The story behind Airplane!

Airplane! (1980) is one of the funniest films ever made. While it was clearly a parody of the disaster films that were a popular genre at that time (in addition to parodying iconic scenes from other films) I was not aware that the film was so closely based on an actual 1957 film titled Zero Hour, with many scenes lifted entirely from that older film as setups for the newer film’s jokes.

Zero Hour is a thriller about a passenger flight that turns dangerous when the crew is felled by food poisoning, leaving traumatized war pilot Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) as the only man on board able to land the plane. The film was written by Arthur Hailey, who was also behind the Airport movies that were also part of the inspiration for Airplane!. ZAZ actually bought the rights to Zero Hour, which allowed them to literally remake a great number of scenes — they didn’t just use the script, but copied staging, camera angles and everything. And it’s all used as the lead-in for a great many of the comedy’s most well-loved jokes.

You can see this similarities in this comparison of scenes from the older black-and-white film and the new one.

Key actors like Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Peter Graves had, prior to Airplane!, mostly played serious roles in dramatic films. The Airplane! creators exploited this fact and told them to say their lines as if this were a serious film, so that their deadpan delivery made it even funnier.

If you have never seen Airplane!, you have missed a treat, though there are a couple of jokes in scenes involving children that nowadays would not have been made, and rightly so.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    It’s actually Zero Hour!. A good movie, starring one of my favourite actors, Dana Andrews. In lots of great films, The Ox-Bow Incident and Laura in particular.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    “Dana Andrews said prunes
    Gave him the runes
    And passing them used lots of skills”

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Oh, the Rocky Horror movie. I remember that, vaguely. A friend dragged me to see it many years ago. I’d have fallen asleep if it weren’t for the cultists doing the participation thing.

  4. antaresrichard says

    I saw it on its first run, and being one who watches a film from its first frame till last, catching the final scene so many missed. Surely.


  5. Silentbob says

    (I think loving Zero Hour! and falling asleep during the Rocky Horror Picture Show says a lot about a person) X-D

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Right before Airplane Leslie Nielsen had played murderous sadist in a Stephen King story -- that is quite an U-turn.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    For finding cult films, I recommend ‘Brandon’s Cult Movie Reviews’ at Youtube.
    Everything from “The Giant Claw’ or ‘Killer Klowns From Outer Space’ to relatively high-budget films.
    Want to see a naked Kirk Douglas and a killer robot in space? Check out “Saturn 3”. Or Sam Neill run into Lovecraftian entities summoned by horror writer? See “In the Mouth of Madness”.

  8. Mark Dowd says

    Suppose the modern day version would be casting Liam Neeson in “A Million Ways to Die in the West”. You get that one point of deadly, lethal seriousness in an otherwise absurd comedy, and it gives it just the right spice.

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