ten on its list of the 100 funniest American films. In the same year, readers of Total Film voted it the second greatest comedy film of all time. It also came second in the British 50 Greatest Comedy Films poll on Channel 4, beaten by Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Entertainment Weekly voted the film the “Funniest movie on video” in their list of the 100 funniest movies on video.
Several actors were cast to spoof their established images: prior to their roles in Airplane!, Nielsen, Stack, and Bridges were known for portraying adventurous, no-nonsense tough-guy characters. Stack’s role as the captain who loses his nerve in one of the earliest airline “disaster” films, The High and the Mighty (1954), is spoofed in Airplane!, as is Lloyd Bridges‘ 1970–1971 television role as airport manager Jim Conrad in San Francisco International Airport. Peter Graves was in the made-for-television film SST: Death Flight, in which an SST was unable to land owing to an emergency.
Nielsen saw a major boost to his career after Airplane!‘s release, and the film marked a significant change in his film persona towards a new specialty in deadpan comedy, notably in the three Naked Gun films based on the six-episode television series Police Squad!, in which he also starred and which was created and produced by the Abrahams–Zucker–Zucker team behind Airplane. This also led to his casting, many years later, in Mel Brooks‘ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Brooks had wanted to make that film for a long time, but put it off because, as he said, “I just could not find the right Dracula.” Brooks said he had never seen Airplane! until years after its release. When he did, he knew Nielsen would be right for the part. When it was suggested that his role in Airplane! was against type, Nielsen protested that he had “always been cast against type before”, and that comedy was what he always really wanted to do.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- 2000: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs – No. 10
- 2005: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes:
- Ted Striker: “Surely you can’t be serious.”
- Dr. Rumack: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” – No. 79
Peter Farrelly said of the film: “I was in Rhode Island the first time I saw Airplane! Seeing it for the first time was like going to a great rock concert, like seeing Led Zeppelin or the Talking Heads. We didn’t realize until later that what we’d seen was a very specific kind of comedy that we now call the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school.” Farrelly, along with his writing partner Bennett Yellin, sent a comedy script to David Zucker, who in return gave them their first Hollywood writing job. Farrelly said, “I’ll tell you right now, if the Zuckers didn’t exist, there would be no Farrelly brothers.”
Thirty years later, the documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story opened with a scene from the film.
The Mythbusters tv show episode Airplane Hour reenacted the climax of the film; to see if an inexperienced pilot could land a plane with only a call from Air Traffic Control. The Mythbusters had to use a simulation to test the myth, but concluded that the scene was plausible. They did however mention that most planes today have an autopilot to land the plane safely.
In the 2012 film Ted, the main character, John Bennett, tells the story of how he met Lori Collins. The flashback is a close recreation of the scene where Ted Striker met Elaine Dickinson in the disco.
In 2014 Travel Wisconsin began airing an ad with Robert Hays and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reprising their roles from the film. Kareem makes the comment “Why did I ever leave this place?” referring to his time playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. Hays also reprises his role as an airline pilot in Sharknado 2: The Second One.
Airplane II: The Sequel, first released on December 10, 1982, attempted to tackle the science fiction film genre, though there was still emphasis on the general theme of disaster films. Although most of the cast reunited for the sequel, the writers and directors of Airplane! chose not to be involved. In the DVD commentary for Airplane! David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker claim to have never seen nor to have any desire to see Airplane II.
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- “The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made”. The New York Times. April 29, 2003. Retrieved April 23, 2010.
- “101 Funniest Screenplays List”. Writers Guild of America, West. November 11, 2015.
- Airplane! Clip[permanent dead link] crash scene from the Maximwebsite[dead link]
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- “Synopsis: SST Death Flight”. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved December 7, 2014.
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- “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs” (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
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- Airplane! at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Airplane! at AllMovie
- Airplane! at Box Office Mojo
- Airplane! on IMDb
- Airplane! at Rotten Tomatoes
- Airplane! at the TCM Movie Database
- The New York Times retrospective article
- Retrospective article at The Guardian
- “The Two Troubled Commutes of Ted Stryker“, comparison of Zero Hour! and Airplane! by Adam-Troy and Judy Castro.