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NY Post
New York Post
21 Oct 2023

NextImg:‘Airplane!’ was almost ruined by Barry Manilow and David Letterman

When the creators of the 1980 comedy classic “Airplane!” were casting the lead role of pilot Ted Striker — eventually played by Robert Hays — they saw a slew of actors who weren’t right for the role.

Finally, with only three weeks until filming, executives at Paramount Pictures told the filmmakers that they had decided on an actor to fill the role: crooner Barry Manilow.

According to a new oral history of the film, “Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane!” (St. Martin’s Press) by the film’s creators David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, with interviews by Will Harris, Paramount executive Tom Parry broke the news to the team, known collectively as ZAZ.    

“Their jaws dropped, and then they broke into gales of laughter,” Parry says in the book.

“And they said, ‘You got us! That’s the funniest thing we’ve ever heard!’ The thing is, the guys used to do things like toilet-paper my car, and they thought I was getting back at them. And I said, ‘No no! It’s real!”

With only three weeks until filming, executives at Paramount Pictures told the “Airplane!” filmmakers that they had decided on an actor to fill Stryker the role: crooner Barry Manilow.
Getty Images

Parry managed to dissuade Manilow from taking the role by emphasizing that the film would have three first-time co-directors.   

But the insanity of the casting idea in the first place emphasizes how difficult “Airplane!” was to cast, and how widely misunderstood it was even by those in charge of creating it. 

“Airplane!” evolved from ZAZ’s popular L.A. comedy theater Kentucky Fried Theater, which would also inspire their 1977 film “The Kentucky Fried Movie.” 

(An earlier version of the script for “Airplane!” was titled “Kentucky Fried Airplane.”)

Researching TV commercials to parody, ZAZ would record television overnight, hoping to find bizarre infomercials to mock.  

The “Airplane!” creators have penned a revealing oral history.
Parry managed to dissuade Manilow from taking the role by emphasizing that the film would have three first-time co-directors.   
Courtesy Everett Collection

One night, they inadvertently recorded a super-serious 1957 airplane disaster movie called “Zero Hour!” about a World War II veteran with PTSD who is forced to fly a passenger plane after the pilots come down with food poisoning.

“‘Zero Hour!’ was intensely serious and unintentionally hilarious,” Jerry Zucker said in the book. 

“One gem in the middle of the movie was the signature line: ‘We need to find someone back there who not only can fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner,’” Abrahams recalled in the book.

“We didn’t have to change it. Imagine being kids who spent 100 percent of their lives looking for things to spoof and then coming across a line like that. I’ve often thought that’s how Jonas Salk must have felt when he discovered his polio vaccine.”

The ZAZ team bought the rights to “Zero Hour!” and constructed “Airplane!” directly on top of it, writing jokey retorts to the original film’s actual lines.

The late Leslie Nielsen played Dr. Rumack.

It was crucial then that they cast actors who could perform the creators’ insane comic scenarios with the believability of a disaster movie.

For the role of Elaine Dickinson, the flight attendant/pilot’s love interest eventually played by Julie Hagerty, Shelley Long had a great audition, while Sigourney Weaver took herself out of the running.

“She came in dressed in a 1940s stewardess costume complete with full makeup and a forties hairstyle,” David Zucker says in the book. “Right off the bat she told us that she refused to do the ‘sit on your face and wriggle’ line.”

While Hagerty came along soon after, Striker was proving harder to cast, and the names of many actors — and non-actors — were tossed out in desperation. 

Olympic champion Bruce Jenner read for the role three times.

ZAZ even asked David Letterman to audition after seeing him perform at the Comedy Store.

“Airplane!” evolved from the popular L.A. comedy theater Kentucky Fried Theater.

“We did a scene once, and then they gave me some notes, and then we did it maybe two more times,” Letterman says in the book.

“And I kept saying all along, ‘I can’t act! I can’t act!’ and then one of them came to me after the audition and said, ‘You’re right: you can’t act!”

“I remember calling Letterman to tell him he didn’t get the part,” Jerry Zucker said. “He thanked me profusely.”

Beyond the romantic leads, one key to the film’s success would be to hire the kind of actors who had starred in movies and TV shows like “Zero Hero!” 

When “Mission: Impossible” veteran Peter Graves, who eventually played the gladiator-loving Captain Oveur, first read the script, he thought it was so awful that he threw it across the room. (Graves died in 2010, but is quoted throughout the book in old interviews.)

Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a role in “Airplane.”
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“I did more than turn it down. I was upset. I thought it was trash!” Graves says.

“I said, ‘This is insane!’ And not only that, it’s the worst taste I’ve ever seen — from any piece of material I’ve ever read!’”

Confusion about the script didn’t end after the actors, including Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges, were cast.

“I remember one day, Lloyd and Bob were rehearsing a scene,” Hays says in the book. “I remember Lloyd being a little kind of frustrated and confused, and saying, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ Because it was so stupid! It was so crazy, and he didn’t quite get it.”

Robert Hays’s character has a disco flashback in a memorable scene.
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“So finally Stack jumps in,” continues David Zucker, “and says, ‘Look, there’s a spear going into the wall behind me and a watermelon falling on the desk in front of you. No one’s listening to us! Just keep talkin’, Lloyd!’”

In the end, “Airplane!” became a regular presence on virtually every “Funniest Movies of All Time” list, and even won over the skeptics in its own cast.

Years after the movie’s release, Graves was standing in a checkout line behind a woman and a twelve-year-old boy. The boy kept peering back like he might recognize him.

“She finishes paying, and the kid’s still looking at me,” says Graves.

“And I just leaned down and said, ‘Son, do you like movies about gladiators?’ She grabbed that kid and headed for the hills. No one has seen her since.”