How 'Airplane!' Turned A Serious Movie Into A Comedy
One of the most influential films in comedy cinema is about a traumatized war vet who is forced to fly a passenger airplane after both the pilots (one of whom is played by a famous athlete) are incapacitated by a plate of expired fish. Yes, we're talking about ... Zero Hour!, the 1957 black-and-white drama starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and the NFL's very own Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. If you've somehow never seen it, and it still sounds familiar, that might be because it shares the bulk of its plot, dialogue, and even specific camera shots with another movie called Airplane! (1980).
But no, this isn't one of our "movies you won't believe are ripoffs" articles -- Airplane! is a completely official, above-board remake of Zero Hour!. In fact, the movies were originally supposed to be even more alike. It all started when the comedy team made up of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker (known as ZAZ, because they are cowards) randomly stumbled upon Zero Hour! while leaving their VCR on overnight to record ads to parody on their live shows. They thought this very dramatic disaster movie was the most hilarious thing ever, just as it was.
At first, the ZAZ team pretty much just transcribed the Zero Hour!'s dialogue into a script, inserting parody ads between the scenes. Also, they were adamant that the movie had to be in black-and-white. Basically, they wanted to recreate the entire experience of watching an old B-movie late at night and laughing at it with friends -- we're surprised they didn't try to convince the studio to distribute edibles among the audience. As they sat there copying every beat of the film, they realized that simply changing the main character's name from "Ted Stryker" to "Ted Striker" probably wasn't enough to protect them from a lawsuit, so they pooled together and bought the rights to Zero Hour! for about $2,500 in '70s money.
The ZAZ boys finished the script and offered it to everyone in Hollywood, and everyone said "no." While spending years trying to sell the script, they met director John Landis and together, they made The Kentucky Fried Movie. That sounds like a hellish CGI atrocity starring Chris Pratt as Colonel Sanders, but no, it was actually an independent sketch comedy film. Like their early Airplane! script, it's largely made out of ads, news reports, and other stupid crap you'd see on TV.
The Kentucky Fried Movie made pretty good bank on a tiny budget, and suddenly Hollywood was interested in doing Airplane! ... with some changes. The executives at Paramount Pictures insisted that the movie had to be shot in a modern jet instead of a '50s-style propeller plane, in color, and that all the ads and random gags had to go. The ZAZ team slowly capitulated on all those points, except for one: their crazy idea of using serious actors instead of Chevy Chase or Bill Murray like the studio wanted, because of Zero Hour! wouldn't have been half as funny to them if Jerry Lewis had been in it. This turned out to be the right choice since it helped them discover Leslie Nielsen, an international comedy treasure hidden inside your average B-movie star.
By compromising almost every part of their vision, the ZAZ gang accidentally created a perfect template for parody movies, which would continue to be used for the next 30 years (until the Scary Movie series ran it into the ground). Still, it's possible that their original idea could end up being produced someday soon when Hollywood inevitably tries to do a gritty remake of Airplane! and ends up recreating Zero Hour! shot by shot.
Top image: Paramount Pictures