Comedy! Drama! Romance! Airplane! is a classic disaster spoof that has managed to survive the test of time.
What is there to say about the disaster spoof that hasn’t already been said in almost 38 years since the film was released? It’s not only that there are so many zingers but so many of them have gone on to become oft-quoted classic lines! From “Surely, you can’t be serious!” to “I just want to tell you both good luck,” the zingers build up throughout the film.
Airplane! takes it’s central plot and characters from the 1957 disaster film, Zero Hour! It’s a surprise that the writers of the 1957 film weren’t credited with how much was lifted from the original. Paramount owned the rights, which made it easier.
The gist of Airplane! is this: Ted Striker (Robert Hays) is a former fighter pilot who fought in the water. Suffering from PTSD, he’s now a taxi driver. His girlfriend during the war, Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) left him just as she was set for a flight from Los Angeles as Chicago to work as a flight attendant. Ted does the only thing he can do: leave a passenger in the back seat and rush to buy a ticket for a flight to Chicago. That poor passenger must have been waiting forever before realizing that his driver probably isn’t returning.
Once the flight meal is served, the hysterics truly start to begin when the passengers who are fish fall ill. Their only hope is to find a doctor and they do so in the form of Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen). The plane’s cockpit wasn’t safe from chaos either. Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves), co-pilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and flight navigator Victor Basta (Frank Ashmore) have all fallen ill. Chicago tower supervisor Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) is brought on to aid Elaine while the autopilot flies the plane. There’s only one person who can fly the plane: Ted Striker. Reluctant or not, he’s the only man who can do it.
Who talks Ted through but Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack). Because there’s tension between the two and at one point, Ted just gives up. It takes Rumack’s “Win one for the Zipper” speech to get Ted inspired to land the plane.
One of the reasons why Airplane! works as well as it does is because of those actors who play their lines with a deadpan performance. If not for his role as Dr. Rumack, Leslie Nielsen doesn’t become known for starring in so many comedy spoofs. Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack also play it straight although Bridges gets some of the funny lines. Stephen Strucker does some of the craziest stuff as air traffic controller Johnny Henshaw-Jacobs. I can’t help but imagine Veep veteran Tony Hale in the role.
It does need to be said though that for everything funny about Airplane!, Oveur’s behavior with Joey isn’t all that great. Oveur comes off as a pedophile in this scene. This behavior downright awful to tell you the truth and should be called out for what it is. If it had been a television show, those lines would have been struck down by standards. Despite the presence of this scene, the film is rated PG.
Led by deadpan performances amid the zany hysterics, Airplane! is an all-time classic.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITERS: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
CAST: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lorna Patterson, Stephen Stucker
Paramount Pictures opened Airplane! in theaters on July 2, 1980. The “Don’t Call Me Shirley!” Edition is available on Blu-ray.