It's time for a bit of lighter fare this week for your Sunday Long Read. It's the 35th anniversary of one of my favorite movie comedies of all time, the classic Abrahams/Zucker Brothers riot, Airplane! The AV Club has an oral history of the movie from its creators and stars, and it's just hysterical to see how this film was put together. The guy that saved the film? Disney head Michael Eisner, wh was at Paramount Pictures at the time with Jeffrey Katzenberg.
J. Zucker: It was a major struggle to get Airplane! greenlit. There was a little bit of interest here and there, but nobody was biting. And then we made Kentucky Fried Movie. As soon as the check cleared for that, we stopped doing the live show and we got a little bungalow up in Santa Monica and wrote Airplane! And then we took it out and shopped it, at which point we got turned down by all the studios until we finally got to Paramount.
Abrahams: We were sort of credible after Kentucky Fried Movie, but we attached ourselves as directors, so that was a dealbreaker in most places. But we shopped iteverywhere. Somebody told me that they’d read a copy of the screenplay. I said, “Oh, yeah? Where’d you find it?” And they said, “I found it on a bus.” [Laughs.] I think that’s probably actually a true story, because there were copies all over the place.
D. Zucker: It was really only one person who saved us and got Airplane! made, and that was Michael Eisner at Paramount.
J. Zucker: Well, Eisner and [Jeffrey] Katzenberg.
D. Zucker: Eisner and Katzenberg, yeah. Eisner heard about the script, called Katzenberg, and asked him to call these guys who did this Airplane! script, whatever it is, and have them in the office on Monday. And that’s how we ended up at Paramount.
J. Zucker: Eisner was having dinner with a woman named Susan Baerwald, who at the time was a reader for United Artists, and they were friends. And he asked her, “So what have you read that you liked?” And she said, “Well, there’s this one script that United Artists passed on, but I thought it was really, really funny.” And she told them a little bit about it, and I think Eisner just thought, “A comedy on an airplane? That’s a good idea!” So they immediately had it tracked down, and then we got a call from Katzenberg, saying, “Come on in, we want to hear about this.”
Abrahams: Even when Paramount were expressing interest and were willing to take a shot on us as directors, at the same time there was a company called Avco Embassy—I think Bob Rehme ran it back then—and they were equally interested and actually offered us a little more money for it. So one weekend, David and Jerry and I kind of decided we’d take off in order to make the decision whether we were going to go with Avco and Paramount, and we just anguished over it.
We spent a lot of time weighing pros and cons of both the companies. In fact, at one point, we said, “We’re definitely going with Avco.” It just seemed like the better decision. So we called up Jeffrey Katzenberg to tell him, and I don’t think the conversation was five minutes. But at the end of the conversation, we were at Paramount. He was really good. [Laughs.] And, of course, we’re forever grateful that he changed our minds.
The whole thing is nearly as amusing as the movie itself. It's a good read should you be on a flight this weekend.
Or...maybe not, come to think of it.