David Letterman Crashed and Burned His Audition for the Lead of ‘Airplane!’
Two years before David Letterman’s debut as the host of Late Night, he auditioned for the lead role of Ted Striker in the beloved farce Airplane! As it turns out, landing the plane would have been an easier task for the late-night legend than landing the gig.
Before Letterman was the sly, acerbic king of late night, he was a staple of the Los Angeles stand-up scene, regularly performing at Mitzi Shore’s hallowed Comedy Store in West Hollywood. Sometime in the late 1970s, a pair of up-and-coming comedy screenwriters named David and Jerry Zucker saw Letterman perform and thought to themselves, “Now that’s a leading man.” Along with their partner Jim Abrahams, the team reached out to Letterman’s agent and set up an audition for them to test the funnyman’s on-screen chops for their recently funded parody of the 1957 airplane drama Zero Hour!
Following the screen test, the Zuckers, Abrahams and even Letterman himself came to the conclusion that the comic was no actor. The inexperienced Letterman was too nervous in front of the camera, but it’s unlikely that it was his first time — he’d been nervous lots of times.
“We had such a hard time casting the role of Ted Striker,” David Zucker wrote in an excerpt from the new book Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane! “We had seen David Letterman at the Comedy Store and were big fans, so we asked him to come in to read for Airplane!”
Jerry Zucker added, “He wasn’t an actor, but he was funny. And he looked great on-screen — like, leading-man good looks. But the thing about David is, he’s just really uncomfortable with the whole idea of acting. I think it all seems too phony to him, like he’s bulls---ting. It just wasn’t him.” Letterman himself corroborated their accounts, noting how surprised he was to have received the invitation to audition for the film in the first place.
“I get out there, and they had set up a cockpit for the aircraft with chairs. I had a chair, and there was another chair where the copilot would be. We did the scene once, and then they came in and gave me some notes, and then we did it maybe two more times,” Letterman recalled. “And I kept saying all along, ‘I can’t act, I can’t act, I can’t act,’ and then one of them came to me after the audition and said, ‘You’re right: you can’t act!’”
Despite the disastrous audition, the mutual respect between Letterman and his hosts led to some polite niceties as every party involved understood that Letterman would never cut it in the cockpit. Said Jerry, “Letterman’s agent was on the set, and I came up to the guy, trying to be optimistic, and said, ‘Well, I think we can make an actor out of him.’ And the agent said, ‘Fat chance!’ I remember calling Letterman to tell him he didn’t get the part. He thanked me profusely.”
“I liked those guys, and when I saw the movie, it was just delightful, and I was delighted to see it knowing that I didn’t have to look at myself,” Letterman said of the aftermath of his awful audition. “Because that would’ve ruined it. If not the whole movie, it certainly would’ve ruined it for me.”