In the 21 years since its release, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker's Airplane! has become a comedy institution. The joke-a-minute comedy solidified the movie parody genre with it's satire of 1957's Zero Hour, and introduced such classic jokes into the lexicon as "Don't call Shirley." The film's long-awaited Blu-Ray release is finally scheduled for September 25th as a Best Buy exclusive, so we took some time with Airplane! star Robert Hays to talk about the film's affect on his life, disco dancing, Airplane 2: The Sequel and the low-budget action thriller Raw Justice, which co-starred a young, nubile Pamela Anderson.
CraveOnline: Before we begin, I was wondering if you’d mind if I started with a personal question.
Robert Hays: Whatever?
Did you ever get a handle on that drinking problem?
[Laughs.] People say, “Do people come up to you and ask you questions? Do they still ask you things from Airplane?” And I say, well, one of the most common things is, “Do you still have that drinking problem?” That’s one of the most common things that people ask. That one, and they come up and say, “Surely you can’t be serious,” or wait for a moment when they can use that line.
Are you hesitant to end phrases with “altogether?”
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, right.
That’s always been my favorite.
It’s an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether!
“It’s an entirely different kind of flying.”
That’s the scene, when they were doing my close-up on that, that’s when Leslie [Nielson] was using that little fart machine of his. When he was asking me, “Mr. Stryker [fart], can you [fart-fart] land this plane [fart]?” God, that was the hardest day of filming, in terms of trying to save face.
There weren’t a lot, I mean I guess there was ‘Kentucky Fried Movie,’ but when ‘Airplane!’ was getting made there wasn’t a lot of unusually broad comedies. Was there a sense that you were going too far on the set?
[Thinks.] Well, I didn’t know… Kentucky Fried Movie was very small, low-budget, very small little film, and I didn’t really know about that. I knew about Kentucky Fried Theater, and then I came to know that they had done a movie, Kentucky Fried Movie, that they produced and didn’t direct. So this was their first directing deal. But as we were doing it, it seemed like it was a lot of fun and maybe people would kind of get some laughs out of it, and then we thought, yeah, you know this actually might turn into sort of a college cult film. And then as time went by, it was like this might even be better than that. You know what I mean? But everyone was afraid to say anything. So then when people would come up and say, “Hey!” like a new person on the set, and they come up and say, “Wow, this looks like it really might be something!” Everyone just turned and walked away, like it was putting a hex on it.
‘Airplane!’ is kind of a straightforward parody of ‘Zero Hour.’ Had you seen that before you filmed it?
No! I hadn’t seen it before. I knew that it was, I think they bought the rights to it, so they were able to… They had it running in a little booth, and they’d go over and look at it. They’d have scenes cued up. If this was the scene they were shooting today, they would have that scene cued up so they could match the camera angle and the lighting, just so that would be a little inside joke for all the trivia people to get. But I hadn’t seen it. I didn’t see it until afterwards.
What did you think of it?
I thought it was funny! I know it’s a serious film, but I was laughing.
Can you still watch ‘Airplane!’ and enjoy it, or are you too close to the production?
Oh yeah, no, it used to be that I would watch it and really enjoy it… until I get to my scenes. I’m such a harsh critic of myself, I would say, “Oh, why did I do that?” Or, “Oh, that could have been better.” But now it’s been enough time, now I can watch it and say, “Oh, that was pretty good,” and I laugh. Now I just enjoy it.
What part of the movie makes you laugh the most?
I’m not going to check up on this, so no pressure.
Every scene! I mean, when Lloyd Bridges says to Johnny, “Hey Johnny, how about a cup of coffee?” He says, “No thanks!” That always just gets me. It always cracks me up. And when Peter Graves is behind the cockpit in that little area, and Leslie comes up to him and says, “How long before we can land?” “I can’t tell you.” “You can tell me, I’m a doctor.” “No, I just don’t know.” That whole scene, that one really gets me. With the couple: “Coffee?” “Yes, I believe I will have a second cup.” “I believe I will have a second cup too.” And she goes, “John never has a second cup at home.” I mean, they were people, apparently, that did the coffee commercial.
Oh, I didn’t know that!
There, you see? That’s another inside joke. So later on, [laughs] when everyone’s sick because they ate the fish, and he grabs the airsick bag and he throws up in it, and then he goes “Ugh…” and then he turns and looks at her and then he throws up again! [Laughs.] She says, “John never throws up twice at home…” I mean that one gets me. That one gets me every time.
I don’t want to waste your time recounting the entire movie, because I think we could. How were your disco dancing skills before you shot ‘Airplane?’
Well, I mean I think I could dance okay. We had two guys, Lester Wilson and Joe […], they were our choreographers, and Lester actually had worked on Saturday Night Fever. So we worked with those guys. Now when it came time to do it – this was a little bit that I am responsible for, I’m proudly responsible for – when it came time to shoot the dance scene, we got up in position, and I go up to her from the bar, right? The problem is, I’m standing on this side, she’s facing me, and the camera is to my right. But they wanted the camera to my left. And they said, well can’t you dance this way? And they were trying to… “Oh gosh, what are we going to do?” And I said, wait a minute, how about when I come up to her it’s like two animals in the jungle stalking each other? And that turn, that half-turn, it gets me over on the other side. They said, “Well, let’s see it.” And we did it, and they said, “Perfect! Let’s shoot it that way.” So that’s my move, like I contributed something to the film. [Laughs.]
How fast did ‘Airplane II: The Sequel’ come along?
I don’t know. I think probably fairly quickly. When Airplane! broke the records at just about every theater it played in, all over the country… You know, it broke the box office records. I think they were ready to go.
I’ve heard that Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker still haven’t even seen that.
Yeah, maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t know if they have something inside, that they don’t like it, whatever, or if it’s just a joke. Like for instance with me, fish is part of my diet. But just as my own personal joke in Airplane! I haven’t had fish since it came out. I haven’t had fish on a plane. That’s just my own private little joke. So maybe that’s just their own private joke. Or there might just be something that they don’t like, so I don’t know. I have no idea what it is.
Was the tone on set at all different in ‘Airplaine 2?’ You were redoing some of the same jokes.
Oh yeah, yeah.
Which I think is funny, actually. I think that in and of itself is a funny joke.
Well the first one was new. It was shockingly new to everyone. So it was all the humor and the excitement for me. It was my first feature film, and so the excitement was great. For Airplane 2 it was my third or fourth feature film, so now of course I was a veteran. And the tone was different because the boys are different than Ken Finkleman [the director of Airplane 2: The Sequel]. So there were differences on it, but it had its funny things too.
I don’t know if I’m going to get this opportunity again, but I've always been fascinated by another one of your films, ‘Raw Justice’ [with Pamela Anderson].
[Laughs.] Is that the name of it? I know what you’re talking about and I didn’t even know the name… That was an interesting thing. At the time I was saying, gosh, a little job came along, and “Yeah, sure, I’ll do this film.” And my manager said this is just a low budget little thing, let’s take second billing just so we can sort of hide in it. And I agreed with her, and that was a mistake I’ve regretted ever since.
Yeah, because we were trying to not be prominent, because it was just a low budget, cheap, cheesy movie. And they wound up having me billed third in some of the ads, and it just turned out to be kind of a mess. I mean, doing the film itself… Oh, we had fun and I did all my own stunts, and were getting blown up and chased on motorcycles, all kinds of things. It was great fun, and working with the people, everybody was great. But that was a mistake and it was like, “Oops, don’t do that again.” And that’s what she suggested, and I took her up on that one.