Today is the fortieth anniversary of the premiere of Airplane!. I am serious, and don't call me Shirley. The film follows traumatized former Air Force pilot Ted Striker as he must confront his fear of flying again in order to save an airplane full of people sick from food poisoning.
The film was a parody of the then-popular disaster action movie genre, particularly the 1957 film Zero Hour! and the Airport series. This was the first film written by the comedy trio of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker who were working in a theatre group. They recorded commercials to make fun of when they accidentally recorded Zero Hour! and decided to use it as a basis. They failed to sell the script until they made another film that became a hit. The producers, known collectively as ZAZ, hired serious dramatic actors rather than comedians.
Early test screenings had been mediocre. Nevertheless, the film became a massive hit with fans and critics. It earned its entire budget back in five days, eventually becoming the fourth highest grossing film of the year. It received nearly universal praise with critics hailing its childish and slapstick comedy. The cast saw enormous boosts to their careers. While they had been known for their dramatic roles, they quickly became comedy icons. Particularly, Leslie Nielsen became known for his deadpan delivery and became a staple of the parody genre. The film also launched the film career of basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It has since been ranked as one of the greatest comedies of all time along with Nielsen's line "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley" being ranked as one of the best movie quotes ever. The film inspired a number of comedy filmmakers. Abdul-Jabbar even went on to reprise the role for several airline PSAs. It did inspire a single sequel, and while many of the cast returned none of the creative crew did.
The film features the talents of Robert Hays as main hero Ted Striker.