One of the all-time great comedies is the 1980 film Airplane!. Its creators gave an interview about how they wrote the script and managed to get a major studio to back the film, especially the idea of using actors such as Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Pater Graves, and Leslie Nielsen, known for playing dramatic roles, to play parts that would have normally gone to comedians.
David Zucker: It was a radical concept. We were doing a comedy without comedians. I think the studio most likely green-lit it thinking this was Animal House on an airplane, and it turned out to be totally different than what they imagined.
Jerry Zucker: It’s a line that a lot of different people could have said, and it would’ve been funny — people would’ve gotten it. But I don’t think it would be remembered in the same way if it hadn’t been said the way Leslie Nielsen says it.
David Zucker: That’s a good point. We love Bill Murray and people who do comedy well, but it wouldn’t have been the same if a comedian had said that line.
What direction did you give Leslie for that scene?
Jerry Zucker: I think we had shown him Zero Hour! previously because we wanted him to see the style. We told everyone that “playing it straight” doesn’t quite do it, because they think they have it, but they’re still winking. We told them to play it like they don’t know they’re in a comedy. Like no one told them. Just the way Leslie would have played this in The Poseidon Adventure, or any other of the films or television shows he had done. Leslie, more than anyone, really got that and relished it. He loved it. For the whole movie, Leslie didn’t need a ton of direction on performance.
David Zucker: He just jumped into the water and swam. He knew what he was doing.
Abrahams: You can intercut scenes from The Poseidon Adventure with his performance in Airplane! and you can’t distinguish, performance-wise, between them.
Here’s the Shirley gag.