AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Alternate Title: Flying High
Director: Jim Abrahams (Dir)
Release Date:   2 Jul 1980
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles and New York openings: 2 Jul 1980
Production Date:   began 20 Jun 1979 at Culver City Studios
Duration (in mins):   88
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Cast: Starring Robert Hays (Ted Striker)  
  [and] Julie Hagerty (Elaine [Dickinson])  
    Kareem Abdul-Jabaar ([Roger] Murdock) as
    Lloyd Bridges (McCroskey) as
    Peter Graves (Captain [Clarence] Oveur) as
    Leslie Nielsen (Dr. Rumack) as
    Lorna Patterson (Randy) as
    Robert Stack ([Rex] Kramer) as
    Stephen Stucker (Johnny) as
  And Introducing Otto (Himself) as
    Jim Abrahams (Religious zealot #6)  
    Frank Ashmore (Victor Basta)  
    Jonathan Banks (Gunderson)  
    Craig Berenson (Paul Carey)  
    Barbara Billingsley (Jive lady)  
    Lee Bryant (Mrs. Hammen)  
    Joyce Bulifant (Mrs. Davis)  
    Mae E. Campbell (Security lady)  
    Ted Chapman (Airport steward)  
    Jesse Emmett (Man from India)  
    Norman Alexander Gibbs (First jive dude)  
    Amy Gibson (Soldier's girl)  
    Marcy Goldman (Mrs. Geline)  
    Bobby Gorman (Striped controller)  
    Rossie Harris (Joey [Hammen])  
    Maurice Hill (Reporter #3)  
    David Hollander (Young boy with coffee)  
    James Hong (Japanese general)  
    Howard Honig (Jack)  
    Gregory Itzen (Religious zealot #1)  
    Howard Jarvis (Man in taxi)  
    Michael Laurence (Newscaster)  
    David Leisure (First Krisna)  
    Zachary Lewis (Religious zealot #3)  
    Barbara Mallory (Religious zealot #2)  
    Maureen McGovern (Nun)  
    Nora Meerbaum (Cocaine lady)  
    Mary Mercier (Shirley)  
    Ethel Merman (Lieutenant Hurwitz)  
    Len Mooy (Reporter #1 )  
    Ann M. Nelson (Handing lady)  
    Laura Nix (Mrs. Hurwitz)  
    John O`Leary (Reporter #2)  
    Cyril O`Reilly (Soldier)  
    Bill Porter (Hospital contortionist)  
    Nicholas Pryor (Mr. Hammen)  
    Conrad Palmisano (Religious zealot #4)  
    Mallory Sandler (L.A. ticket agent)  
    Michelle Stacy (Young girl with coffee)  
    Robert Starr (Religious zealot #5)  
    Barbara Stuart (Mrs. Kramer)  
    Lee Terri (Mrs. Oveur)  
    Kenneth Tobey (Air controller Neubauer)  
    William Tregoe (Jack Kirkpatrick)  
    Hatsuo Uda (Japanese newscaster)  
    Herb Voland (Air controller Macias)  
    Jimmie Walker (Windshield wiper man)  
    Jill Whelan (Lisa Davis)  
    Al White (Second jive dude)  
    John-David Wilder (Second Krishna)  
    Windy (Horse)  
    Jason Wingreen (Dr. Brody)  
    Louise Yaffe (Mrs. Jaffe)  
    Charlotte Zucker (Make-up lady)  
    David Zucker (Ground crewman #2)  
    Jerry Zucker (Ground crewman #1)  

Summary: When stewardess Elaine Dickinson gets to the airport to board her flight, boyfriend Ted Striker meets her on her way to the gate to salvage their broken relationship. Ted expects to see Elaine when she returns, but she has requested a transfer to Chicago, Illinois, and won’t be back. On the spur of the moment, Ted buys an airplane ticket and boards Elaine’s flight despite wrestling with some flashbacks as a wartime pilot. Before takeoff, Elaine tends to a young female heart transplant patient on a gurney. As Elaine hands out magazines to passengers, she is upset to see Ted, who returns to his seat and reminisces about meeting Elaine with an older woman seated next to him. According to Ted, he was struck by a thunderbolt when he saw Elaine on the dance floor of a seedy bar during the war. It was a scene out of Saturday Night Fever in which the jukebox played “Stayin' Alive” as their bodies gyrated in unison to the disco beat. When Ted returns to the present, the older woman in the next seat has hanged herself after listening to him drone on. Meanwhile, Elaine takes dinner orders from the passengers. When a boy, Joey Hammen, asks if he can see the cockpit, Elaine says she’ll get permission from the captain. In the galley kitchen, Elaine remembers when she and Ted kissed on the beach as the waves broke over them. Soon, Joey visits the cockpit and recognizes that the co-pilot Roger Murdock is really professional basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Murdock denies his celebrity status while Capt. Clarence Oveur makes inappropriate remarks during small talk with Joey. While Ted does his best to convince Elaine to resume their relationship, she points out that nothing will change as long as he lives in the past and Ted has a sudden flash back of when he was recovering from his wounds at an army hospital. Soon, stewardess Randy borrows a guitar from one of the passengers, a nun, and serenades the heart transplant passenger. While Randy sings, she accidentally unplugs the patient’s intravenous line twice and the little girl goes into distress until her mother comes to her aid. Then, several of the passengers become ill and the captain tells Elaine to discreetly find a doctor among the passengers. When Dr. Rumack examines a woman, he pulls three hard boiled eggs from her mouth and tells Elaine that the pilot has to land the plane as soon as possible. In the cockpit, Victor Basta collapses from the mysterious illness followed by Murdock. The captain grabs the controls and rights the plane as it goes into a spin. The doctor observes that all the passengers who ate the fish for dinner are sick. As he describes classic food poisoning symptoms to Elaine, the captain becomes ill and collapses and Elaine inflates the plastic automatic pilot, Otto. While Elaine speaks on the radio to the air traffic control in Chicago, Otto deflates and she must manually inflate it. The doctor informs Elaine that if the sick passengers can’t get to a hospital, they will die. When Elaine asks if anyone on board can fly a plane, panic breaks out. Meanwhile, in Chicago, air traffic dispatcher McCroskey summons Capt. Rex Kramer to the airport to help with the crisis. Ted is the only one on the airplane with any flying experience. However, he pushes the wrong button in the cockpit and sends the plane into a nosedive. When a woman passenger becomes hysterical as a result, passengers hold bats, boxing gloves and guns waiting their turn in the aisle to put her out of her misery. McCroskey tells Kramer it is up to him to guide Ted to land the plane. However, Kramer and Ted were fellow fighter pilots during the war and a grudge exists between them. When Kramer tells Ted to disengage Otto, turbulence rocks the airplane. Otto wraps around Elaine’s chest until she breaks free. Kramer asks Elaine to take over the copilot seat and work the radio. In the cabin, the passengers demand answers. When Dr. Rumack tells them only one pilot is slightly ill while the other two pilots are at the controls, his nose grows like Pinocchio. On the ground, the press surrounds McCroskey and pumps him with questions. McCroskey tells them that a passenger, who is an experienced air force pilot, will land the plane. However, Ted has another war flashback that unnerves him. With his confidence gone, Ted places Otto in the pilot’s seat and leaves the cockpit. Dr. Rumack cheers up Ted with a story about a mortally wounded fighter pilot under his care named George Zip who, in his dying breath, talked about the importance of determination and perseverance even when the odds were bleak. George was a friend of Ted’s and Rumack’s story gives Ted the courage to land the plane. Ted goes back to the cockpit and tells Kramer there’s no time to waste. Elaine tells air traffic control the crew is preparing for their descent. McCroskey instructs all emergency vehicles to go to runway nine. Fire engines, cement trucks and a Budweiser beer delivery truck race across the tarmac. Elaine admires Ted’s sudden take-charge attitude and tells him how proud she is of him. As the plane descends, Kramer tells Ted to watch his speed, he is going too fast. The plane bounces up and down and side-to-side as it approaches the runway, Ted wrestles with the controls, as Kramer instructs him by radio. Ted pulls the brake out of the dashboard and throws it aside. The landing gear squeals against the runway while sweat pours down Ted’s face. Finally, the landing gear breaks off and the plane skids to a stop. The sick passengers are transported to the hospital by ambulance. As Elaine and Ted embrace, Otto winks at Ted and Elaine as he taxis down the runway. Otto takes off in the plane with an inflatable female autopilot at his side.  

Production Text: A Howard W. Koch Production
Paramount Pictures Presents
Distribution Company: Paramount Pictures (A Gulf + Western Company®)
Director: Jim Abrahams (Dir)
  David Zucker (Dir)
  Jerry Zucker (Dir)
  Maurice Vaccarino (Unit prod mgr)
  Arne Schmidt (1st asst dir)
  Ken Collins (2d asst dir)
Producer: Jon Davison (Prod)
  Jim Abrahams (Exec prod)
  David Zucker (Exec prod)
  Jerry Zucker (Exec prod)
  Hunt Lowry (Assoc prod)
Writer: Jim Abrahams (Wrt)
  David Zucker (Wrt)
  Jerry Zucker (Wrt)
Photography: Joseph Biroc (Dir of photog)
  Larry Gilhooly (Gaffer)
  Pete Pananickolas (Gripology)
  Frederick J. Smith (Cam op)
  Todd Henry (Asst cam person)
  Jamie Anderson (Asst cam person)
  Gary Wostack (Elec dept)
  Danny Marzolo (Elec dept)
  Bill Decker (Grip)
  Edmond Wright (Grip)
  Nick Papanickolas (Grip)
  John Monte (Stills)
  Greg Langham (Elec lamp op)
Art Direction: Ward Preston (Prod des)
  David Jonas (Prod illustrator)
Film Editor: Patrick Kennedy (Film ed)
  Scott Wallace (Asst ed)
Set Decoration: Anne D. McCulley (Set dec)
  Joe Hubbard (Set des)
  Steven Levine (Prop master)
  Tom Crowl (Asst prop master)
  Mike Higelmire (Leadperson)
  Wally Graham (Const coord)
Costumes: Rosanna Norton (Cost des)
  Aggie Lyon (Cost supv)
  Victoria Snow (Cost)
Music: Elmer Bernstein (Mus)
  Kathy Durning (Mus ed)
  Jeff Carson La Da Productions (Mus ed)
  David Spear (Orch)
Sound: Tom Overton (Rec mixer)
  Jim Troutman (Sd ed, Sound FX Inc.)
  John T. Reitz (Re-rec mixer )
  David Campbell (Re-rec mixer )
  Dave Hudson (Re-rec mixer )
  Dennis Jones (Boom person)
  Allan Bernard (Sd)
  Ron Stirling (Boom )
Special Effects: Bruce Logan (Dir of photog spec eff)
  Richard O. Helmer (Miniature spec eff)
  John Frazier (Spec eff)
  Donald Hansard (Process supv)
  Jerry Deats (Effs unit grip)
  Brink Brydon (Effs unit gaffer)
  Motion Pictures Incorporated/ Blalack & Shourt (Visual eff)
  Visual Concept Engineering/ Kuran & Casady (Visual eff)
  Magic Lantern/ Bill Hedge (Visual eff)
  Special Projects/ Chris Walas (Visual eff)
  Robert Keith & Company, Inc. (Visual eff)
  Dan Perri (Title des)
  Jack Rabin and Associates (Opt)
  Howard Anderson Company (Addl opt)
Dance: Tom Mahoney (Choreog)
Make Up: Edwin Butterworth (Makeup artist)
  Bob Stein (Makeup)
  Joan Phillips (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: Joel Thurm (Casting)
  Susan Arnold (Addl casting )
  Wally Nicita (Addl casting )
  Gretchen Rennell (Addl casting )
  Betty Moos (Supv of prod admin)
  Mike Finnell (Generally in charge of a lot of things)
  Steve Kramer (Airport arrangements )
  Nancy Hansen (Scr supv)
  Larry Wilson (Magic consultant)
  Dan Attias (DGA trainee)
  Tom Baker (Transportation)
  Glenda Baker (Transportation)
  Art Sarno (Unit pub)
  Dick Webb (Wrangler)
  J. L. Mitchell (Wrangler)
  Adam Culunga (Craft service)
  Dave Miller (First aid)
  Allison Caine (Vocal eff adv)
  Charles Dickens (Author of "A Tale of Two Cities")
  Dennis Park (Auditor)
  Laurie Abdo (Secy to Howard W. Koch)
  Sheri Maruno (Secy to Howard W. Koch)
Stand In: Conrad Palmisano (Stunt coord)
MPAA Rating: PG
Country: United States
Language: English

Songs: “Stayin’ Alive,” written and performed by The Bee Gees, courtesy of RSO Records, published by Stigwood Music, Inc.; “Theme from Jaws , ” by John Williams; “Notre Dame Victory March,” by Michael J. Shea, J. H. O’Donnell, & John F. Shea; “River of Jordan,” by Peter Yarrow; “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne; “Respect,” by Otis Redding.
Composer: Barry Gibb
  Maurice Gibb
  Robin Gibb
  J. H. O'Donnell
  Otis Redding
  John F. Shea
  Michael J. Shea
  Stephen Sondheim
  Jule Styne
  John Williams
  Peter Yarrow
Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Paramount Pictures Corporation 4/9/1980 dd/mm/yyyy PA87531

PCA NO: 25740
Physical Properties: Lenses/Prints: Lenses and Panaflex® Camera by Panavision®
  col: Metrocolor®

Genre: Comedy
Subjects (Major): Air pilots
  Air traffic controllers
  Food poisoning
Subjects (Minor): Bars
  Charity workers
  Heart transplants
  Post-traumatic stress disorder
  Public relations
  War injuries

Note: The end credit crawl carries the following statement: “Special thanks to Kim Jorgensen, Pat Proft.” The following acknowledgements appear at the end of the film: “The producers gratefully acknowledge: Trans American Freight Lines; Atari, Inc.; Schumacher Animal Rentals; Argon Oil Company; Ron Smith Look-Alikes; Dick Lowry; Laurie Abdo; Sheri Maruno; Paul Turner; Nancy Cocuzzo; Danice Hertz; Dennis Park; Sheila Sullivan; Terry Shagin; Robert Reilly; Richard Raynis; Susan Breslau; Jason Black; Erika Hiller; Chris Ross; Peter Ivers; Karen Rasch.”
       According to Paramount Pictures production notes found in AMPAS Library files, Airplane! was also known as Kentucky Fried Theatre’s Airplane – Flying High. As stated 21 Jun 1979 in DV, Universal Pictures had filed a complaint against Paramount Pictures Corp. in which it argued that the title and concept of the film was too close to Universal’s series of Airport movies and would cause confusion. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was scheduled to review the complaint and issue a ruling. On 26 Jul 1979, DV reported that the MPAA arbitration board had ruled in favor of Universal, meaning that Paramount would have to release the film under another title. As stated in a 23 Jul 1980 Var article, Universal finally relented and allowed Paramount to release the film domestically under the title Airplane! , although no reason was given why Universal gave its permission to Paramount to use the title.
       The writing-producing-directing team of Jim Abrahams, and David and Jerry Zucker, said that the creative spark for the film came from the movie Zero Hour! (1957, see entry) that they accidentally taped overnight when they were collecting late-night TV commercials to spoof for their Kentucky Fried Theatre, a venue dedicated to original sketch comedy combined with videotape and filmed routines. The friends hadn’t planned to watch the movie but each had the same reaction. The film, a serious drama about landing an airplane full of passengers and crew stricken with food poisoning, would be the perfect material to parody. They came up with a script that no one bought. So they wrote a different script, based on Kentucky Fried Theatre routines, raised $35,000, filmed a ten-minute pilot and attracted an investor. The subsequent movie The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977, see entry) became a hit. Afterward, the team returned to the Airplane! script, which was rewritten approximately “thirty times.” The next hurdle was convincing studio executives to give them “total creative control.”
       The 11 Jul 1980 DV article reported that Bob Rehme of Avco-Embassy was sold on the film’s humor but the company could not afford to finance the film. At one point, American International Pictures, a company that shared the same attorney as the three filmmakers, considered setting up financing for the film. The breakthrough came when Susan Baerwald, a script analyst for United Artists (UA), recommended the script to her longtime friend then-Paramount president Michael Eisner after UA rejected her recommendation of the script. When Producer Jon Davison whittled down Paramount’s budget estimate of the film from $7.5 million to $3.2 million, the “project looked viable.” In addition, production notes mentioned that Paramount executives agreed to take the risk when producer Howard W. Koch consented to work with Abrahams and the Zucker brothers. All together, the team calculated that it took five years to get the movie made.
       Prior to the film’s release, a 26 Jul 1979 DV news item reported that the Directors Guild of America (DGA) had ruled that a film could not be helmed by three directors nor could the filmmakers be credited, using the “fictitious name of ‘Abrahams N. Zuckers.’” According to a 3 Sep 1986 Var article, before the director credit dispute was resolved, a DGA representative was present on the set “at all times to make sure only Jerry Zucker spoke to the actors.” A 4 Oct 1979 DV news item stated that a waiver granted by the DGA executive board gave the three filmmakers one-time rights to appear as a triple director credit in the film.
       On 21 Aug 1979, HR reported that Jerry Zucker was situated on set with the cameras, interacting with the actors, while David Zucker and Abrahams would observe the action from “a locked-circuit TV system” on the perimeter of the set. When the shot was done, Jerry would join his co-directors to decide if the scene was “a print.”
       In the early stages of casting, the names of several comedians were attached to the film. A 3 Apr 1979 HR news item announced that Chevy Chase would star in the film. In the 11 Jul 1980 DV, producer Davison stated that Dom DeLuise, Bill Bixby and “almost everyone who had ever been in or even watched ‘Saturday Night Live’" had been considered as casting choices the film.
       As stated in a 14 Jun 1979 DV news item, Helen Reddy was considered to parody her role as a singing nun in Universal Studios’ Airport 1975 (1974, see entry) for Airplane! It hadn’t been decided yet by Universal if playing the same character in a different movie was a form of “plagiarism.” A later 21 Jun 1979 DV article reported that Paramount wanted to avoid additional legal problems with Universal Studios given that the two companies shared overseas distribution through Cinema International Corporation (CIC) and, therefore, Reddy would not “reprise her singing nun role” in Airplane!
       According to a 12 Jul 1979 HR news item, blind singer Jose Feliciano was cast in the movie as a “Polish Airline” pilot, along with actor look-alikes for Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder who were cast as co-pilots, but the Polish-American League protested. However, on 28 Jun 1980, a LAHExam news item stated that footage was shot but discarded when the concept of a blind cockpit was deemed not funny enough for the final film.
       Several actors made their film debuts including Robert Hays as “Ted Striker”, and Julie Hagerty as “Elaine." According to a 21 Aug 1979 HR article, Hays had a costarring role in the television show Angie while filming Airplane! Several times during filming, Hays would juggle both roles and exist on “three hours of sleep.” A 26 Jul 1979 DV news item reported that singer Maureen McGovern was cast as a guitar-carrying nun in the movie, which marked her feature film debut as an actress, and a 7 Jun 1979 DV news item reported that Leslie Nielsen, known as a dramatic actor, would make his comedic debut in the film. A 31 Jul 1979 DV news item reported that the three directors would appear in cameo roles.
       According to an 18 Jun 1979 DV news item, principal photography was scheduled to begin 20 Jun at Culver City Studios in Culver City, CA. As stated in a 10 Jul 1980 NYT article, the film’s budget was $3.5 million and within a week of its release, the film had grossed $7 million in box office receipts. Abrahams noted that at the time the film was in production, Paramount had also approved the $45 million-budgeted Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979, see entry) and the studio directed a larger part of their attention to the more expensive, higher-profile film.
       Production notes stated that most of the principal photography was performed at Culver City Studios, but exteriors were filmed at Los Angeles International Airport and another key sequence was filmed at Paramount Studios. On 21 Jul 1980, Box reported that the film had a thirty-five day-shooting schedule.
       Box stated that a rough cut of the film came in at 115 minutes. The film was previewed at three college campuses and two movie theaters, and the filmmakers trimmed the film to 88 minutes based on audience feedback.
       After its release, a 7 Jul 1980 HR article declared the film “a top grossing picture for the summer.” A 7 Jul 1980 LAHExam article stated that the film had earned $361,000 in its first four days in twenty-one theaters in Los Angeles, while it had pulled in $730,000 in the same time frame in 75 theaters in New York City, establishing new box office records. The first run film also screened in nine Los Angeles-area drive-in theaters, in which the total from Saturday night was $53,683, “an average of $6,000 per drive-in.” LAHExam claimed that this gross topped the average weekly box office gross of most drive-ins. On 8 Jul 1980, HR reported that the film has earned $6,053,514 in its first five days of domestic release, playing in 705 theaters. A 19 Aug 1980 HR article stated that the film’s success at the box office made theater owners hold over the film long past its scheduled end dates. Although considered an acceptable practice for well-performing films, this created fewer slots for other films opening later during that summer. On 10 Apr 1981, a DV news item reported Airplane! had earned $130 million worldwide to date.


Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   21 Jul 1980   p. 1, 4.
Daily Variety   7 Jun 1979.   
Daily Variety   14 Jun 1979.   
Daily Variety   18 Jun 1979.   
Daily Variety   21 Jun 1979.   
Daily Variety   26 Jul 1979.   
Daily Variety   31 Jul 1979.   
Daily Variety   4 Oct 1979.   
Daily Variety   11 Jul 1980.   
Daily Variety   10 Apr 1981.   
Hollywood Reporter   3 Apr 1979.   
Hollywood Reporter   12 Jul 1979.   
Hollywood Reporter   21 Aug 1979.   
Hollywood Reporter   27 Jun 1980   p. 2, 26.
Hollywood Reporter   7 Jul 1980.   
Hollywood Reporter   8 Jul 1980.   
Hollywood Reporter   19 Aug 1980.   
LAHExam   28 Jun 1980.   
LAHExam   7 Jul 1980.   
Los Angeles Times   2 Jul 1980   Section IV, p. 1, 6.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   9 Jul 1980   p. 9.
New York Times   2 Jul 1980   p. 17.
New York Times   10 Jul 1980.   
New York Times   24 Aug 1980   p. 69.
Rolling Stone   2 Oct 1980   p. 31.
Time   14 Jul 1980   p. 71.
Variety   2 Jul 1980   p. 18.
Variety   2 Jul 1980   p. 36.
Variety   23 Jul 1980.   
Variety   3 Sep 1986.   

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