Airplane!, written and directed by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, is considered an American classic when it comes to "spoof" cinema. Contrary to popular belief, this blockbuster-sleeper-comedy-runaway-hit of 1980 is not merely a generic parody of the airplane disaster movie genre (a motif of the 1970’s film industry) but is very nearly a scene for scene—often a line-for-line—remake of a very serious early entry in that particular sub-genre, despite its wildly outrageous humor. Zero Hour!, the film in question, is a 1957 film starring Dana Andrews as former pilot Ted Stryker who is called upon to land a passenger plane when the majority of the passengers on board—including the pilot—develop food poisoning.
The Airplane! screenplay was co-written and co-directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and David’s brother Jerry. What is perhaps most astonishing for first-time viewers of Zero Hour! is how much dialogue from the film is lifted verbatim and remains intact in the parody. This translation of melodramatic dialogue into satire is dependent upon, surely, the most skillful use of irony in a Hollywood comedy since Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove —and don't call me Shirley. Similarly to Dr. Strangelove, one could read much of the screenplay and mistake it for a drama; it is in the cinematic execution where the satirical transformation takes place.
With a paltry budget of fewer than four million dollars (in comparison to the thirty-five million dollar budget of the similarly-toned 1941 directed by Steven Spielberg just one year earlier), Abrahams and the Zucker brothers went on to enjoy the fruits of their investment, returning 130 million dollars in Airplane!'s initial release. (By contrast, the Spielberg film did not even crack the 100 million dollar mark at the box office.) The secret to the film’s low budget was the judicious casting of recognizable actors who had fallen from their once high ranking in the Hollywood hierarchy. Made at a time when their star factor was at its highest, no movie could ever have been made for just 3.5 million dollars with a cast that included actors such as Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, Ethel Merman, and Jimmie Walker. Nielsen, Stack, and Graves would all go to enjoy a career boost following the film’s release, with Nielsen becoming an even bigger star as a comic actor than he ever was as a leading man.