“Airplane!” Is 35. Shirley You Can’t Be Serious?

There are certain movies I watched over and over as a child — movies that still take me back to that magical time when I see them today. Their magic inspired me so much that I considered working in the film industry at one point. I’ve heard that services like Friends in Film were a great online resource for budding filmmakers who want to get their foot in the door. Making those magical, quotable moments, must be so satisfying. I know the movies I have seen so many times, I can quote them verbatim — and not just the famous quotes. I’m talking every. Single. Line. Sound of Music, of course, and Mary Poppins, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang…and, yes, Airplane! (In case you forgot, the exclamation mark isn’t mine, it’s part of the official title.) Airplane! is not exactly wholesome family viewing, but it was a family favorite in my household, and I can’t freakin’ believe it is THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OLD this month. Here are 35 little known facts about the movie to celebrate this awesome movie’s birthday.

1. Many of the Lines Are Lifted Directly From a Real Airplane Disaster Movie

Airplane! came about because the filmmakers used to set their VCR to record stuff all night, looking for material, and one night they happened upon the one-hundred-percent serious sky disaster flick Zero Hour! Character names, plot lines (including the bad food), and entire chunks of dialogue are taken directly from the 1957 film. Oh, yeah, and the exclamation point, too. (They bought the rights to Zero Hour!, so it’s okay, really.)

2. It Would Have Been Okay Anyway

Later, the filmmakers learned the legal definition of “parody” and realized they didn’t need to buy the rights after all.

3. Seriously, We’re Talking Word for Word

In Zero Hour! a stewardess says, completely seriously, “The life of everyone on board depends upon just one thing: finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner.” Sound familiar?

4. Airplane! Is Responsible for the Farrelly Brothers

The Farrelly brothers (of There’s Something About Mary fame) credit the Airplane! writers/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (a.k.a ZAZ) for making them who they are today. “I’ll tell you right now,” Peter Farrelly told The New York Times. “If the Zuckers didn’t exist, there would be no Farrelly brothers.” Depending on your feelings toward the Farrelly brothers, you can blame or bless Airplane! for this. Farrelly also once likened watching Airplane! as a young man to the awe-inspiring experience of seeing Led Zeppelin in concert.

5. The Filmmakers Don’t Actually Speak Jive

The film’s Shaft-inspired “jive” dialogue was all written on set by the two actors, Al White and Norm Gibbs.

6. The Filmmakers and Their Families All Have Cameos

The woman trying to apply makeup in the film is David and Jerry Zucker’s actual mother, Charlotte. The Zucker brothers appear as the ground crew at the beginning of the film (they’re the ones that direct the plane into the window of the terminal). And Jim Abrahams is the second religious zealot who’s pushed aside by Rex Kramer upon his arrival in the Chicago Airport terminal.

7. David Zucker Was “Classmate Most Likely to Make Airplane!

When David Zucker was at school in Milwaukee in the 1960s, one of his teachers said, when he was messing around in class: “Zucker, I know one day I’ll be paying good money to see you make me laugh, but right now, get your ass back in that chair and crack that book!'”

8. Not Everyone’s Career Took Off After Airplane!

In 2002, Airplane! star Julie Hagerty was nominated for the worst supporting actress Razzie for Freddy Got Fingered. (We know: Ew.)

9. We Bet There Are Some Really Good Jokes on the Cutting Room Floor

The first draft of Airplane! had fake commercials throughout it, because the filmmakers didn’t realize at first that the original Zero Hour! film actually had a decent plot.

10. Airplane! Was Almost a Black and White Movie

The filmmakers originally wanted to shoot the movie on a prop plane, and in black and white, but Paramount insisted on color and a big plane. The punchline, according to David Zucker, is this: “If you watch the movie, the sound is that of a piston engine. It’s subtle, but-” Actually: “No, it’s not,” interrupts his brother Jerry.

11. It Was Shot Like a B-Movie But Made A-List Bucks

Airplane! was the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1980 in the US, and the highest-grossing comedy in history until Ghostbusters.

12. Look Closely to See B-Movie Props

In the scene where the husband turns on the air for his sick wife, you see in the background a man wearing a large beard, which was supposed to fly off in the wind. Unfortunately, the glue they used wouldn’t let the beard come loose, and the man can be seen moving his face back and forth and scrunching his face to try to help it come off.

13. We Would Totally Read Modern Sperm Magazine

The magazine Captain Oveur is reading in the airport is called Modern Sperm, from the “whacking material” section.

14. Those Announcers Are Totally Legit

For the argument between announcers concerning the white and red zones at the airport, the producers hired the same voice artists who had made the real-world announcements at Los Angeles International Airport. At the real airport, the white zone is for loading and unloading of passengers only, and there’s no stopping in the red zone (except for transit buses). The two announcers were also married to each other in real life.

15. Good Luck Finding This Movie on a Real Plane

Air Mexico was the only airline to purchase Airplane! as an in-flight movie.

16. Fart Machines Are Funny

Leslie Nielsen used to bring hand fart machines to the set. A doctor friend of his made them, and he sold them to the entire cast and crew for seven bucks a piece. The camera operator, the sound guy, everyone had one, and was constantly setting them off. It got to the point where the filmmakers would say, “All right, we’re going pass the basket around now, and you guys are all going to have to turn these things in, because we’re going do a take now, and if I hear one sound…”

17. Fart Machines Are Even Funnier When an Old, Slightly Senile Person Uses Them

According to Ross Harris (who played the kid Joey): “The funny thing is, when we did the commentary and interviews and stuff for the anniversary DVD, Leslie was still carrying his fart machine around. It was the last couple of years of his life, and I think he was starting to get a bit senile, but he was still carrying that thing around. And, you know, you’d think that it would’ve become kind of a tired joke, or even a little bit sad, but I’ll tell you, when you combined that thing with the old age or senility or whatever, he really caught people off guard. So, yeah, he was blasting that thing off even then, and people were, like, “Oh, my God: He’s still at it!”

18. It’s Funny to Quote Airplane! But It’s Even Funnier to Misquote It

In the US version of The Office, someone asks Michael Scott (Steve Carell), “Oh honey, surely you don’t want that.” He replies, “I surely do, and don’t call me honey.”

19. That Shirley Line Has Won Funny Awards

The dialog between Stryker and Rumack (“Surely you can’t be serious”; “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley”) was voted as the #79 movie quote out of 100 by the American Film Institute.

20. Bruce Jenner Was Almost in Airplane!

David Letterman screen-tested for the role of Ted Striker. Bill Murray, Barry Manilow, Bruce Jenner (!), and Chevy Chase were also considered for the role. These were all Paramount’s suggestions, but the filmmakers got their way in the end. “The key to the whole Airplane! concept,” Jim Abrahams explains, “and to our shared sense of humor was to do everything straight, so we did.” Jerry Zucker adds, “I remember when Leslie’s name came up, he just said, “Leslie Nielsen? Leslie Nielsen is the guy you cast the night before!”

21. That’s Right: People Didn’t Used to Think Leslie Nielsen Was Funny

Airplane! was Leslie Nielsen’s first proper comedic role. (Yeah, who knew he was even a serious actor once, right?)

22. But Even Leslie Nielsen Didn’t Get Everything Right

Nielsen didn’t like the line about the shit hitting the fan when he first read the script. “People aren’t going to laugh at that,” he said.

23. Don’t Blame the Filmmakers for Airplane II

The original filmmakers, ZAZ, turned down the chance to make Airplane II because they’d run out of airplane jokes. Wow, integrity in Hollywood, surely you can’t be serious?

24. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Really Likes Oriental Rugs

When the filmmakers offered Kareem Abdul-Jabbar $30,000 for his role, the agent asked for $35,000 because, he claimed, Kareem wanted to buy an art rug that cost that much. The filmmakers thought this was a pretty creative line, and with the interest into alternative and oriental rugs especially sheep skin rugs and cowhide rugs, they did not think this peculiar. But then, a few weeks later, they saw an article in Time magazine with a picture of Kareem standing in front of a $35,000 oriental rug.

25. Does Pete Rose Like Rugs?

Because Kareem’s role was originally written for Pete Rose.

26. The Producers Have Deep Respect for Mamie Eisenhower

In the scene with Johnny and Steve McCroskey, McCroskey says, “Get me someone who won’t crack under pressure.” Johnny responds, “How about Mister Rogers?” If you look carefully you’ll see that this line was dubbed in after. Airplane! was shot in August 1979, and Stephen Stucker (Johnny) actually said, “How about Mamie Eisenhower?” The former First Lady died a few months later, and the producers corrected it by dubbing in “Mister Rogers” out of respect for the Eisenhower family.

27. The Filmmakers Have Deep Respect for Ethel Merman

They wrote Ethel Merman’s part especially for her. According to Jerry Zucker: “I guess it still would’ve worked with others, but it was really all about Ethel Merman. Anyone else would’ve paled.” This was Ethel Merman’s final film before her death on February 15, 1984 at the age of 76.

28. Ethel Merman Had Deep Respect for Her Hairdresser

Ethel Merman insisted on bringing her own hairdresser to set, and she could only be on set after noon, as it took all morning to set her hair.

29. Other Countries Speak Jive, Sort Of

In the German version of Airplane!, the conversation between the two black passengers was dubbed in heavy Bavarian dialect (with subtitles in standard German). In the Italian version, the talk was dubbed in Neapolitan dialect.

30. Cocks Are Dirtier Than Cockpits

When Captain Oveur asks Joey if he’s ever seen the inside of a cockpit before, it’s not the original line, which was ultimately deemed to be too risqué. The line the filmmakers originally wrote was: “Have you ever seen a grown man’s cock?”

31. We Don’t Think Norway Is a Funny Country

In Norway, the title of this movie is “Help! We’re flying” (“Hjelp, vi flyr”). It was one of many unrelated comedy movies around that period of time that, for some reason, got the prefix “Help!”

32. We Would Like to See This Version, Too

Sigourney Weaver auditioned for the role of Elaine Dickinson, but she didn’t want to say the line, “Sit on your face and wriggle.”

33. 9-Year-Old Boys Don’t Get Pedophile Jokes But 10-Year-old Boys Do

Ross Harris was nine years old when he played the role of Joey, and he didn’t get the jokes about Turkish prisons. By the time the movie came out, he was ten, and he thought it was really funny.

34. It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Credits Have Stopped Rolling

The gags continue all the way through the closing credits, e.g. they credit “Guy in Charge of Lots of Things,” and put “So there!” at the end of the copyright notice.

35. I Once Quoted Airplane! In My Online Personal Ad

The headline of my personal ad on Nerve.com was “I Speak Jive.” Fortunately some dude found this funny, and that dude is now my husband. Unfortunately IMDB has yet to recognize this anecdote as movie-related trivia.

Want more Hollywood inside scoop?
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One Comment

  1. I saw this in the theater with my friend and his babysitter when I was 9. I’m pretty sure I missed over half of the jokes, but still thought it was hilarious. God, that fart machine story from Ross Harris is so heartbreakingly funny. Leslie Neilsen was the best.

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