Comedy reached heights when ‘Airplane!’ took off


Surely, you have seen “Airplane!” (Exclamation mark theirs.)

If not, it’s a 1980 film filled with visual and verbal gags that features Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a seemingly doomed airplane whose pilots and navigator are sickened by fish dinners.

In 2010, “Airplane!” was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, a big deal for any film.

Directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker were wise to choose actors like Nielsen, Graves, and Stack who were not known for comedy. Their dramatic role resumes provided legitimacy to the inane dialogue.

Bridges says, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”

“Airplane!” is a parody of “Zero Hour!” (exclamation mark theirs), a 1957 melodrama that starred Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and a college and pro football star with one of the best nicknames in sports: “Crazylegs.” More about him later.

In “Zero Hour!,” former pilot and current passenger Ted Stryker saves the day when the pilot and co-pilot succumb to in-flight fish dinners.

In “Airplane!,” former pilot and current passenger Ted Stryker saves the day when the pilot, co-pilot, and navigator succumb to in-flight fish dinners.

Here are some odd bits about “Airplane!” The man stranded in the taxi from start to finish was Howard Jarvis, a tax policy activist who was responsible for California’s Proposition 13 enacted two years before the film was made.

The bickering “red zone and white zone” voice actors were the actual married couple who recorded the announcement information then being used at Los Angeles International Airport.

The role of Ted Stryker was written for David Letterman. Caitlin Jenner, then Bruce Jenner, read for the part.

It was the first comedy role for Nielsen, who was best known for his performance in 1956’s “Forbidden Planet.”

Nielsen’s deadpan doctor role in “Airplane!” is limited but memorable, and surely you know why.

His portrayal made such a strong impression that comedies defined the remainder of his career, including his performances as Sgt. Frank Drebbin in the 1982 “Police Squad!” television series directed by Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker, as well as “The Naked Gun” film series that came later.

Film critic Roger Ebert referred to Nielsen as the “Olivier of spoofs.”

The humor and wit in “Airplane!” is not for everyone. No comedy is.

The non-stop sight gags include an in-flight film of an airplane crash landing and Leslie Nielsen’s nose growing like Pinocchio’s when he announces to the passengers that there was nothing to worry about.

Reporters rush in on Lloyd Bridges in the control room when they find out the plane is in the hands of a passenger. They ask a few questions, then one of them says, “Let’s take a few pictures.”

And that’s what they do. They remove all of the framed pictures on the control room walls. It’s something Chico and Harpo would have done.

Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch appears in “Zero Hour!” and in the 1955 prison drama “Unchained,” notable for introducing “Unchained Melody,” later a hit for the Righteous Brothers, among many others.

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.


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