Leslie Nielsen: “Can you fly this plane and land it?”
Robert Hays: “Surely you can’t be serious?”
Leslie Nielsen: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”
You’d think a guy like Robert Hays would get a little tired of strangers coming up to him and asking if he still has a drinking problem, or declaring out of the blue, “Surely you can’t be serious.” But according to the AIRPLANE! star, it’s like a badge of honor.
“People will come up and say, ‘I know you must be sick of hearing this, but AIRPLANE! is my favorite film of all time,” Hays told me when the 1980 film was released on Blu-ray. “And I’ll take them aside; I’ll stop and say, ‘Okay, now look — let’s try to dissect this for a second — you take a chance to come up here, and that I might be one of those Hollywood assholes, and you want to tell me that you like something that I did. How could I be offended at that? How could I be sick of hearing that?'”
Directed by the trio of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, AIRPLANE! remains one of the most-quoted movies out there four decades after its release, and the man who played troubled stand-in pilot Ted Striker was just as enthusiastic to talk about the experience as if the movie had wrapped a week ago.
“I got what would be considered today pocket change, or maybe lunch money, for the [film],” said Hays, recalling the first time he got to embellish a take on the set. “That was my first time [in a feature film]. I thought, ‘You’ve got all these big people that are big names [like Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack] and everybody around me, and here I’m just a nobody,’ and yet they listened to what I had to say, they tried it, and they liked it even better.”
The story of ex-lovers (Hays with co-star Julie Hagerty) trapped on a commercial airplane that has lost its pilots due to food poisoning, AIRPLANE! pioneered the satirical/rapid-fire joke-and-gag delivery that’s a staple in many comedies today, from the NAKED GUN series (from the same filmmakers) to the SCARY MOVIE franchise. The inspiration for AIRPLANE! was the 1957 drama ZERO HOUR, which had the same “Does anyone here know how to fly a plane?!!” premise.
“That was the basic framework,” confirmed Hays. “But then we had all the other [film satires] – FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and all those different things. They had ZERO HOUR cued up for certain scenes that they wanted to copy the same camera angle and the same lighting. That was one more little bit of trivia that could be put in the film for people. They did that all through the film.”
Having grown up on TV shows like LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and SEA HUNT as a kid, Hays added that he was a bit star-struck to be rubbing elbows on the set with celebrities like Bridges and Stack, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Leslie Nielsen, and June Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsly. “The whole thing was just wonderful,” he recalled.
Asked to pick his favorite moment from the film, he struggled to choose just one: “Oh man. We had 88 minutes of the film, and almost all of it is my favorite. There are so many, I can’t even try to list them all.”
So, by the off-chance that you see Robert Hays in the supermarket check-out line, don’t be shy. Tell him how much you loved AIRPLANE! — but don’t call him Shirley.
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