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Surely Airplane! Fans Will Love These High-Flying Facts

Widely considered to be one of the best comedy films ever made, "Airplane!" has gone down in history as one of the greatest examples of parody ever produced. Rated by Forbes as the funniest movie in terms of how many laughs it can generate per minute, it has plenty of memorable lines that fans still recite to this day, from "I am serious — and don't call me Shirley," to "We have clearance, Clarence."

The film was created by writers-directors David Zucker, his brother Jerry, and Jim Abrahams, a team that would go on to produce other slapstick comedies such as "The Naked Gun," "Police Squad," and "Top Secret!" It also starred a number of actors who were not originally known for their comedic talents, including Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, and even basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Released more than 40 years ago, "Airplane!" is now a culturally significant entry in America's film history. But in the four decades since it was released, there have been a lot of secrets and behind-the-scenes details that have gradually come out as time has passed. Here are some of the more interesting facts you may not know about this great comedy.

The idea came from watching late-night TV commercials

According to an oral history of "Airplane!" at The A.V. Club, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker would record late-night television in order to watch the commercials and come up with ideas for their comedy group, the Kentucky Fried Theater. This was a process they would do every night, with Abrahams likening it to seine fishing, saying, "We'd throw our net out at night and just record stuff — whatever was on TV, it didn't matter — so that we'd have grist to make fun of."

Jerry Zucker even admitted that they would routinely skip the shows and movies to get to the commercials, which usually provided more content. However, it was one of these recording sessions that led to the discovery of the film "Zero Hour!," which would prove incredibly influential on "Airplane!" Once they actually started to watch the film, they realized that it not only worked as a functioning story but had the basis for a great comedy movie as well.

Zero Hour! acted as the basis for the film

The film "Zero Hour!" was not just an inspiration for "Airplane!" but served essentially as the entire basis for the latter movie. Written by Arthur Hailey, Hall Bartlett, and John Champion, the 1957 release follows Ted Stryker, a former Air Force pilot who was responsible for many of his colleagues dying during a mission in World War II.

After his wife leaves him, Stryker makes a last-ditch effort to win her back and boards the same flight as her, but is forced to take over when the pilots become ill. That will probably sound familiar to anyone who has seen "Airplane!" as the plot is almost exactly the same. Even the main character has a practically identical name in both films, although in "Airplane!" he is known as Ted Striker.

It wasn't just the story either. Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker also used dialogue, camera angles, and characters from the earlier movie. In fact, the two projects were so close that the filmmakers decided it would be safer to buy the rights to "Zero Hour!" rather than worry about whether they were legally allowed to use the material for a parody (via The A.V. Club). According to The Telegraph, some lines were also taken from Arthur Hailey's novel "Airport" to help add a sense of authenticity to the movie.

Lots of famous faces were almost involved

Speaking with The Guardian in 2020, David and Jerry Zucker explained how the studio wanted very different people to play the characters than those who were eventually chosen by the pair and Jim Abrahams. The filmmakers didn't want actors who were associated with comedy: they instead wanted the story to be played as seriously as possible so the jokes would have a bigger impact. The pair noted, 'We told the actors to pretend that they didn't know they were in a comedy."

That meant they needed to use actors who were largely familiar via dramatic roles, so audiences wouldn't know what to expect and the lines would be delivered in a way that would be the most effective. That didn't stop Paramount Pictures from proposing other options, however, including David Letterman, Barry Manilow, and even Bruce Jenner, now known as Caitlyn Jenner. Other actors who auditioned for the role of Striker included Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, while Sigourney Weaver read for Elaine but ultimately objected to some raunchy dialogue (via The Telegraph). Leslie Nielsen's character could have gone to horror legend Vincent Price, but he turned down the part.

Norman Gibbs and Al White wrote their slang dialogue

"Airplane!" features a "jive talk" scene halfway through the movie that sees two black men communicate with an older white woman, who translates their slang speech so that a flight attendant can understand what they are saying. Al White and Norman Gibbs portrayed the men and played an instrumental part in developing the scene. The Zucker brothers told The Guardian that their own dialogue for the scene was so weak that they apologized to White and Gibbs, who then took matters into their own hands.

Speaking with The A.V. Club, White revealed that he and Gibbs met when they both returned to audition for a second time. While discussing the script before meeting with the filmmakers, they decided to try some of their own ideas in the scene. This led to them being given permission to create all of the dialogue between them. The pair read old books to come up with phrases, words, and terms that actually made sense.

Gibbs and White went one step further when they tutored actor Barbara Billingsley, who played the woman that translates for them. According to The Telegraph, this was a process that lasted several hours as they ensured that she would be able to confidently say her lines and deliver them in an authentic manner.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar replaced baseball legend Pete Rose

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has what is one of the most memorable and funny moments in the entire film. He plays a pilot known as Roger Murdock, although he is constantly being recognized as the famous basketball player despite his protestations that he has nothing to do with Abdul-Jabbar. According to The Telegraph, the superstar athlete was paid $35,000 for his appearance in the comedy — $5,000 more than the original offer — which allowed him to buy a rug that he had been looking at for some time.

While appearing on "The Rich Eisen Show," Abdul-Jabbar revealed that he wasn't the first choice to appear in "Airplane!" as a famous sports-star-turned-pilot. The former basketball legend revealed that the filmmakers actually wrote the part for baseball player Pete Rose. However, since the movie was shooting in August, it was impossible for Rose to take part as he was still in the midst of his season and unavailable. Jim Abrahams told the A.V. Club, "I'm not sure if Pete Rose actually accepted the role or not, or if we'd even gotten the green light from Paramount to use him."

It was one of the most successful comedies until Ghostbusters

With a tiny budget of just $3.5 million, "Airplane!" ended up being a huge financial success, bringing in more than $80 million at the domestic box office (via Box Office Mojo). That made it one of the most successful comedy films ever made, a well-deserved accolade considering that the film sits firmly among the best comedies of all time. In fact, its grosses were only exceeded by a handful of films in 1980, including "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Stir Crazy" (via The Numbers).

"Airplane!" ended up with a total tally of $83 million, an impressive figure that made it a huge winner — especially for a comedy — while launching or revitalizing the careers of actors like Robert Hays and Leslie Nielsen. According to The Columbus Dispatch, its record-breaking box office was only surpassed several years later, when "Ghostbusters" hit theaters in 1984 and earned almost $300 million at the box office.

Leslie Nielsen smuggled a fart machine onto set

Before he starred in "Airplane!," Leslie Nielsen was a dramatic actor who had mostly appeared as supporting characters in a wide variety of TV series and films. With hundreds of credits to his name, he was perhaps most famous for playing one of the lead roles in the 1956 sci-fi film "Forbidden Planet," as well as the captain of the doomed title ship in Ronald Neame's 1972 disaster movie, "The Poseidon Adventure." According to All Movie, Nielsen was considered an unremarkable actor until he found his true calling with "Airplane!" in 1980.

Despite his deadpan delivery and previous experience in serious roles, it appears that Nielsen was something of a comic all his life. Esquire reports that he was hilarious behind the scenes when shooting the movie and carried around a fart machine at all times, which he would press at the most opportune moment to get laughs from the rest of the cast and crew. This was a tradition that the actor would carry on for the rest of his life, often using the machine during press interviews while pretending nothing was wrong.

The airport announcers were a real married couple

A hugely important part of "Airplane!" was the airport announcers. Clearly meant to depict a married couple who are constantly bickering and making inappropriate remarks, getting the right people to portray them proved to be a difficult task. Speaking at an event that was captured by the Nerdist podcast, the directors confirmed that they interviewed a wide array of voice actors but none of the auditions were successful.

Eventually, they decided to approach real-life airport announcers from Los Angeles International Airport, finding a married couple who were willing to participate in the film. This helped give the recorded lines a more realistic sound and added a dynamic that might not have been possible with professional actors.

Arthur Hailey's novel "Airport," which was first published in 1968, also acted as inspiration for the dialogue that the couple speaks. One scene, in particular, is taken nearly word-for-word from the book, as the pair argue about the woman having an abortion — which the two actors apparently had a lot of fun performing (via The Telegraph).

Peter Graves initially turned down his role

Peter Graves was known more as an action hero than a comedy performer when he made his appearance in "Airplane!" He had starring roles in "Fury" and "Mission: Impossible" and was a well known figure on American television and films. But it was never certain that he would even appear in "Airplane!" as he had a number of concerns about whether it would be appropriate for him to take part.

According to The Guardian, the actor expressed feeling nervous about his role in "Airplane!" because of its subject matter. Although it was a challenging part, he also recognized that it would be controversial due to the humor and personality of his character, which could potentially affect his career in the future.

One of the main reasons that Graves accepted the offer was because his wife and children found the script funny and convinced him that his character, Captain Oveur, would not be taken seriously (via Esquire). Meanwhile, E! Online confirmed that he had originally thrown the script away, until his agent expressed confidence that it would be a hit.

Star Robert Hays is a qualified pilot

The man playing Ted Striker, the former Air Force pilot turned jetliner rescuer, was Robert Hays, an actor who was probably best known for his role in the sitcom "Angie" before he made his film debut in "Airplane!" Hays may well have had the skills to save the aircraft himself: a licensed pilot, he learned to fly in the late 1970s, while starring in "Angie," to impress his father, a former fighter pilot who saw action in World War II, Vietnam and Korea.

The actor told the New York Post, "I got my license and wanted to surprise my dad ... it was something I always wanted to do." He also suggested that he was partly chosen for the role of Striker due to his knowledge of flying. Before his acting career really took off, he also planned on training to fly helicopters but found that he didn't have enough spare time to complete this after his single-engine qualifications. The fact that he is a trained pilot may have also led to other work, such as hosting the clip show "Fasten Your Seatbelt," which features footage of shocking airport and airline situations.

Propellers can be heard even though the plane's a jet

As noted in this Reddit thread on the /MovieDetails subreddit, "Airplane!" has a running joke that lasts throughout almost the entire film but will likely not even have been noticed by the vast majority of viewers. If you really pay attention to the interior shots of the aircraft, you'll notice that the engines sound like propellers rather than jet engines. That shouldn't be the case, though, as the aircraft shown in "Airplane!" is a jetliner, meaning it has jet engines that make a very different sound. 

According to the Internet Movie Plane Database, the aircraft used was a Boeing 707-300 — at least for the exterior shots anyway. The internal footage of the flight deck was largely portrayed by a Convair 880, another jetliner that utilizes jet engines rather than propellers.  This is likely a jokey reference to "Zero Hour!" That film proved to be the inspiration for "Airplane!" and features a much older Douglas DC-4, a propeller-engine plane.

Airplane! has one of the first-ever post-credit scenes

Post-credit scenes are now commonplace within movies and have been made particularly famous in recent years thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Almost every Marvel movie comes with some sort of additional scene after the credits have rolled that either hints towards future events or provides fun extra content for viewers. But the MCU was not the first franchise to have a post-credit scene. In fact, "Airplane!" may well hold the honor of introducing the Easter egg to a wide audience of viewers more than 40 years ago.

The brief bit of footage that plays after the credits in "Airplane!" features a taxicab passenger who Robert Hays abandons at the start of the movie, when he rushes into the airport to try and catch up to Elaine before she boards her flight. This character, played by former politician and businessman Howard Jarvis, is then left to sit in the vehicle with the meter running. The post-credit scene calls back to this moment, with the passenger having waited for hours and stating that he'll give the driver 20 extra minutes to return before he gives up and leaves.

The credits themselves have some interesting jokes

Speaking of the credits, "Airplane!" also has some pretty interesting jokes hidden among the standard cast and crew list. These range from little jokes about the film, such as the fact that inflatable autopilot Otto is credited as playing himself. Charles Dickens also gets a mention as the author of the novel "A Tale of Two Cities," although it isn't exactly relevant to the film. Adolf Hitler is also named the Worst Boy — as opposed to the legitimate film production credit of "Best Boy" — which while true is not really an apt description of the former Nazi leader of Germany.

The FBI warning about copyright infringement and piracy ends with the words "So there." That caused some issues with the law enforcement agency, who didn't take kindly to the joke text being added. A few real people get special mentions as well, including Millard Fillmore, who is correctly credited as the 13th president of the United States, and Puerto Rican baseball player Félix Mantilla, who has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. It also contains a message about going to the southwest corner of the basement in case of a tornado. This refers to the urban legend that the southwest corner of your basement provides the best protection, although there is little evidence to support it (via KSN).