Airplane! – 30th Anniversary Screening at Lincoln Center
On Monday, August 9 the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a sold out 30th anniversary screening of the 1980 disaster movie spoof “Airplane!” The film’s triple threat writers-directors and executive producers, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker participated in a post-screening discussion moderated by the Film Society’s Associate Program Director, Scott Foundas. Foundas introduced “Airplane!” proclaiming it one of the best American comedies.
Seeing “Airplane!” again in a good 35mm print in the Film Society’s “big screened” Walter Reade Theatre, with an audience of its fans (me included) was tremendous fun. At age 30 “Airplane!” shows no sign of wear, its pacing tight as a drum. The sight gags and jokes are sharp and fast, coming one right after another.
The “Airplane!” scenario concerns a flight crew and several passengers who are taken ill after being served bad fish. It is up to a war-traumatized former pilot to attempt landing the plane.
The filmmakers explained that the story is actually based on a dramatic source, a movie called “Zero Hour” (1957), whose screenplay was written by noted author Arthur Hailey, not obvious material for comedy. The trio explained that they used to tape record (this was pre-VCR) late night TV and use the recordings to create parodies of commercials and TV shows to perform in their theatre, the Kentucky Fried Theatre (The three filmmakers also made the 1977 spoof “Kentucky Fried Movie.”) One night they recorded the audio of “Zero Hour” and knew that the overly serious melodrama was ripe for a send up. The Zuckers and Abrahams said they liked writing over-dubs of serious movies, which means having the characters say different, funnier lines. They said they were influenced by Woody Allen’s film “What’s Up Tiger Lily?” (1966).
In terms of casting “Airplane!” the filmmakers rejected Paramount Pictures’ idea of using popular comedians like Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. The trio prevailed in their concept of using action oriented, “tough guy” actors: Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and Leslie Nielsen. The actors were given the direction never to let on that they were in a comedy. Watching these men deliver the silly, overly dramatic “Airplane!” dialogue while keeping straight faces is hilarious. The filmmakers recalled Graves asking why they wanted him for the film since he was not a comedian. They told him, “Peter, you are the joke.”
When asked if they were surprised by the success of “Airplane!” the filmmakers said their belief in the movie was so passionate that they were not surprised by how well it was received, but that nobody could have anticipated the movie’s popularity lasting 30 years. And counting!