David and Jerry Zucker celebrate 30 years of Airplane!

Posted on 24 August 2010
By Martin Higgins
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When David Zucker was a child living in Milwaukee in the 1960s, one of his teachers said to him during 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!’”

His teacher was mysteriously prophetic in this respect as this badly behaved pupil would go on to reinvent US screen comedy with his tour de force, Airplane!

Zucker co-directed and co-wrote the film with his younger brother Jerry and their lifelong friend Jim Abrahams, but none of them could have expected they would still be talking about the film so long after it was produced.

David says: “We were pretty gung-ho when it came out and weren’t that surprised it was a hit. But no one ever envisioned it still being around 30 years later.”

Airplane! made $83m on its first release in 1980 costing a paltry $3.5 to make. The film was an instant classic and spawned a brand of comedy that permeated and informed everything that followed, from the Police Squad TV shows to the Naked Gun movies.

The poster boy for this new style of comedy was the one-time 1950s romantic lead Leslie Nielsen, who is indebted to Zucker and co for transforming him into the much loved comic hero he is today.

Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker’s influence was far reaching as their live show inspired Saturday Night Live. They also launched the career of John Landis and gave the Farrelly brothers their first step on the ladder.

But David says it wasn’t easy to get people to back the film originally: “We spent so much time trying to persuade everyone else that it would be funny, that we started to believe it ourselves.”
The boys found themselves in Los Angeles in the 1970s and by 1975 were running their own hybrid sketch-revue show, Kentucky Fried Theatre.

“The pace you see in Airplane! developed through the live theatre show,” Jerry says. “We weren’t really actors, just performers, so we were cheaper.”

“We didn’t even have the ability to make characters. All we could do was write jokes and act them out. We literally couldn’t stand being on stage and not getting a laugh. A lot of people said their jaws ached after the show – and we wanted to get that on to film.”

David recalls how the idea for Airplane! was first conceived: “For material, we’d leave the VCR on all night and see what turned up. One morning we got interested not in the commercials, but in the actual movie that was on. It was called Zero Hour! So we purchased an option on the rights.”

Zero Hour! was a 1957 potboiler written by Airport’s Arthur Hailey, and the trio swiped its absurd plot and great chunks of the dialogue- but decorated it all to fit in with their comedy vision.

Getting all the actors on the same page took some gentle manoeuvring and tactful persuasion as Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible fame was understandably loath to play a paedophile at first.

David said: “Graves took one look at the script and just about threw it in the trash. Well, can you blame him? He’s playing a paedophile and every line he has is horrifying.”

Jerry added: “I know – and the defining line of his very varied career will be, ‘Billy, have you ever seen a grown man naked?'” He laughs.

Robert Stack on the other hand, of Written on the Wind and The Untouchables, got it straight away as Jerry says: “He understood it from the get-go. Lloyd Bridges was asking once about his motivation or something and Stack says, ‘Lloyd, there’s a spear gonna fly into the right wall and a watermelon’s gonna burst on stage left. Believe me, no one’s looking at us!’”