Here is a question for all of you today.
Have you ever heard of a 1957 film entitled “Zero Hour”? It’s okay if you haven’t. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen the movie before in my life.
This is the movie poster below.
The film’s screenplay was penned by Arthur Hailey, and its stars included Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and Sterling Hayden.
I’m going to describe the plot to all of you. Perhaps it might sound familiar if you hear me talking about it.
The story begins during World War II when half a dozen members of pilot Ted Stryker’s squadron are killed in the line of duty, largely in part due to the orders he gave. Flash forward a number of years, and Stryker is trying to adjust to civilian life in Canada, where he is having marital problems and has difficulty finding (and keeping) jobs.
One day, Stryker happens to find a note at home written by his wife, Ellen, which explains that she is taking their young son, Joey away to live somewhere else, and that the marriage is over. Stryker immediately rushes to the airport to try and stop them from leaving. He buys a ticket on the same commercial flight that Ellen and Joey are on, and pleads with them to reconsider leaving. Ellen’s mind seems to be made up though, and nothing will change her mind. It seems as though Stryker has spent money on a wasted trip.
But then fate steps in - in the form of the in-flight meal.
Apparently those people who opted to choose the fish meal instead of the meat dish really began to regret it, as almost immediately after eating it, they begin feeling sick. Apparently, the shipment of fish that was boarded onto the flight was tainted, and everyone who ate it began suffering from food poisoning. Approximately half the passengers (including young Joey Stryker) were affected by the tainted fish.
Oh, did I mention that the pilots happened to have a craving for fish, and are now out of commission?
So here’s the situation. You have a plane that is basically out of control due to the crew being sick, and the only person onboard the plane that can help prevent disaster from happening is the very man who has not flown a plane in a decade because of what happened during the war. To add to the panic of the situation, even if Stryker didn’t have the events of ten years ago weighing down his conscience, he wasn’t familiar with flying a plane as huge as a commercial jet.
Now, keep in mind that “Zero Hour” was a movie that was meant to be taken seriously, and the whole movie was one that kept filmgoers on the edge of your seat. If you want to watch it, it’s been available on DVD since 2007.
However, “Zero Hour” is not the intended film that I want to talk about...even though the plot for this movie was basically the exact same one as “Zero Hour”...only with a few minor adjustments. I mean, the two movies even reused the name of the main character (although in the movie we’ll be discussing, the last name is spelled ‘Striker’).
I’m sure some of you may have figured out what movie we’re going to be talking about here already, but for those of you that haven’t, think of what the movie “Zero Hour” would have been like if it were put on by a sketch comedy troupe. Why, you’d likely end up with scenes like this one...
...or this one...
...or even this one...
...and it’s scenes like that one that made the David Zucker/Jim Abrahams/Jerry Zucker directed film “Airplane!” one of the biggest movies of 1980!
MINI-CONFESSION: This movie probably ranks well within my all-time favourite movies that I have ever seen. At least Top 5 anyway!
“Airplane!” was released on July 2, 1980, and had some fairly huge names attached to its roster. The main stars were Robert Hays as Ted Striker, and Julie Hagerty in her film debut as Elaine Dickinson.
Others who starred in the feature were Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Ethel Merman.
The movie itself ended up making a total of $83.5 million at the box office (in 1980 dollars), and was named as the 10th funniest comedy by the American Film Institute, and in 2010, the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
The idea for “Airplane!” came at a time when the Zucker brothers and Abrahams were performing with a theatre group they formed in 1971 called the Kentucky Fried Theatre. And the idea came to them almost by accident. They were recording commercials from television in the hopes of writing a spoof about them when they realized that they had taped an airing of “Zero Hour” in the process. This mistake ended up being a blessing, as the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker borrowed a lot of ideas from the movie to draft their script. The trio ended up drafting a script based on “Zero Hour”, as well as adding in the commercial spoofs that they had come up with. The project was initially titled “The Late Show”. But when people advised them to shorten the commercial parodies, they removed them altogether and ended up with a script that no movie company would even touch.
That is until they had a meeting with famed director John Landis, who encouraged the three of them to write a film that was based on their theatre sketches, and that film would later become the script for what became “Airplane!”
“Airplane!” ended up being a first for the ZAZ trio. Not only was it their first attempt at a motion picture, but it was their first time setting foot on a movie soundstage. As David Zucker explained in an interview, they learned so much about the film industry from shooting “Airplane!”.
Now, casting for the film was a tricky business. Finding the lead roles for the film was fairly simple. The unknown Julie Hagerty was cast, and Robert Hays was doing double-duty at the time, as he was also working on the short-lived television sitcom “Angie” during the filming of “Airplane!”.
It was getting big named stars like Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Peter Graves to agree to taking on a role in the film. I know it seems hard to believe, especially in the case of Leslie Nielsen, but would you believe that prior to “Airplane!”, none of these actors actually appeared in a comedic film? I know!
Getting Leslie Nielsen to agree to the role of Dr. Rumack was the easiest sell. Nielsen even admitted that he was getting too old to play the serious roles he was used to acting in, so this film was a nice change for him. The others had to be convinced.
Lloyd Bridges (Steve McCroskey) only agreed to take on the role because his children suggested that it was a good idea, while Robert Stack was persuaded by the team of ZAZ to take on the role of Captain Kramer (a role that the team believed was one of the most important roles to cast perfectly).
Peter Graves was probably the hardest sell to the script, particularly since his agent had believed that the script was complete garbage, a belief that Graves held as well. But when he was interviewed by the Today Show in 2008, he later said that friends and colleagues convinced him to loosen up a bit and take the role of Captain Clarence Oliver.
While we’re talking about the behind the scenes moments of “Airplane!”, let’s talk about some other morsels of trivia that you may or may not know about this film.
1 – Robert Hays wasn’t the only person associated with “Angie” involved with the film. The part of the singing nun was played by Maureen McGovern, who sang the theme song for the television show.
2 – “Leave It To Beaver” star Barbara Billingsley had a cameo role in the movie as the “jive talker”.
3 – Jim Abrahams makes a cameo in the film as one of the religious zealots on the plane.
4 – Would you believe that David Letterman actually screen-tested for the role of Striker?
5 – This was the final movie that Ethel Merman took part in before her death in 1984.
6 – The Boeing 747 that was used in the film was actually a TWA airliner painted a different colour.
7 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s role was initially meant for baseball player Pete Rose to play instead, but Rose had to turn it down as the filming took place in the middle of baseball season.
8 – Barry Manilow was also considered for the role of Striker.
9 – The first draft for the film was completed six years before the film was released.
10 – The film was shot in just thirty-four days.
11 – The jive talk scene was completely improvised.
12 – Ethel Merman not only brought her own hairdresser to the set of the movie, but apparently her hair took so long to style that she was rarely on the set before noon!
13 – Robert Hays actually owned the Mustang that was used in the film, and was paid $35 a day for its use. He ended up making an additional $70 on his final take home pay as a result.
14 – Initially when the film was being filmed, there’s a portion of dialogue that had McCroskey asking for someone who wouldn’t crack under pressure to Johnny. The original response was supposed to be Mamie Eisenhower, but when she died in November 1979, the line was dubbed over and replaced with a Mister Rogers line instead, out of respect to the former American First Lady.
15 – Paramount only greenlit the film after ZAZ pitched the film as “Animal House on a plane”. It was not exactly the truth, but it worked!
16 – The title of the film was known as “The Incredible Trip in a Crazy Airplane” in Germany, “The Craziest Plane in the World” in Italy, “Help, We’re Flying” in Norway, “Land As You Can” in Spain, and “And Where Is The Pilot?” in Argentina!
17 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar revealed in a 2008 interview that he was asked to sit in the cockpit of a plane that was taking off in Europe, just so the pilots could brag about flying with Roger Murdoch (the character played by Adbul-Jabbar).
18 – Stephen Stucker (who played Johnny) ad-libbed his entire speaking part in the movie.
19 – Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty rehearsed their ‘Stayin’ Alive’ dance sequence for an entire month.
20 – The producers had to get permission from the Bee Gees to use a sped-up version of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ for inclusion in the film.
21 – The scene in which the plane crashes through the window of the airport terminal featured the Zucker brothers in a cameo.