I’ll be frank (even though my name’s not frank): Airplane! is the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.
Bold claim, sure, but every time I watch this 1980 classic, from comedic masterminds Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, I discover something new. Another joke that slipped by when I busy cackling with ecstatic laughter. The movie’s relentless delivery is inspired, firing off jokes at rapid pace and never slowing down to let the lesser ones fall flat. The method wouldn’t work with every comedy, but the writing/directing trio made it click in Airplane!, which is why the movie’s stood the test of time.
Airplane! hits Blu-ray this week and in honor of the release, I got a chance to talk to the star of the film, Robert Hays, the solid foundation of the movie’s zany antics. While some actors interest in their most popular work wanes over time, Hays remains impassioned over Airplane!. Out of the two of us, I wasn’t expecting him to be the one continually quoting the film:
How are you today?
Wonderful! I’m continually amazed bythe lasting power of Aiplane!. For something so incredibly ridiculous—but wonderful. Why do you think this film has captured people in this way?
I think it took people by surprise, and I think that it continues to surprise them. You know?
Even though they know. It’s just that—the boys created something, when they wrote it, that was so tight and insane. And then, I think because we all did it so seriously, which is what they wanted, and which was perfect, it still really holds up. I have people come up to me and say, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ and then they say, ‘And don’t call me Shirley!’ or ‘Do you still have your drinking problem?’ and things. And then they say, ‘Can I have an autograph for my son?’ And I asked this one woman, ‘Yeah! How old is he?’ [She said,] ‘He’s twelve.’ Wow. And another one came up later, and said, ‘Can I have an autograph for my son?’ And I said, ‘How old is he?’ [She said,] ‘He’s ten.’ And then I had a woman come up and say, ‘I’m introducing [my son] to comedies. And he loves the Marx Brothers, but his favorite film of all time is Airplane!.’ And I said, ‘Well, how cool is that! How old is he?’ [And she said,] ‘He’s six.’ [Laughs] Six! So, right there, we have new generations of people.
Now that’s staying power.
Yeah! So we’re gonna have more, you know, at my funeral. They’ll be saying, ‘Yo, can I have your autograph?’
Don’t call them Shirley at your funeral either.
My God, it’s a coffin! A coffin, what is it? A box with a body in the ground, but that’s not important right now.
Have you ever seen the film Zero Hour!, the 1957 disaster film from which many of the scenes in Airplane! are lifted?
I saw it, but I’ve only seen it since [filming Airplane!]. I never saw it before. I knew it was the basis, because they had it cued up and running back in the booth. They’d go in, and certain scenes, they’d have…the same angles, and the same lighting and everything. So that’s another little inside joke—for that part of it that was based on Zero Hour!. It was based on, basically, that for the framework, but then, so many other films, too.
So it wasn’t just a framework, it was an on-set guide.
They had a little booth. When we were on set, there was a little cabin, kind of a little room, that David and Jim would be in. And they’d have the monitor taped off so they could see what’s gonna be on the screen—just what is on film. You know, the cameraman sees what’s all around it, so he can see if anything’s gonna come in and mess up the shot, or whatever. But in the video feed, that’s what came on the monitor. So they taped it off so you could just see what’s actually on the shot. Jerry was out with us, on the camera, and afterwards they’d confer. And if they agreed on it, they’d say, ‘Good! Cut! Print!’
But they had a few scenes that they wanted to make sure had the same lighting. You know, in paying homage to the film, and also for the little inside…you know, all the little trivia things.
When you first landed Airplane!, where did you feel, career-wise? Was getting the movie a big deal for you?
Yeah! It was a feature film.
Was it your first?
Very first film, yeah.
What was it like transitioning to films and working with the [Zucker] Brothers in that world?
It was a low-budget film. It was about three-and-a-half million, something like that. At that time, it was really considered low-budget. Now, everything has grown so much. Just like, instead of having four or five channels on TV, we’ve got how many hundreds of channels on TV. Back then, you only had so many kinds of categories. And that was a low-budget film. Just as an example, when we went to Paramount, my publicist went to them and said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to do publicity! Bob’s ready! Maybe you could do some sideshow,’ or whatever. And finally, they said, ‘Listen. You should just be happy that we like you. Urban Cowboy is our big film this summer.’ And they were filming Urban Cowboy right on the other side of the lot, and that’s when I met John [Travolta]. And we just laughed and laughed…I kept telling him scene after scene that we were filming. Donna Pescow, who I was doing Angie with, introduced us.
So that wasn’t their big film. It was just kind of a small, low-budget film. And then it wound up breaking every box office record in every theater that it played in. And then after that, things changed a bit. It was my first feature, but it wasn’t like I was in a huge, multimillion dollar Spielberg production. It was a small unknown thing with unknown actors. So that was all actually exciting and fun. Probably a lot more fun because people weren’t paying as much attention. As we were filming it, the dailies…oftentimes people say, ‘Well, I’ve got something else I’ve got to do. Tell me how the dailies look. I’ve gotta brush my teeth,’ or something, you know.
No one cared!
Yeah. And with these, they kept having to run the dailies two, three, four times, because eventually everyone wanted to come and see them.
So it was making sense to people? That’s what I always wonder. When you first came on set or picked up the script, did it make sense? Did it seem like it was going to be funny?
I read it on a plane, with a bunch of people including Donna Pescow, who I was doing Angie with, and Howard Cosell, and a whole bunch of ABC people. ABC was flying us out to Minneapolis—St. Paul—for a big celebration of an NBC station changing to ABC. And I read [the Airplane! script] on the plane flying out there. And there was something on every single page that made me laugh out loud. It just got me. It was just funny.
Do you have a favorite joke from the movie?
There’s so many! I love Bob Stack doing his Eliot Ness, when he turns to the camera and then leans into it. I think that was after Lloyd [Bridges] had been sniffing glue and then ran screaming out a window. And they all watched him go and then he exploded. And then he turns back to camera, and then he does that Eliot Ness move into it. And Leslie [Nielsen], with the stethoscope. ‘Excuse me, are you a doctor?’ And he says, ‘Yes, yes I am.’
What was it like working with Leslie Nielsen? I mean, he’s a classically trained, Shakespearean actor.
He was this serious, wonderful guy. I remember him as Marion the Swamp Fox on Disney. I was a little kid. And this handsome leading man. And here he is with a little fart machine off camera making you laugh your butt off.
Most importantly: What was it like working with the blow-up copilot?
Oh! Otto was great. Had his own agent. Very demanding. He had to have the biggest motorhome. And he had to have…I think he wanted the brown M&Ms.
What a diva.
The biggest. But other than that he was a good guy.