For the argument between announcers concerning the white and red zones at the airport, the producers hired the same voice artists who had made the real-world announcements at Los Angeles International Airport. At the real airport, the white zone is for loading and unloading of passengers only, and there's no stopping in the red zone (except for transit buses). They were also married to each other in real life.
Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker chose actors such as Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen because of their reputation for playing no-nonsense characters. Until this film, these actors had not done comedy, so their "straight-arrow" personas and line delivery made the satire in the movie all the more poignant and funny. Bridges was initially reluctant to take his role in the movie, but his sons persuaded him to do it.
The doctor role was Leslie Nielsen's first comedic part. He later said he was delighted to get the offer, fearing that he was getting too old for anything but "elderly grandfather" parts. The studio actually wanted to cast Dom DeLuise as the doctor, but directors Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams prevailed. It led to Nielsen gaining a whole new career in wacky comedies, particularly other Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker productions.
Most of the jive talk between the two black passengers was improvised by the actors, Al White and Norman Alexander Gibbs, as the ZAZ team weren't sufficiently "conversant" in black street language. In a bonus vignette for the "Don't Call Me Shirley" edition of the DVD, White and Gibbs explain how they came up with the dialect for the ZAZ team. Whenever the participants speak in regular English, the scene is subtitled in jive.
In a 2008 interview on the Today (1952) Show, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told the story of being on a European flight and asked to sit in an empty seat in the cockpit during takeoff so the crew could say they flew with Roger Murdoch.
For the famous scene of the Boeing 747 crashing through the large windows inside the terminal, producer Jon Davison mentions (in the DVD extras) that after the movie, he received numerous letters from various pilots telling him that they have come very close to re-enacting that very scene in real life, with some pilots admitting that they had come so close as to touch the glass with the noses of their airplanes.
In the scene where the husband turns on the air for his sick wife, you see in the background a man wearing a large beard, it was supposed to fly off in the wind, but the adhesive they used wouldn't let the beard come loose. The man can be seen moving his face back and forth and scrunching his face trying to help it come off.
The picture of the boy in the spinning newspaper that has the headline, "Boy Trapped In Refrigerator Eats Own Foot", is Billy Koch, the grandson of producer Howard W. Koch. His grandfather called him up one day and asked him for a photo of him, so Billy grabbed his second grade school photo. It was only after the film came out that he found out why his grandfather wanted the photo.
When Captain Oveur asks the young boy if he'd ever seen the inside of a cockpit before, it's not the original line which was ultimately deemed to be too risqué. (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker originally wanted the line to be "Have you ever seen a grown man's cock?")
The film is mostly a parody of Zero Hour! (1957), a film that had a main character named Ted Stryker and such famous "not meant to be funny" lines like "We have to find someone who can not only fly this plane, but who didn't have fish for dinner."
In the scene with Johnny and Steve McCroskey, McCroskey says "Get me someone who won't crack under pressure." Johnny responds "How about Mister Rogers?" If you look carefully that was dubbed in after. 'Airplane!' was shot in August 1979. Stephen Stucker (Johnny) actually said "How about Mamie Eisenhower." The former First Lady died a few months later (in Nov. 1979) so the producers dubbed in "Mister Rogers" out of respect for the Eisenhower family.
To get inspiration for the ZAZ Kentucky Fried Theatre skits, directors Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams would leave a videotape running all night, recording late night television with the aim of spoofing the commercials. One night they recorded the film Zero Hour! (1957), which ultimately acted as the main inspiration for "Airplane!".
To get the film green-lighted by Paramount, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker pitched it as "Animal House (1978) on a plane" - which, of course, was far from the truth, but the only way they could get the studio execs to understand it was a zany comedy.
The shots of the planes taking off were taken by directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. As this was their first big-budget film, they didn't realize that the 2nd unit should have been taking shots like this.
Co-writer/director David Zucker said that years after the movie's release, Woody Allen came up to him at a New York Knicks game and told Zucker how much he loved the movie. Zucker said that, since he and the movie's other writer-directors were heavily influenced by Allen's early comedies, Zucker was very touched.
The part of the Jive Lady was originally intended for Harriet Nelson, who had played the mother in the 1950s sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952). She turned it down because she was concerned about the film's adult language. She was replaced with Barbara Billingsley who played the mother in the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver (1957) Nelson later admitted to Robert Hays that she regretted not taking the part.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's role was originally to be played by Pete Rose, but he was playing baseball at the time of the filming, so the part went to Kareem. He was offered $30,000 to appear in the film, but he asked for $35,000 to buy an oriental rug.
Universal Pictures threatened to sue when it found out that the directors were trying to get Helen Reddy to repeat her role as the singing nun from Airport 1975 (1974). George Kennedy, from the original "Airport" movies, was also being courted for the film but thought better of running afoul of Universal. However, Kennedy would later work with directors Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, appearing in all three "Naked Gun" movies. This out of regret for not being in this film.
In the DVD commentary, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker had all expressed disappointment that some of the in-movie jokes (such as the thrown spear and the watermelon falling on the desk) did not get as much of a reaction from audiences as they were hoping for.
The argument between the two P.A. voice-overs about an abortion comes from "a cheap, dime-store novel" according to the trivia track of the DVD version. That "novel" is actually Arthur Hailey's "Airport" (which inspired the movie Airport (1970)).
According to the soundtrack album cover (Regency Records, 1980), Johnny's last name is Hinshaw. This can actually be heard clearly in the movie, when McCroskey is speaking to the reporters and tells "Hinshaw" to take over. Johnny then steps in and describes the "pretty white airplane" to the press.
A disco station in the film is called WZAZ, a reference to filmmakers David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. The same initials appear on one of the microphones in the scene with the reporters in the control tower.
The singing nun is Maureen McGovern, who sings the theme song to the sitcom Angie (1979), which Robert Hays was co-starring in at the time of filming. (McGovern's appearance in the film is a poke at her having sung the Oscar-winning theme songs for two classic disaster movies: "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from The Towering Inferno (1974).)
The screens and computers in the control tower are components of an IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central, built in 1954 to protect the US from Soviet bomber attack. It was the largest and heaviest computer system ever built, the full system weighing 6000 tons and taking up an entire floor of a bomb-proof blockhouse. Components of decommissioned systems were sold for scrap and bought by film and television production companies who wanted futuristic looking computers, despite the fact they were built in the 1950s. The components used in this film were previously used in The Time Tunnel (1966) and The Towering Inferno (1974) amongst many others.
The man in the taxi who spends the entire film waiting, with the meter running, is Howard Jarvis. Jarvis led the 1978 push for Proposition 13 in California, which was a money-saving and tax-cutting initiative that led to major cuts in public services (especially in schools and libraries) in California. Jarvis saved California home owners thousands of dollars per year by cutting residential property taxes in half.
The directors were friends with David Letterman and asked him to audition for the Ted Striker role. While they liked his reading, Letterman was visibly uncomfortable at the idea of formally acting and was openly relieved when they didn't offer him the part. In fact, David Zucker had said to Letterman's manager that they thought Letterman could win the role (they planned to have him return for another audition) but was surprised when the manager said that there was no chance that would happen. His audition was shown on his talk show, much to his embarrassment.
While recovering at the VA Hospital, Ted Striker learns of the death of George Zipp, who was under Striker's command (and who previously told Dr. Rumack that his captain, Striker, had made the right decision in making the attack run). Just before this is revealed, you can hear Dr. Rumack being paged on the VA Hospital's PA system.
The only real source of tension between the filmmakers and then-Paramount head Michael Eisner were two key parts of the original filming plan: the movie was to take place on board a small prop plane instead of a larger Boeing 707 jetliner (forerunner to the Boeing 747), and it was to be filmed in black and white. Eisner told ZAZ that he respected their views but the movie would not be green-lit unless it was set on board a larger aircraft and filmed in color. He gave them a weekend to think it over, and on that Monday the filmmakers agreed to Eisner's requests. (The Boeing 707 was the world's leading commercial jet transport at the time, introduced in 1958.)
In an interview, Kitten Natividad revealed that her uncredited cameo was for the shot showing gelatin dessert wiggling on a tray below her jiggling breasts. She was not the nude that jumped into camera range.
While Captain Oveur's suggestive (and therefore inappropriate) questions to Joey are a direct parody of similar scenes in Zero Hour! (1957), the fact that Peter Graves' portrayed a "father figure" to a troubled young boy also named Joey, in the '50s TV series Fury (1955), adds yet another level of satire.
When discussing whether the flight is in radar range, and air traffic controller is instructed to "check the radar range". He immediately stands up and opens a microwave oven - a nod to the Amana Radar Range, Amana's name for one of the first successful in-home microwave ovens.
Zero Hour! (1957) was so obscure that Warner Brothers sold ZAZ the rights to use it as a resource for this film for only $2,500. This actually played a large part in the film getting made because the 1957 deal for Zero Hour! (1957) had been chopped into smaller segments that included a share of the film being owned by Paramount, which was how it got onto the radar of the studio's readers and eventually got Michael Eisner's attention and support.
The 1988 house record "Break 4 Love" by Raze interpolates a sample of what sounds like a woman having an orgasm when in fact it's Lorna Patterson's character Randy crying when she confesses to Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) that she's 26 and never been married.
William Tregoe, who plays Jack Kirkpatrick, the TV anchorman ("I say, let 'em crash"), plays an almost identical character in the "Count/Pointercount" segment of The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). His character name is the similar-sounding John Fitzsimmons, and he is arguing for "count." Both roles parody James J. Kilpatrick on 60 Minutes (1968).
The Bill and Ted bar fight scene, when picking up Billy the Kid, matches the girl scout fight scene in Airplane!. They begin over a poker cheat (extra ace), have the same punches and bar stool hit, and end with one being slid across the bar until breaking through a wall or juke box.
In Norway, the title of this movie is "Help! We're flying" ("Hjelp, vi flyr"). One of many unrelated comedy movies around that period of time that, for some reason, got the prefix "Help!" and a basic description within.
In Latin American countries, the title of the movie is "Y dónde está el piloto?" ("And where is the pilot?") It is one of many unrelated comedy movies around that period of time that, for some reason, got the prefix "Y dónde está..." and a basic description within
Peter Graves, known primarily for non-comedic paternal and authority type roles, initially dismissed the script as "disgusting crap", according to Abrahams. However, his agent, characterizing the Zuckers as the next hot thing in Hollywood, convinced him to meet with them and Abrahams. By the end of the meeting Graves had switched his tone once he understood that he would really be playing a spoof of himself and nothing about the film was to be taken seriously. However, he was still not comfortable with the pedophile undertones but his wife and children, who loved the script and thought it hilarious, talked him into accepting the part.
Robert Stack (with an open microphone) says to Lloyd Bridges 'Drown them in Lake Michigan, at least that'll save innocent lives." Robert Stack played a stunt pilot in The Tarnished Angels (1957), who died when he crashed the plane he was piloting in a lake away from the spectators in the grandstands.
In a recent interview, Fred Willard revealed that he was offered the role of Ted Stryker who was eventually played by Robert Hays. Fred read the script which was filled with jokes and puns, but he didn't quite understand the role or the film. So, he turned it down. After "Airplane!" became a huge hit, he instantly regretted turning it down, but his wife told him that if he had starred in it, it would've been a different film and may not have worked nearly as well.
The French title of the movie translates to "Is there a pilot on the plane?" (Y'a t-il un pilote dans l'avion?). The same form of title would be used later on for the Naked Gun movies: "Is there a cop to save the Queen?", "... the President", etc.
According to the DVD commentary, the song "Stayin' Alive" from the Bee Gees played in the Bar-Scene, was pitched to +10% its normal speed. As said, they had to get the permission from the record label to do so.
In Spain the title was "Land As You Can!" ("¡Aterriza Como Puedas!"). The "as you can" joke became so popular that several comedies with the ZAZ kind of humour have the same title. "The Naked Gun" is "Catch him as you can!" (¡Agárralo como puedas!), "2001: A Space Travesti" is "2001: Take flight as you can" (2001: Despega como puedas)... and so on
1970s TV star Jimmie Walker of Good Times fame makes a cameo as the windshield wiper man to whom Captain Oeuver hands his gas card through the cockpit window. Walker had starred in Airport 79: The Concorde just the previous year. That same year, in a chance encounter with producer Howard Koch, Jimmie was asked if wanted to appear in Airplane. Although Walker did not actually take Koch seriously he was indeed contacted by Koch shortly after to play a small walk on role. Koch thought it was a subtle yet humorous inference to Jimmie Walker's career decline in airport disaster films.
Prior to being paged in the airport to pick up the white phone, Captain Oeuver is skimming through a fictitious magazine called Modern Sperm he picked out of the "Whacking Material" section of a newsstand.
The two "black guys" are speaking with a Bavarian accent in the German version of the movie. For Germany, this is twice as funny in cause of the Bavarian accent used for "black guys", as when the two would speak in normal German, only using harsh language and swearing all the time.