How We Made: Airplane!

‘Leslie Nielsen had this machine that made fart noises. He’d let rip while you were filming dialogue with him’

David and Jerry Zucker, directors (with Jim Abrahams)

We used to seek out movies that were mind-numbingly serious and dub them with our own voices. Late one night, we caught Zero Hour! – a 1957 film about a former world war two pilot landing a stricken passenger flight – and thought: “Why don’t we recreate this whole movie instead?”

We wrote Airplane! but couldn’t get it financed. We were proposing a big broad comedy without comedians – a completely new concept. Nobody understood the idea of serious actors playing it straight, but for us that was everything. All the studios turned it down until we got to Paramount. Michael Eisner, then president, thought the script was funny. We wanted it to be shot in black and white, on a prop plane, because that was the tone we were making fun of. But Eisner wisely said it’s got to be in colour and on a jet plane so people can identify with it.

We realised that to get our jokes the way we wanted them, we’d have to direct. Paramount paired us with a producer, Howard W Koch, who agreed – but only if he could fire us after two weeks if Paramount weren’t happy. We thought: “We’ll take that!”

Watch the trailer: Airplane!

The studio wanted Bill Murray or Chevy Chase, the reigning comic actors at the time. We loved them but they weren’t right. Lines like “I am serious – and don’t call me Shirley” would have been 50% less effective. Bruce [now Caitlyn] Jenner read for Ted Striker, the ex-pilot, three times but wasn’t right. Sigourney Weaver and Shelley Long tried for Elaine, the air stewardess, and were both good, but Julie Hagerty was so strikingly different we knew she was the one.

A bunch of actors turned down the doctor part, among them Vincent Price and Jack Webb. It eventually came down to this guy who wasn’t a famous name but you’d seen him in lots of things. And, of course, it was Leslie Nielsen.

We told the actors to pretend that they didn’t know they were in a comedy. Leslie loved goofy things and his timing was impeccable. He was born to do comedy but was trapped in serious roles for years. The other thing that’s really important is we took the story seriously. We did all these ridiculous jokes, but always come back to grave danger. It makes the jokes more unexpected. On some moronic level, people do care whether the plane lands and whether Ted and Elaine get together.

Watch the trailer: Zero Hour!

When we were auditioning for the “jive talk” sequence, the script just read: “Shi-mo-fo.” We apologised to the actors saying that was the best three white Jewish guys from Milwaukee could do. Al White and Norm Gibbs auditioned together and said: “Do you mind if we do our own thing?” We didn’t write any of that, it was all them. They also coached Barbara Billingsley, the passenger who steps in to translate.

The film is not about a particular time. It’s a satire on a style of acting and that makes it timeless. Robert Stack, who played Captain Rex Kramer, used to say: “I get it – we’re the joke!”

We believed it’d be a hit, so when it actually was we weren’t surprised. What’s surprising is how long it’s lasted. Today’s comedy artists – from the Farrelly brothers to Seth MacFarlane and Judd Apatow – all say how the film influenced them. As more and more fans of Some Like It Hot die off, Airplane! will probably become the No 1 funny movie of all time in polls.

Robert Hays, played Ted Striker

‘On some moronic level, people do care whether the plane lands and whether Ted and Elaine get together.’
‘On some moronic level, people do care whether the plane lands and whether Ted and Elaine get together.’ Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

I read the script on an aeroplane. There was something on every page that made me laugh out loud and the stewardess noticed. I gave it to her when I was done. She was very prim and proper, with her hair in a tight bun. I looked up the aisle and saw her sitting with the script on her lap. A little later, I saw her smiling. Then she started really chuckling. Soon her hair was coming undone and she was laughing uproariously. “That’s a good sign,” I thought.

The film was low budget and we only had seven weeks to shoot it. People say there must’ve been lots of ad-libbing but Jerry, David and Jim knew exactly what they wanted. Jim came to me and said: “Tomorrow we’re shooting the scene where you’re boring the Japanese general and we need more dialogue.” I had a heart attack because I’m not a writer. Jim said: “Calm down, you just have to bore people to death.” So I wrote all this stuff that went on and on and on.

We laughed every day. I couldn’t wait to get to the set. Leslie Nielsen had this little thing he called his machine. He’d squeeze it and it would make a fart noise. He’d wander over and casually lean against the wall as he was talking – and let rip. While filming, he’d use it during his lines to me: “Mr Striker – PRRRRP – can you – PRRRRP – land this plane? PRRRRP” Keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the whole film for me.

We all thought it’d be cool if it became a cult classic. A friend who had seen the trailer said: “Those are all the jokes, right?” I said, “No – just wait.” It broke records in just about every cinema it played in. I was asked to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. It was like winning the film lottery.

Interviews by Simon Bland

The GuardianTramp

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