David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams teamed up in 1980 to direct the spoof to end, or rather, start all spoofs. Airplane! took the disaster movie genre and wrung every hilarious contrivance from it, distilled the essence and presented audiences with pure comedy gold. With jokes and sight gags fired at a machine-gun pace, there is nary a minute of this film that isn’t funny, even after years of multiple viewings. Let’s take a look back.
Basing the story on movies like Zero Hour!, Airport and Airport 1975, the Zucker/Abrahams comedy machine showed us what happens during an ill-fated flight across country. The lead character, Ted Striker–played by Robert Hays–is a troubled ex-military pilot who has developed a fear of flying and a drinking problem (the problem being that he can’t accurately aim liquids into his mouth). Hopelessly in love, he boards a plane at the last minute to win back his long-lost sweetheart, stewardess Elaine.
The trouble begins when several of the passengers and the entire flight crew become incapacitated by food poisoning, causing Ted to reluctantly face his fears and take the plane’s controls. Ted must overcome his own troubled past, his issues with Elaine, a hostile air traffic controller and panicking passengers if he is to save the day.
That’s the plot in a nutshell (but that’s not important right now). There are hundreds of visual and verbal gags running throughout the movie, complimented by a plethora of notable cameos. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a pilot named Roger, Peter Graves as the Captain of the aircraft (named Oveur), Barbara Billingsley (aka June Cleaver) as an old lady who speaks jive, Robert Stack as the hard-hitting Captain Kramer, Lloyd Bridges as the chief air traffic controller and Leslie Nielsen as the deadpan Dr. Rumack (who speaks the movie’s most famous line, “…and don’t call me Shirley”).
The inflatable autopilot, Otto, shares a tender moment with Elaine, Ted and Elaine’s first meeting is shown in flashback as a disco-infused spoof of Casablanca and Ethel Merman plays a shell-shocked veteran who thinks he’s Ethel Merman.
The Paramount-produced movie did serious business at the box office, prompting a sequel two years later with most of the cast returning for a sci-fi spoof (though the creators of the original opted out). The success of the Airplane! also inspired literally dozens of similar spoofs over the years, many of them quite good, but none that quite has the same charm as this iconic comedy.