Q: What's slower than a speeding bullet, and able to hit tall buildings at a single bound?
Ted Striker has a dilemma: Though they've been separated, he still has a craving for the love of his life, Elaine. So much so, in fact, that he insists on following her onto a plane on which she works as a stewardess. That ends up being a bit of a mistake because not only has he had a bad experience on a plane, but passengers are getting sick from food poisoning including the crew... which includes the captain!
In what is still considered one of the best film comedies of all time, "Airplane!"'s cast includes such stars as Robert Hays (Ted Stryker), Julie Hagerty (Elaine), Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack), Robert Stack (Rex Kramer), Peter Graves (Captain Clarence Oveur), Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey), Stephen Stucker (Johnny), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Roger Murdock), Lorna Patterson (Randy), and Otto (Himself). Other cameos consist of Barbara Billingsley (Jive Lady), Ethel Merman (Lieutenant Hurwitz), and Windy (Horse in the bed).
It boggles the mind and is hard to believe, but "Airplane!" was directed by three people: Jim Abrahams (this being his directorial debut), and David and Jerry Zucker. All three of them wrote the screenplay as well. Nominated for six awards including a BAFTA award for Best Screenplay and a Golden Globe for Best Picture in the Musical/Comedy category, it did win a Writers Guild of America (Screen) award for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium and an award landing itself in the National Film Registry from the National Film Preservation Board.
Still, probably the most rewarding trophies it has ever achieved and continues to achieve to this day are the hurting stomaches of people of all ages all over the world which ache because they've laughed so much during this film.
Having been budgeted and estimated $3.5 million to make, "Airplane!" made its premiere on July 2, 1980 and went on to rake in a phenomenal gross of more than $83.4 million. It did so well, in fact, that the first two days of the film's gross covered its entire production budget.
Here are some more fun tidbits of behind-the-scenes trivia for you to enjoy...
1. The film was specially geared to spoof the "Airport" series, but chiefly spoofs "Airport 1975," where Karen Black is a stewardess forced to pilot a plane after both pilots are incapacitated, Linda Blair is a girl needing a kidney transplant, and Helen Reddy plays a singing nun.
2. The first draft for the movie was written in 1974. Even then, Robert Stack was first choice for the part of Rex Kramer.
3. The character "Dr. Rumack" was named after a neighbor of the Zuckers', Dr. Barry Rumack, who is now a noted toxicology expert.
4. Universal threatened to sue when they found out that the directors were trying to get Helen Reddy to repeat her role as the singing nun from "Airport 1975." George Kennedy from the original Airport movies was also being courted for the film but thought better of running afoul of Universal.
5. To get the film green-lighted by Paramount, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker pitched it as "'Animal House' on a plane" - which, of course, was far from the truth, but the only way they could get the studio execs to understand it was a zany comedy.
6. The three directors had a full-on fight on their hands with the Directors' Guild who initially refused to allow for a three director credit.
7. The entire production took just over a month. Robert Hays was doing the television show "Angie" at the same time.
8. David Letterman screen-tested for the role of Ted Striker.
9. Singer/songwriter Barry Manilow was considered for the role of Ted Stryker before Robert Hays was hired.
10. Film debut of Julie Hagerty.
11. The doctor role was Leslie Nielsen's first comedic part. He later said he was delighted to get the offer, fearing that he was getting too old for anything but "elderly grandfather" parts.
13. In a 2008 interview on the Today Show, Peter Graves said he was initially insulted and offended by the script for "Airplane!", but was convinced by friends and colleagues to do the movie. In that same interview on the same show, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told the story of being on a European flight and asked to sit in an empty seat in the cockpit during takeoff so the crew could say they flew with Roger Murdoch.
14. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker chose actors such as Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen because of their reputation for playing no-nonsense characters. Until this film, these actors had not done comedy, so their "straight-arrow" personas and line delivery made the satire in the movie all the more poignant and funny. Bridges was initially reluctant to take his role in the movie, but his sons persuaded him to do it.
15. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's role was originally to be played by Pete Rose, but he was playing baseball at the time of the filming, so the part went to Kareem. He was offered $30,000 to appear in the film, but he asked for $35,000 to buy an oriental rug.
16. The "Jaws" spoof in the beginning of the film was made of layers of cotton on a piece of plywood with a hidden wire track for the airplane to "fly" around.
17. The argument between the two P.A. voice-overs about an abortion comes from "a cheap, dime-store novel" according to the trivia track of the DVD version. That "novel" is actually Arthur Hailey's "Airport" (which inspired the movie "Airport"). Also...
18. For the argument between announcers concerning the white and red zones at the airport, the producers hired the same voice artists who had made the real-world announcements at Los Angeles International Airport. At the real airport, the white zone is for loading and unloading of passengers only, and there's no stopping in the red zone (except for transit buses). They were also married to each other in real life.
19. The directors for "Airplane!" made their cameo appearances in it: Jim Abrahams as the second religious zealot who is pushed aside by Rex Kramer upon his arrival in the Chicago Airport terminal. Jerry Zucker and David Zucker appear as the ground crew at the beginning of the film (they're the ones that direct the plane into the window of the terminal).
20. For the famous scene of the 747 crashing through the large windows inside the terminal, producer Jon Davidson mentions (in the DVD extras) that after the movie, he received numerous letters from various pilots telling him that they have come very close to re-enacting that very scene in real life, with some pilots admitting that they've come so close as to touch the glass with the noses of their airplanes.
23. Stephen Stucker ad-libbed all of his lines as Johnny.
24. When Captain Oveur asks the young boy if he'd ever seen the inside of a cockpit before, it's not the original line which was ultimately deemed to be too risqué. (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker originally wanted the line to be "Have you ever seen a grown man's c**k?") (And, no... I don't mean "cook.")
25. Ethel Merman insisted on bringing her own hairdresser to set. She could only be on set after noon as it took all morning to set her hair.