Producer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker--"ZAZ" to their closest friends--wrote the hit film "Airplane!"
They created the TV series and cult video favorite "Police Squad!"
They made the summer box-office disappointment of 1984: "Top Secret!" Now comes "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!"
What--beyond a passion for bad puns and exclamation marks--is the formula behind this threesome's success??!! (Except for "Top Secret!," which didn't do so well.)
It was time to investigate--even if it meant exchanging free "Naked Gun" publicity for some insights into their creative secrets.
Abrahams and the Zucker brothers work out of a sixth-floor office in West Los Angeles, behind a door marked "Millard E. Flausner, D.D.S." How-to dental flossing charts fill the walls of the waiting room. A visitor can even study--in detail--the progression of periodontal disease, from gingivitis to advanced decay.
"I'm surprised they didn't make me wear a hygienist's uniform today," says receptionist Leslie Maier. "They often do.
"I don't mind. Really."
Down the hall, to the right of Maier's desk, is the conference room where it all happens. To the left, is the '50s-style kitchenette, complete with basketball hoop, string and the telephone prop from "Top Secret!" (which didn't do very well at the box office).
In the conference room, there's a bulletin board plastered with 5-by-7 index cards which hold their top secret plot lines and gags. In the corner sits a TV and VCR; the ZAZ team spends a lot of time in front of the tube, mining old movies and TV shows for material.
David, the elder Zucker brother and the solo director of "Naked Gun," is at the head of a large oval conference table. On his left is his brother Jerry, who has the look of someone who cut short a promising career as a stand-up comic. On his right is Abrahams, the eldest of the three and a friend of the Zuckers since childhood. All three have just returned from touring college campuses to promote their new film.
Jerry tackles the first question: How did ZAZ settle on the title, "The Naked Gun"?
Jerry: I got asked that a lot of college campuses. I would just apologize profusely.
David: "Police Squad" was the original title. But Paramount was leery about having it confused with the "Police Academy" series. They didn't want to confuse anyone who wanted to see Steve Guttenberg for a sixth time. So they gave us a list of 20 other titles. We picked "Naked Gun" because it promised so much more than it could ever possibly deliver.
Jerry: We wanted to call it "Ronald Zhivago," but we didn't want it to get confused with "Doctor Zhivago." Then there was "BAM BAM BAM!". But David tested it out the way he does with all titles: He went to cocktail parties and said, "Oh yes, I just directed 'BAM BAM BAM!' " It just didn't cut it.
The decision to cast Leslie Nielsen as the star, Lt. Frank Drebin, was an obvious one: Nielson had created the role of Drebin in the TV series "Police Squad!" Likewise, the casting of Charlotte Zucker as Ricardo Montalban's secretary was understandable: She is the Zucker brothers' mother.
But how did they finally settle on Priscilla Presley as Nielsen's co-star?
Jerry: "We didn't want anyone that had done comedy before . . . We screened some episodes of "Dallas" and she seemed just perfect for it. Then we met her and realized she was also a really sweet person."
Jim: "And she was great--except for the day that Elvis showed up on the set."
Some of the material in "Naked Gun" is original. But mostly the ZAZ trio stole--from old movies, TV series, even their own show, "Police Squad!" Among the films they admitted pilfering from were "Dirty Harry," "Telefon," "Farewell, My Lovely," "Day of the Jackal"--"and some movies that are coming out next year," adds Jerry.
For example, in "Farewell, My Lovely," Charlotte Rampling glides sexily down the stairs under the unwavering stare of Robert Mitchum. Presley does the same scene, but trips.
"Day of the Jackal" gave them the idea for a plot line in which the Queen of England is the target of an assassin.
Jim: In that film there is an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle, so we thought it would be a fun thing to have.
David: The queen is someone people know and care about.
Jim: And Charles de Gaulle is already dead.
Jerry: We didn't want to be redundant.
Nearly a dozen world leaders appear in "Naked Gun." Was ZAZ trying for some sort of broad sociopolitical statement?
Jim: I think what we were after was: "Just Say No."
Older by a couple years than either Zucker, Abrahams already had a successful career as a private investigator in Milwaukee before he gave up his company car--a green Ford Galaxy--to follow the Zucker brothers to L.A. The Zuckers still have a photo of Abrahams sitting, dejected, on a Pico Boulevard curb in front of the condemned building--once a drug rehabilitation center--they had leased for their "Kentucky Fried Theater" show.
They had struck out for L.A. confident that they could transplant the popularity of their comedy theater. Launched with three other friends in the back of a Madison, Wis., bookstore, the "Kentucky Fried Theater" comedy troupe was performing in front of sold-out audiences within weeks.
The threesome had gotten to know one another growing up in Milwaukee, where their families were intertwined both socially and professionally.
Jerry: Our fathers were business partners. Our sisters were roommates in college. And our mothers danced at the same topless club.
Jim: The Boom-Boom Room.
David: On Wall Street in Milwaukee.
They obtained independent financial backing for their first film, "Kentucky Fried Movie" in 1977, with John Landis directing. The ZAZ team continues to work with colleagues from their "Kentucky Fried" days: Pat Proft, who appeared on stage with them in L.A., helped write the screenplay for "Naked Gun," and Robert K. Weiss, who produced "Kentucky Fried Movie," also receives a producer credit on "Naked Gun."
Until recently--with David Zucker directing "Naked Gun" and Abrahams making his solo directorial debut in Disney's "Big Business"--ZAZ had written and directed as a team. That arrangement might be confusing for actors and film crews, but it appears to have created few tensions within the team itself.
Jerry: Although there was that argument--in "Airplane!"--over the blouse. I thought it should be white with checks. Jim thought it should be green and white. And David insisted on blue taffeta.
Jim: We do have our own separate lives outside of work, you know. David has a small religious school.
David: Jim has his kite collection.
Jerry: And I collect sweaters.
The ZAZ team obtained a studio contract from Paramount to make "Airplane!" a spoof on the disaster movies of the 1970s, and the film was a surprise box-office hit when it was released in 1980. Two years later, they developed "Police Squad!" for TV, but only six episodes were made. In the summer of 1984, Paramount released their film "Top Secret!" (which grossed a respectable, but disappointing, $20 million at the box office).
ZAZ also directed one of the early box-office hits for the new management team at Disney, "Ruthless People" starring Bette Midler and Danny De Vito. But credit for writing the screenplay goes to Dale Launer.
David: Now that was a different experience for us since it was written by someone else. But we did add certain items to the plot, like the videotape subplot with the chief of police.
Jim: And the part where Judge (Reinhold) works in the stereo store.
Jerry: And that he was married to Helen (Slater).
David: And the part where Bette (Midler) gets kidnaped.
Jerry: We're pulling your leg.