You know, as a young man, I never would have even believed that I could ever become a bitter individual. I always believed that you get dealt your hand dealt in life, and sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes the other guy’s ahead. I was never the type to begrudge someone else for their artistic success. That is, until Airplane! came along. Curse Jim Abrahams and those Zucker brothers!
Back in the 60s and the 70s, I wrote some of the most memorable dramas in Hollywood. Love Letters From Spain, Love In Madrid, The Spaniard Said He Loved Me, and Delicatessen Love, just to name a few. The Zucker brothers came to me and told me they wanted to give heavy drama a try; they wanted a love story they could sink their teeth into. So for $20,000, I wrote the first draft of Airplane! (it was called Love On An Airplane, then) for those idiots two years before it was released. But to put it simply, they took my script and destroyed it. You won’t see my name anywhere near that movie; once shooting began, I had my name redacted. The first draft is largely what you saw in the final product, except the Zucker brothers turned my serious drama about a young couple’s attempt to rekindle their diminished love amidst a potential airliner disaster into a pie-throwing farce. Just about all of my characters can be seen in the movie, but the Zuckers turned them into cartoons, their personal tragedies transformed into supposedly humorous situations.
Ted, the Air Force veteran-turned-cab driver races to the airport to find his love Elaine, who is ready to leave him after years of unhappiness. He catches her before she boards the flight bound for Chicago as a flight attendant (we would have called her a stewardess in those days), and she rejects his plea to give him another chance. Realizing how his life has taken a bad turn since his decisions during the war led to the death of his entire squadron, Ted Striker seeks to find the happiness Elaine’s love once gave him, but she cannot wait for him forever to get over the sins of his past. It’s the classic love story, but Abrahams and the Zuckers perverted the story and used it as a device for silly gags and “ironic” jokes to ensue. The characters’ flaws were exploited as a way to get cheap laughs that didn’t even make much sense. Okay, Ted is long-winded. He tries to sort out his post-traumatic stress and neurosis by talking to other passengers, but how could a woman just hang herself in the cabin? And where did that one fellow get a gasoline can? Ludicrous.
Captain Rex Kramer, Ted’s foil played by Robert Stack, was a man filled with tragedy and a bloated sense of self-hatred. That is why I chose to depict him rejecting religion and social issues as he walked through the airport. His self-loathing is so strong that he believes it will never change. He believes he cannot save himself, but he ends up guiding our protagonist Ted through the difficulty of saving that plane full of people. But Kramer was not supposed to strike out at his potential saviors, he was supposed to feel utterly defeated by the time he reached his destination and ignored his chance at finding redemption. Only then was he supposed to put up his air of confidence, a flawed leader in disastrous times. But the Zuckers clearly could not stand Robert Stack exemplifying this tragic figure through his acting, oh no. They had him beat all of those people up as some sort of joke. Simply ridiculous.
My script had it all. The hardened doctor (Leslie Nielsen) who tried to keep the passengers and crew together in times of crisis. The child traveling for a heart transplant, who represented that even the innocence of humanity can be victim to a cruel hand of Fate. I actually had the jive-talking woman, played by Barbara Billingsley, in there. But in my original draft she used her knowledge and abilities to bridge the cultural differences between the plane full of white people and a couple of negroes. But what did the Zuckers do when the passengers lose control and scream themselves silly at the thought of their own doom? They go ahead and flash naked breasts on the screen! Lunacy! The representation of man’s realization of his own flaws and resistance to his inevitable demise before he can fix his life’s mistakes cannot be – nay, should not be – obscured by hot tits!
McCrosky, played by Lloyd Bridges, had a serious drug problem in my original script, just like you saw on the screen. But it was an internal battle, not something that he openly and repeatedly mentions to his co-workers. What you didn’t see was which of our heroes on the ground was enabling McCrosky during the crisis, and guess what? You’ll never know! What’s the point on that big reveal, anyway? A strong ensemble was originally developed to help our flawed heroes in the air make safely to Chicago. But all of the characters are played for laughs, forcing some of Hollywood’s most well known and respected dramatic actors to do vomit jokes and act like buffoons.
I can’t say for sure if it was the Zuckers’ intent all along. Perhaps it was always their goal to take a brilliantly written screenplay about two powerful themes, love and inevitability, and transform it into a bunch of gags that I’m sure got heavy applause from their fraternity brothers. It makes me sick to think my art was turned into that wildly successful comedy that grossed over $80 million back in 1980. Christ, if only I didn’t take my name off that script I would have been rolling in it. But to protect the integrity of my profession and my art, I cannot live with that regret. Besides, $20,000 went a looong way back then.
I suppose, though, just like I could never ever write a childish screenplay like that or The Naked Gun, perhaps the Zuckers could never really embrace heavy drama. Perhaps they tried to force some personal growth on themselves and later realized they could not fight their true nature, as immature pot-smoking manboys who will always play and never take life seriously. We cannot fight who we are, it seems. But that still doesn’t change the fact that they ruined my script for Airplane!!!