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‘Airplane!’ stars reunite to recall comedy classic

Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and other stars of the 1980 hit “Airplane!" reunited to trade fond memories and favorite jokes from the classic disaster spoof.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

“What’s your vector, Victor?” “Surely you can’t be serious.” “I am serious ... and don’t call me Shirley!”

Surely or Shirley, few movies have packed in more zingers per minute or tickled the public’s funnybone more than 1980’s “Airplane!” It’s become the stuff of Hollywood legend that three young writer/directors and one bull-headed producer managed to convince a host of actors known for serious film work to play against type in creating what the American Film Institute named one of the 10 Funniest Movies of All Time.

TODAY corralled cast members Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Jill Whelen in its New York City studio and linked Robert Hays in via satellite. The stars fondly recalled the experience of putting together a movie that had audiences rolling in the aisles upon its release, and still has fans falling out of their chairs nearly three decades later.

For Graves, 82, a seasoned actor with nearly 100 credits — most notably in the 1960s TV action-drama “Mission: Impossible” — almost fell out of his chair himself when first sent the script, written by the young trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. But not in a good way.

“I did more than turn it down — I read the script and threw it across the room,” Graves told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira and Al Roker. “I said, `This is insane, and not only that, it’s the worst taste I’ve ever seen.’ ”

On top of that, Graves doubted audiences would accept him in a comedy, so he had his agent issue a thanks, but no thanks. But “Airplane!” producer Howard Koch, whom Graves says was “the Godfather of Hollywood,” persuaded him to meet with the writing-directing trio, and soon the veteran action star found himself in a weird world of wacky non sequiturs and topsy-turvy one-liners.

Graves said of the first time the filmmakers screened his footage: “In five minutes, they’re all falling down, clutching their sides. And I said, `Geez, I’m funny!’ ”

For Abdul-Jabaar, 61, taking the unlikely role of co-pilot Roger Murdock was crucial to softening his image among Americans, many of whom scratched their heads when the future NBA Hall of Famer changed his name from Lew Alcindor and embraced the Muslim faith.

“I thought I had come across the wrong way to the public — it was a really great opportunity for me to poke fun at my image,” he told Vieira and Roker.

As for Nielsen, it may be hard for younger movie fans to picture the 82-year-old actor as anything other than the clueless funnyman he’s played in films such as the “Naked Gun” series and “Scary Movie 4.” But before “Airplane!” Nielsen also was regarded as a dramatic actor — and he didn’t know he was launching a new career with the zany film.

“I never knew it was funny as it really was,” he said. “I went to a screening and heard people laughing and thought, `What are they laughing at?’ because I did not know. I was doing things that were funny, but I didn’t see it.”

Graves said that the key to the yuks in “Airplane!” was that all the actors — including the late Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges — kept a poker face, as difficult as that was sometimes. “The moment the audience sees or knows what the joke is, it’s over,” he told Vieira and Roker.

Hays, 61, who made his film debut in “Airplane!”, agreed: “Having to keep a straight face, that was a challenge.” And just to prove the point, Nielsen began sounding an aural equivalent of a whoopee cushion while Hays talked to Vieira and Roker.

Nielsen said that it’s still a kick to have young people who’ve just seen “Airplane!” for the first time come up to him and throw his “I’m not Shirley” line at him. He recalled when he first did the famous scene, Koch came up to him and said, “I guess that’s going to be it, it’s going to be with you.”

No Spears family feud
Rumors that Britney Spears quit speaking to her mother upon the impending release of Lynne Spears’ new book, “Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World,” couldn’t be farther from the truth, People magazine deputy managing editor Pete Castro told Al Roker on TODAY Wednesday.

“Absolutely not true,” Castro said as People readies to hit newsstands Friday with an exclusive interview with Lynne. “They had an ‘excruciating estrangement,’ in Lynne’s words, for seven months last year. They are at a very good place right now. They’ve absolutely reconciled — they speak four or five times a day.”

Castro noted that Lynne Spears still takes offense at being accused of being a stage mom, noting she never personally managed Britney or her money. “She said, `Let’s get some things straight,’ ” Castro said. “There’s a double standard. Tiger Woods’ dad can be with him and train him and make him a champion, but if you go to a recital with your daughter, all of the sudden you’re a stage mom.”

In her interview, Lynne Spears also gave credit to her ex-husband Jamie, Britney’s father, for helping Britney through her crisis: divorce, losing custody of her two sons, and her well-publicized breakdown.Lynne Spears herself will appear on TODAY Sept. 17 for an exclusive interview.

Banks tackles new topics
Model and talk show host Tyra Banks bravely admits she isn’t Superwoman when it comes to changing the thinking of some of her more outlandish guests. For example: The season premiere of “The Tyra Banks Show” features an African-American mother who bleaches the skin of her three young boys in hopes it will make them more appealing.

“I did not get through to that mom,” Banks told TODAY. “She was adamant. She said that she didn’t want her kids growing up looking unattractive, as if darker is unattractive. And my audience was just appalled — like, I had to hold them back!”

Banks added that many of her shows this season will focus on young women’s issues. In a poll on her show’s Web site, Banks found that young women are using more drugs and alcohol, experimenting sexually at a younger ages, and are engaging in what Banks called “self-destructive behavior.”

“We’re asking the question why, and I want to answer why and then come up with solutions,” she said.

No catfights among ‘The Women’Jada Pinkett Smith said she felt transfixed when she watched the work of co-star Annette Bening in the new film “The Women.”

“I was in a scene with Annette, and I swear I would find myself just staring at her. I’d have to go, ‘Jada, you’re in a scene, you can’t just watch Annette!’ ” Pinkett Smith told Meredith Vieira Wednesday on TODAY. “But she’s such a pro — just so brilliant at what she does — and I learned so much.”

A much-updated remake of a 1939 film of the same name, “The Women” stars a powerhouse female ensemble that also includes Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes and Debra Messing. Pinkett Smith says she has high hopes the movie will follow in the blockbuster footsteps of this summer’s “Sex and the City” movie and show Hollywood that female actors can fill seats as well as men do.

“It’s a male-oriented format at this particular point in time,” she said. “I think with the success of ‘Sex and the City’ and the success that ‘The Women’ will have, that it will change.”

Pinkett Smith added the all-female cat turned the notion of a catty set on its head. “You can’t believe the myth that women can’t work together — we didn’t have one catfight,” she said.