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Airplane! 40th Anniversary

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It’s summer in 1980 and movie goers were buzzing about a movies like Smokey and the Bandit, new Cheech and Chong movie, and of course, the big elephant in the room The Empire Strikes Back. Big bets were being placed on which studio comedies will dominate the summer box office. Will it be The Blues Brothers or Caddyshack? But out of nowhere came Airplane! to become the biggest summer movie.

Airplane! original trailer

Coming off 1978’s wildly successful and crazy funny National Lampoon’s Animal House, Studios began to think they could own the summers with big studio comedies. This $2.7M budgeted rude and crude snobs-vs-slobs frat-house comedy managed chug up $140M at the box office that summer and managed to blow past Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles as the highest-grossing comedy of all time.

National Lampoon’s Animal House original trailer

Blazing Saddles original trailer

As an encore, the creative team behind the 1978 classic, split into two camps to focus on other projects. John Landis and SNL’s John Belushi went to Chicago to work on The Blues Brothers while co-writers Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney went to Florida to make the anarchic country-club satire, Caddyshack. So, its no wonder no one paid any attention to Airplane!.

Blues Brothers original trailer

Caddyshack original trailer

Big bets and egos were on the line as industry insiders were glued to these chaotic productions and desperately trying to figure out who will come out on top and which cast and crew will consume the most cocaine. So, it’s no surprise no attention was paid to Paramount’s absurdly tiny movie filled with a barrage of slapstick humor that flew under everyone’s radar.

The movie origin begins with childhood friends David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (a creative team later re-christened “ZAZ” after the initials of their last names). In 1971, this trio formed a sketch comedy troupe called The Kentucky Fried Theater while attending University of Wisconsin in Madison. They were obsessed over old cheesy B-movies they would watch together and ad-libbed their own nonsensical dialogue. Imagine a very early version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

One of those B-movies was Zero Hour!, a preposterously straight-faced 1957 B-movie that starred Dana Andrews and Sterling Hayden. Wait of it… the plot revolved around a commercial flight where pilots and passengers were stricken with food poisoning forcing an ex-WWII fighter pilot to land the plane in heavy fog.

Since Abrahams and the Zucker lacked hands-on movie making experience, they began their foray into the movie world in 1977 by collaborating to write and produce an independently financed, buckshot collection of off-kilter sophomoric gags and drive-by film parodies called The Kentucky Fried Movie. Since none of them had any clue how to direct, they turned to a 26-year-old high school dropout named John Landis, whose only directing credit had been a $60,000 cheapie about a guy in a gorilla suit that was appropriately titled Shlock.

Abrahams and the Zucker boys went off to write Airplane! and tried unsuccessfully to get the movie made. Finally, Michael Eisner, then the head of Paramount, read it, liked it and agreed to give the trio a $3.5M budget to go make this movie figuring there was very little downside to this premise.

The key to what makes Airplane! so damn funny is that the ZAZ team made the creative decision to fill their cast with non-comic actors who could deliver absurd one-liners with deadpan conviction while not winking toward the audience.

Originally written for David Letterman, Robert Hays would ultimately beat out Bruce Jenner for the lead role of the psychologically scarred combat pilot Ted Striker. Julie Hagerty edged out Sigourney Weaver and future Cheers star Shelley Long as Striker’s stewardess flame, Elaine. Very quickly the cast was rounded out with Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, and Peter Graves who initially was hesitant.

According to Jerry Zucker, when Graves first read the script, he threw it in the trash, thinking that his pilot character, Captain Oveur, who asks a young boy whether he’s ever seen a grown man naked and if he likes gladiator films, came off like a pedophile. Eventually, he came on board.

Here’s the full scene that almost scared Peter Graves away.

Cut back to that summer 40 years ago. Two of the most anticipated big studio comedies go over schedule and millions over budget (thanks in part to John Belushi’s spiraling cocaine habit), Universal’s eagerly awaited The Blues Brothers opened June 20 to lukewarm reviews. Little over a month later, Caddyshack came out to harsh reviews and weak box office. The immediate sleeper sensation came out on July 2nd. While Airplane! also got its share of bad reviews, movie critics had to admit its sophomoric sensibilities was funny.

Airplane! would go on to earn back its $3.5 million budget in its first five days in wide release and snowballed into a word-of-mouth hit, eventually pulling in $83M domestically and ultimately became the fourth-highest grossing movie of the year behind only The Empire Strikes Back, 9 to 5, and the Richard Pryor & Gene Wilder ex-con caper Stir Crazy.

Forty years later, Airplane! is now in esteem company of films on the Library of Congress Film Registry. Something that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who can quote large stretches of the film’s indelible dialogue. The movie has held up really well because it’s still crazy funny. It’s a timeless comedy classic thanks to the creative decision by the directors whose only direction after saying “Action” was: “Pretend you don’t know you’re in a comedy.” After all, as long as there are actors—whether they’re A-list stars or bit players—who take themselves too seriously, puncturing and deflating them will never go out of style. Like Airplane! itself, it’s timeless.

Best Airplane! clips