‘Airplane!’ continues to take off on amazon.com
Even before “Airplane!” (1980) started filming, star Robert Hays had reason to laugh.
Actually, many reasons to laugh.
The actor found humor on every page of the script, which was complete with puns, sight gags and hilarious lines.
“There’s actually some funny stuff in there, isn’t there?” Mr. Hays, the Agoura Hills actor who starred as fighter pilot Ted Striker, told the News-Press in 2015.
“Airplane!” and “Airplane II: The Sequel” (1982) are among the classic comedies streaming at amazon.com.
“Airplane!” was based on a serious 1957 disaster film, “Zero Hour!” It was about a World War II fighter pilot who must land a jet after the pilots get food poisoning. Brothers Jerry and David Zucker co-wrote and co-directed the movie with Jim Abrahams.
“ ‘Zero Hour!’ was the exact style of movie we wanted to make fun of. This was a very hard hitting story,” Jerry Zucker told the News-Press in 2015. (Mr. Zucker and Mr. Hays did interviews to promote a Santa Barbara “Airplane!” screening that benefitted Santa Barbara Hillel, a Jewish nonprofit that serves UCSB students.)
Mr. Zucker said constant danger is actually helpful to a comedy, and “Zero Danger!” had plenty of tension.
And he and his fellow filmmakers realized the value of getting dramatic actors to deliver funny lines with a straight face.
So they hired Peter Graves, known for playing Jim Phelps on “Mission Impossible” (1966 to 1973 on CBS), to play Capt. Clarence Oveur. He’s the jet’s pilot until he suffers — straight out of “Zero Hour!” — food poisoning.
Then it’s up to Ted Striker, the fighter pilot played by Robert Hays, to land the jet as everyone’s getting sick. Ted is simply lovesick, over flight attendant Elaine (Julie Hagerty).
Helping Ted to land the plane is Robert Stack, star of “The Untouchables” (1959-63 on ABC). Mr. Stack reprised his persona as tough Prohibition agent Elliott Ness to play Capt. Rex Kramer, who’s at the Chicago airport and talking to Ted by radio.
Of course, there has to be a doctor aboard a plane with food poisoning, and that’s Dr. Rumack, played by Leslie Nielsen, who, before “Airplane!,” was known for dramatic roles.
The film remains a hit with fans who love to quote its many funny lines, such as Ted’s line: “Surely, you can’t be serious.”
To which Dr. Rumack replied, “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”
Mr. Zucker explained such puns are part of the film’s timelessness.
“The idea of someone with a very serious face saying, ‘I’m serious, and don’t call me Shirley,’ is not a joke that gets old,” Mr. Zucker, a Los Angeles resident and Milwaukee native, said.
He and his brother and Mr. Abrahams struck gold with “Airplane!,” which Paramount Pictures produced for just $3.5 million after other studios rejected it.
The comedy underestimated by Hollywood went on to gross $80 million nationally and another $80 million internationally, Mr. Zucker said. It was second only to “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” for the grosses in 1980.
Mr. Hays recalled how the script made him laugh hard as he read it during a real-life airplane flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. A flight attendant asked him what was so funny, and when he handed her the script, she laughed so hard that her neatly coiffed hairstyle came undone.
The laughter continued when the cameras weren’t rolling on the set, Mr. Hays said. He said he managed to keep a straight face during the filming despite Mr. Nielsen’s efforts to crack him up by doing something not in the script: squeezing a whoopee cushion.
There actually was little improvising, but Mr. Hays said the movie included his suggestions for the choreography during the disco scene. And at the last minute, Mr. Abrahams decided to have Mr. Hays juggle during the dancing.
Mr. Zucker said the filmmakers couldn’t write enough lines for the scenes in which Ted Striker bores his fellow passengers to death. No worries, Mr. Hays made up stunningly dull dialogue.
“We always kidded Bob that boring dialogue was never difficult for him,” Mr. Zucker said, but added he loved how Mr. Hays kept his character funny and believable.
And Mr. Hays praised Ms. Hagerty, who played Elaine. “There’s no one I can imagine doing as good a job as Julie. She was so perfect for that. She was as sweet as she looked on camera.”