Hilarious Behind-The-Scenes Facts About The Movie Airplane!
Surely you’ve heard of the movie Airplane! Oops, sorry, we won’t call you Shirley from now on, but if you haven’t seen this epic comedy, you’re missing out. Airplane! is one of the best comedy films in American cinematic history. It’s a parody film full of unforgettably-fun slapstick humor. Even now, almost 40 years after its release, Airplane! is still a comedy favorite and will remain so. Audiences have been wowed ever since its premiere in 1980. If you loved the movie, read on to learn some fun behind the scenes facts and trivia about the hit-film Airplane!
1. How The Idea Was Born
The writers and directors of Airplane!, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker were performing with a small theater they founded called Kentucky Fried Theatre when they came up with the idea for Airplane! Well, they didn’t really come up with it. It’s more like they borrowed it.
The three would record late night TV and commercials to spoof in their comedy sketches and one night they accidentally recorded the 1957 film Zero Hour! They then decided to make a parody of the film, which later became Airplane!
2. Copyright Infringement
The script that the writers came up with relied heavily on the script of the film Zero Hour! As such, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker had to make certain that they weren’t going to get themselves into legal trouble.
To avoid any issues with copyright infringement, the team set out to simply buy the remake rights for Zero Hour! The team approached the production company for Zero Hour! and were able to buy the rights to the remake for the bargain price of $2,500. If they had known what a success Airplane! would be, maybe they would have asked for more money.
3. The Jive Lady
The directors of the movie wanted the role of the Jive Lady to be played by a memorable and beloved TV mother. Originally they wanted Harriet Nelson to play the role. Nelson played a sitcom mother on the TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Nelson turned down the role due to the foul language (she later stated that she regrets not taking it). The role went to Barbara Billingsley, who played the sitcom mother, June Cleaver, on the 1950s hit show Leave It to Beaver.
4. Red and White Zones
The movie starts off at the airport with a scene showing people loading and unloading their belongings. Airport announcers (one male, one female) can be heard on the intercom explaining what each zone is for, then they start arguing with each other.
You might have thought that they sounded like a married couple fighting, and guess what? The two voice actors were married in real life and… they were real life airport announcers at Los Angeles International Airport.
5. A Smash Hit
As ridiculous as the movie may have been, the movie’s profits were nothing to laugh at. The production cost of Airplane! was approximately $3.5 million (almost nothing for a major motion picture) and the movie made $130 million at the box office.
What is even more impressive is the amount of time that it took to make the movie. It was done in record time. The production time took a mere 34 days! In movie terms, that is absolutely no time at all.
6. Factual Error
One of the main plot points in the movie was that everyone who ate the fish on the plane got sick. This included both of the pilots. However, this was actually a factual mistake. At the time, regulations would not have allowed for this to happen.
FAA regulations stated that both pilots were forbidden from eating the same meal, to avoid a situation just like this where both pilots get sick from the in-flight food. The regulation was changed years later, so technically it could happen now.
7. Otto The Autopilot
One of the best parts of the movie is the scene when the pilots activate the autopilot. As a play on words, instead of the plane automatically controlling itself, an inflatable doll named Otto is activated. In other words, an “Otto-Pilot.”
The Otto Pilot became so popular that a Facebook page was created, dedicated just to him. You can even buy your own inflatable Otto Pilot online. The original doll, however, is no longer in existence as it disintegrated after spending years in a garage.
The 1970s was full of airplane disaster movies. Universal Pictures released four different airplane disaster-related movies. Actress Helen Reddy played the role of Sister Ruth in Universal’s movie entitled Airport 1975 and was poised to play the role of another nun in Airplane!
But Universal wasn’t about to have it. According to them, the two movies were just too similar and they threatened legal action if Reddy was cast for the role. In the end the producers decided against getting involved in any messy lawsuits and cast Maureen McGovern instead.
9. David Letterman Auditioned
The directors of Airplane! were friends with an up and coming comedian named David Letterman and asked him to audition for a part in the movie. Letterman wasn’t yet famous at the time and was not experienced with acting.
Writer/director David Zucker actually stated that Letterman would probably land the role, but Letterman was uncomfortable with acting and declined to come back for another follow-up interview. Who knows, if Letterman had done the movie maybe he would have had a very different career.
10. Surprisingly Big Names
It might surprise you to hear that some very big names came in to audition for the cast of Airplane!, but the only thing was that they weren’t big names yet. In addition to David Letterman, Bruce Jenner and Sigourney Weaver also auditioned for parts in the movie.
They didn’t, however, get cast in the movie, sadly. The production studio also wanted some very different actors for the lead roles. Paramount reportedly wanted to get Barry Manilow for the role of Ted Striker and they also wanted Dom DeLuise for Leslie Nielsen’s role.
11. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played the role of Roger Murdock in Airplane!, but the part wasn’t actually written with Adbul-Jabbar in mind. The directors wrote the part with Pete Rose in mind. Unfortunately, Pete Rose (also known as Charlie Hustle) was busy playing baseball during filming.
The casting directors eventually landed on basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play the role of Roger Murdock. Abdul-Jabbar was originally offered $30,000 for his part in the film but they ended up giving him an extra $5,000. The basketball player reportedly asked for the additional money in order to buy an oriental rug.
12. The Actor That Played Joey
The young actor who played the part of Joey, Rossie Harris, was only nine years-old during filming. Being so young, he didn’t understand most of the humor in the movie. But it didn’t take him long to figure it all out.
Reportedly by the time he was 10 years old he understood the jokes. Capt. Clarence Oveur made numerous jokes that the young Joey didn’t understand at the time, including one about Turkish prisons. Fun Fact: The Turkish version of the movie substituted Greek Prison for Turkish prison.
13. The Jive Talk
One of the most hilarious (and possibly un-politically correct) parts of the movie is all the jive talk between actors Al White and Norman Alexander Gibbs. Since the writers and directors didn’t have a sufficient understanding of the lingo they let the actors make up the lines.
The “jive talk” they came up with was part gibberish and part slang. For added humor, when they speak in regular English there are jive subtitles. As a bonus in the DVD edition of the movie, the two actors actually explain how they came up with the dialect for the jive talk.
14. A Surprise Air Traffic Controller
It would have been easy to miss this actor in the movie but actor Jonathan Banks played the role of traffic controller Gunderson. Banks appeared in the iconic scene where he was “checking the radar range” and opened a microwave with a turkey inside it.
Gunderson tells the chief that “it’s about two more minutes,” referring to how long it will be until the turkey is done. The chief is left baffled, saying that they plane could be miles off course.
15. Airplane! Has The Best Quotes
One of the most epic quotes from the whole movie is when Rumack asks Ted Striker whether he can fly the plan and land it. Stricker replies: “Surely you can’t be serious” and then Rumack hilariously comes back at him, saying “I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.”
The line became so popular, in fact, that the American Film Institute rated it the 79th all-time best movie quote. Airplane! is chocked full of other epic quotes that will live on forever in cinematic history, such as “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”
16. Fart Machines
It might be hard to believe, but there was an outbreak of farts on set that delayed filming for a brief period of time. Leslie Nielsen, at the time, was conveniently selling portable fart machines for a mere $7 apiece.
Much of the cast and crew took part in the farting-bonanza and the set turned into mayhem. Filming was delayed due to people using the machines while actors were trying to say their lines. It sounds like a fitting shenanigan for such an over-the-top, slapstick movie.
17. Why They Were Chosen
The three directors specifically wanted Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen in the movie. Why, you ask? Because prior to Airplane!, those actors had only played roles of “straight-arrow” characters. The directors felt that they would bring a new level of comedy to the film.
The directors were certainly correct in their thinking. Nielsen later stated that he was thrilled when he was offered the part because he feared that he was getting too old to play any role other than an “old grandfather.”
18. Based On Real Life
In the movie, the 747 crashed into the widows of the terminal after landing. In the DVD extras, producer Jon Davidson commented that after the movie was released, he began to receive multiple letters from actual pilots about their experiences and learned something shocking.
According to the pilots, almost running through the terminal windows happens more often than you would think. Multiple pilots wrote that they themselves had almost done it and one even admitted to tapping the glass (but thankfully not breaking through).
19. In-Flight Movies
Just about the last movie you want to watch on an airplane is a movie about an airplane crashing. There is probably no better way to stress the passengers out and have them screaming bloody murder during the slightest of turbulence.
But one airline did just that. Air Mexico actually screened the movie Airplane! during some of their flights as an in-flight movie. Air Mexico was sadly the only airline to choose to do so. Seems like a missed opportunity.
20. More Errors
One factual issue with the movie is that, according to the dialogue, the plane was supposed to land on Runway 9 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. But when the plane is landing, there is a sign clearly visible stating that they were landing on Runway 30.
Also, there is no Runway 30 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Oops! Guess that’s what happens when you film a movie so quickly. Read on to find out some more amazing facts about the hilarious slapstick comedy, Airplane!
21. Plane Error
If you look close enough, and know your planes, you’ll notice that the exterior of the plane and the interior are not the same type of plane. The exterior of the plane is clearly a Boeing 707, but the inside isn’t.
The seating in the film shows three seats on the right and two on the left for each row. Aaccording to this seating arrangement, the plane interior was most likely a Convair 990 or Douglas DC-9. A Boeing 707 has three seats on each side in the coach area.
22. Not A Goof
There are many flashbacks throughout the movie Airplane! and a lot of them contain inconsistencies. Knowing which were on purpose and which were goofs is a hard task. One that wasn’t a goof was Ted Striker being in all different branches of the military.
In one part of the movie Ted Striker states that he was in the Air Force, but in a flashback he is seen wearing a Navy uniform. THEN he is seen recovering in an Army hospital. This goof is clearly intentional.
In the scene at the Mayo clinic there is a hilarious slapstick gag done with the heart that is due to be transplanted into the sick girl on the plane. But if you listen closely in the scene you can hear the motor hidden underneath making it pulsate.
Even though a heartbeat was dubbed over the audio you can still hear the motor running underneath. Then when the heart starts jumping around you can clearly see a wire attached to the heart. It seems that audiences didn’t mind this too much.
24. Support the Cause
When Captain Rex Kramer enters the airport he is mobbed by people all promoting different causes. Kramer proceeds to beat up each one of them individually as they state the cause they are promoting. But were they really talking?
No. If you look closely none, of the actors are even moving their lips. The voices were dubbed after the scene was shot but no one thought to have all the people move their mouths… Read on for some more fun facts about Airplane!
25. More Legal Issues
Another issue that came up while filming the movie was the fact that it had three directors. The Directors Guild of America ruled that all three of them couldn’t be the movie’s directors and only allowed director Jerry Zucker to speak to the actors.
This created a strange phenomenon that Jerry Zucker would speak to the actors and stand by the camera, then he would go over to a trailer with the other two directors and give notes back and forth. Sounds exhausting.
26. Polish Pilots
One of the jokes about Polish people didn’t go over very well with the Polish-American League. The initial plan was for a Polish airline to be piloted and co-piloted by blind singer Jose Feliciana and lookalikes of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, both blind musicians.
The Polish-American League was furious with the joke and demanded that it be removed from the film. The joke eventually didn’t get put in. Not because of the uproar though; because the directors decided that it wasn’t funny enough.
27. Ethel Merman Cameo
While Ted Striker, played by actor Robert Hays, is in the hospital with Elaine, the patient next to him is said to be suffering from severe shellshock he received during the war. The shellshock makes the man think he is singing legend Ethel Merman.
When the camera pans over to him, he has actually turned into Ethel Merman, singing “Everything is Coming Up Roses.” Airplane! was Merman’s last film appearance and she, still to this day, is known as “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage.”
28. The Beard
In one scene on the plane, a husband turns off the air for his wife who is sick and a huge gust of wind comes out. One of the passengers sitting directly in the path of the gust of wind is wearing a fake beard.
The fake beard was supposed to come flying off, adding some more slapstick humor to the scene but it doesn’t. The man wearing the beard can be seen trying to wiggle his chin to help release the adhesive but it doesn’t help.
29. Julie Hagerty’s Debut
Well-known actress Julie Hagerty played the lead female role of Elaine Dickinson. She has been in many movies and TV shows since, but Airplane! marked her debut film appearance. What a way to start a career!
Hagerty started off as a model for Ford Models at the young age of 15 and started performing in her brother’s theater called The Production Company. The actress’s performance in Airplane! established her as a reputable actress and helped her land numerous roles later on.
30. Lloyd Bridges Legacy
Actor Lloyd Bridges plays the role of air traffic controller Steve McCroskey, a man who apparently suffers from multiple vices. In every scene in which he appears, he talks about how he picked the wrong week to quit x, y or z.
Every time he says the line the vice gets worse, such as sniffing glue. In real life, Lloyd Bridges was a highly prolific actors, having appeared in over 150 feature films during his lifetime. Two of his children, Beau and Jeff Bridges, are also highly respected actors.
Actor Robert Stack, who played the role of Captain Rex Kramer, was initially not interesting the taking the part at all. In fact, it took a lot of persuasion to get him to do it. It took all the directors and even Lloyd Bridges’ children to persuade him to take the role.
Peter Graves also rejected the script the first time he read through it. According to him, it was in bad taste and not funny. In the DVD commentary, director Jim Abrahams commented, “I don’t understand. What did he think was tasteless about pedophilia?”
32. The Roger Murdoch Flight
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became so famous and well-known for his role as a member of the flight crew that he was asked to come sit in the cockpit on a European flight, all so the pilot could say that he flew with Roger Murdoch.
Casting a famous athlete was a direct parody of the original movie Zero Hour!, which cast the pro-football player Elroy Hirsch as a pilot. If you look closely you will also see that the basketball player’s name is incorrectly spelled in the end credits (most likely not on purpose).
33. Back and Forth
Actor Robert Hays played the role of Ted Striker, which is a lead role, but at the time of filming, he also had another gig. He also played the role of Brad Benson on the TV show, Angie.
Hays appeared in a total of 36 episodes of Angie before it was finally cancelled. He had to keep running back and forth from set to set to do both the movie and the TV show. Now that’s some talent.
34. The Spinning Newspaper
In one scene there is a spinning newspaper that has a picture of a young boy under the headline “Boy Trapped In Refrigerator Eats Own Foot.” The boy in the photo is actually one of the producer’s grandsons.
Producer Howard W. Koch called his grandson and asked for a photo, without telling him what it was for. It was only when the movie came out that his grandson found out that he was part of a joke in the movie.
35. Woody Allen
David Zucker and the other writers and directors were heavily influenced by the work of Woody Allen. Once, years after the release of Airplane!, Woody Allen approached Zucker at a basketball game and let Zucker know how much he loved the movie.
What a compliment to be acknowledged by the great Woody Allen! Allen’s first films specialized in slapstick comedy, much like Airplane! He then moved into more dramatic writing and directing. He has been described as “a treasure of the cinema” by famous movie critic Roger Ebert.
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