How good is the movie 'Airplane!'? It's so good that we tried to kick off this intro with a clever reference to the best quote from the movie -- and couldn't narrow it down. The landmark parody film made by brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their pal Jim Abrahams, threw more jokes at you per minute than a Marx Brothers routine, features perhaps the greatest acting performance by an NBA star and turned liking gladiator movies into a dirty thing.
On Sunday, Paramount premieres 'Airplane!' for the first time ever on Blu-ray (and only at Best Buy retail stores), and to celebrate, Moviefone spoke with star Robert Hays, a/k/a Ted Striker, the panic-stricken fighter pilot that must commandeer the troubled flight (he's the pilot on the right side of the picture).
In our interview Hays recalls working with the late, great Leslie Nielen, reveals which actors got to make up their own lines and admits that there actually was going to be an 'Airplane 3.' Read on to find out what happened.
The first time I saw 'Airplane!' I was probably too young for it, and half the jokes when over my head.
A lot of the jokes become apparent, as you grow up.
When you were reading the script for the first time, at what page did you realize that you had to do this movie?
I read it when I was on a plane going to Minneapolis; ABC was sending a whole bunch of us for a station changeover, from NBC to ABC. There was something on every page that made me laugh out loud. It was insane, and I just loved it from the get-go. It got me.
How difficult was it playing the movie straight, even though what you're saying is absurd?
That's what the boys [Zucker and Abrams] wanted, and their sense of comedy is so incredible, it's so good. I knew that was the right thing too, we all had a sense that was the way to play it. The script is the main reason the thing is so funny; you start with the script, but then because we played it so seriously, that was the next big, important ingredient to the whole deal.
The big trend now in comedies is to ad-lib, improv and do a lot takes; did the Zucker brothers ever try that approach?
It wasn't like that at all. This was a low budget film; it was like three and half million bucks. And they had been rejected, they'd go back and work on it, and then they'd be rejected again, and go back and polish it and work on it. They did this, I think, over five years, and the script was so tight.
The only people that really ad-libbed, were Steve Stucker, who played Johnny. He did the Kentucky Fried Theater with them, he was in their troupe. So they wrote that role for him, and they'd call him and go, "Hey! What about this? Hey! Johnny, what do you make of this?" and he'd say, "Yeah, I can make it a hat or a broche" and all that. That was him ad-libbing his goofy things. "Rapunzel! Rapunzel!"
The only other ones were Al White and Norm Gibbs; they played the two guys that did the black jive. They asked if they could rewrite some of the words, and the boys said, "Please! We're just three white Jewish guys from Milwaukee. We don't know anything." Al told me he got a dictionary of black jive and they wrote up their whole routine. They did that whole thing.
How was it working with Leslie Nielsen, because before this movie, he was known for serious films?
I knew him as the Swamp Fox in the old Disney film when I was little, and he did the light, romantic comedies, but he had never done any insanity like this. Everyone was just wonderful, but this was the show that really turned him into an insane nutjob [Laughs]. And he then went on to be very successful doing that.
What part of the film still makes you laugh just as hard?
It's really difficult to just pick one. When I watched it everything would make me laugh, but when I watched myself I cringed like, "Oh god, I could've done that better. Why did I do that that way?" I'd just be very critical of myself, but enough time has gone by that now I watch it and enjoy it.
Were there any moments that couldn't believe actually made the final cut?
When sh-t hits the fan, wow, how did that one get in there? To me, it seemed like, "yeah, yeah get it all in there." I'm really anxious to see in the Blu-ray what deleted scenes they have. I wish they put a box set of both of them together with all the deleted scenes, because there are some very funny scenes in both films that were deleted.
At the end of 'Airplane 2,' there's a teaser for 'Airplane 3.' How close did that ever come to happening?
It was very close. You have to understand the atmosphere, 31 years ago. Sequels were frowned upon. You were really looked down upon if you did sequels -- that was all you could do, you can't do anything else. They'd go, "Oh, Robert, 'Airplane' Hays, you ever gonna do something besides 'Airplane'?" I was doing other films, it's just that was the attitude that they took. Nowadays, sequels are called franchises. Now they look for them.
That was the joke we had in 'Airplane 2,' when Sonny Bono was buying the bomb at the store -- "I'll take the magazine, the candy bar, and the third bomb on the left" -- and behind him was a big poster in the shop with a little bald guy with boxing gloves and American flag shorts and it said 'Rocky 38.' I was in London doing a film called 'Scandalous,' at the time, and they were negotiating for doing 'Airplane 3,' and it had really gotten to me. I was being ragged on by the press a lot when I'd go to events and the paparazzi's there, and they would rag on me. I said, "Nah, don't wanna do it." Of course all that did was raise the price more and more and more. When finally I said, "I'm not going to do it," that was it, they didn't do it. Of course, I wish we had done it, looking back now, but you know, that was then and this is now.
(Banner image courtesy of Everett Collection.)