The making of Airplane!

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.


  1. Trickster Goddess says

    I had the honour of working crew on Wrongfully Accused and Leslie was such a great guy to work with, although he was very fond of his handheld fart noise maker. Half way through production he brought in a case full of the things and handed them out to all the crew. There was never again an uninterrupted quiet moment on the rest of the shoot…

    Trivia note: Leslie’s brother used to be the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada.

  2. says

    I was never a fan of “Airplane”. It was arguably the first “dumb comedy” movie, a la “Dumb and Dumber”, most Ben Stiller films, Saturday Night Live, etc. Growing up on Monty Python and Canadian comedy (e.g. Wayne and Shuster), the US’s that style of comedy never appealed to me and I still don’t get it. “Blazing Saddles” (also mentioned in the interview) *is* a movie that I enjoy and consider a classic.

    Regarding the interview and “playing it straight with straight actors”, my first thought was George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove”. In interviews, Scott said he wasn’t trying to be funny at all, but the role is utterly hilarious in the context of the movie.

  3. Friendly says

    In interviews, Scott said he wasn’t trying to be funny at all

    James Earl Jones has revealed that “Kubrick tricked Scott into playing the role of Gen. Turgidson far more ridiculously than Scott was comfortable doing. Kubrick talked Scott into doing over the top ‘practice’ takes, which Kubrick told Scott would never be used, as a way to warm up for the ‘real’ takes. Kubrick used these takes in the final film, causing Scott to swear never to work with Kubrick again.”

  4. chigau (違う) says

    I grew up watching Wayne and Shuster and I thought Airplane was hilarious.
    It was among the first movies I bought for home-viewing.

    I just googled Wayne and Shuster.
    First time I’ve seen them in colour.

  5. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Chris Hardwick of Nerdist moderated a panel with the writers + Robert Hayes for the 30th anniversary of the movie. I highly recommend listening to it.

    My favourite tidbit is about the man and woman doing the airport P.A. announcements (“the white zone is for…”, etc.). None of the auditions were working out so they eventually tracked down the husband and wife team who made the actual recordings for LAX. (Note: I haven’t listened to it since 2012 so some details might be a bit off).

    I highly recommend the Nerdist podcast for anyone who has times they can listen to such things. Google “nerdist episodes” and there’s a wikipedia page that lists their guests (almost 800 episodes now). I scrolled through looking for some to recommend but there are too many good ones*

    The interviews are more like hour-long chats. The 3 hosts are funny and decent people. There have been a few times they’ve said something I’ve disagreed with but it’s pretty rare.

    *ok, just randomly selecting a few: Patrick Stewart, Gillian Anderson, Henry Winkler, Bill Gates, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Bryan Cranston, Lea Thompson, Kal Penn, Brian Cox, Pauly Shore (didn’t expect that one to be so good), Adam West, Gary Cole, Brian Henson, etc.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @left0ver1under, 2: I think you do Airplane! a massive disservice putting it in a category with those films.

    It spawned a genre, but the films I would include in that genre are limited to the Naked Gun series, Hot Shots, and Top Secret. Ben Stiller probably wishes he’d ever written or been in something as clever as Airplane. I assume the people responsible for “Dumb and Dumber” have never seen nor heard of anything as clever or funny as Airplane. I’m slightly amused by how annoyed your comparison has made me.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    @sonofrojblake, that genre also includes most of Leslie Nielson’s other post-Airplane movies (such as Wrongfully Accused — financed by German investors; apparently he’s the Jerry Lewis of Gemany), and also a more recent series “A Touch of Cloth”, a modern British version of Police Squad!/Naked Gun.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    most of Leslie Nielson’s other post-Airplane movies

    Yeah… I try not to think about those.

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