Jerry Zucker Still Flies High on ‘Airplane!’
Having your first film as a director hailed as one of the funniest comedies in movie history is heady stuff. But when, more than 20 years later, the accolades continue--when the American Film Institute ranks it among America’s all-time 10 best laugh-fests--does the rush continue?
Well, maybe the adrenaline doesn’t pump as fast. But for Jerry Zucker, the idea of being one of the warped brains that begat “Airplane!” is still something to be savored.
“The legacy of ‘Airplane!’ is wonderful and amazing,” says Zucker, who 21 years ago, at 30, was one-third of the directing trio behind that legendary spoof. These days, he’s promoting his latest directing effort, “Rat Race.”
There’s the star-studded cast, including Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Rowan Atkinson (“Mr. Bean”), Jon Lovitz, John Cleese, Seth Green and Amy Smart. There’s the film’s pedigree: It’s a direct descendant of the star-laden chase comedies epitomized by Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” And there’s Zucker’s career, one that features nearly as many highs (“Ghost”) as lows (“First Knight”).
But two decades have not dimmed the comedic luster of “Airplane!” Zucker remains proud of his creation and doesn’t express even a hint of exasperation at being asked about a film more than two decades old.
“Although we thought it would be a big hit--we were very headstrong at that time and thought we had something special--I don’t think we would ever have guessed that it would last, that 20 years later, it would still be on someone’s list,” he says.
Entertainment Weekly ranked the greatest film comedies and placed “Airplane!” right at the top. And the AFI listed it at No. 10, in front of all of Charlie Chaplin’s films.
The film’s success set the bar high for Zucker and his co-directors--brother David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, three guys who, before “Airplane!,” had only one movie credit to their names, as writers of the screamingly raunchy “Kentucky Fried Movie.” Just as the modest pre-"Airplane!” expectations doubtlessly contributed to that film’s success, the heightened expectations after it helped doom the ZAZ team’s two follow-ups, the spy spoof “Top Secret!” and the TV series “Police Squad!”
“It’s kind of neat to be nothing,” Zucker explains. “But then, once you have a hit, you can’t be anonymous again. And then, there’s the pressure to repeat. After ‘Airplane!’ we had some rough years. At the time they came out, ‘Police Squad!’ and ‘Top Secret!’ were not successful. Of course, now there are people for whom those two films are their favorites.”
“Top Secret!” also made Entertainment Weekly’s Top 100, and the TV series begat the film “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” and two sequels.
“First Knight,” an ill-conceived 1995 take on Camelot starring Richard Gere, Julia Ormond and Sean Connery, was Zucker’s last film before “Rat Race.” Critically panned and largely ignored by audiences, the movie didn’t help his directing career. (He has continued to produce films, including “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”)
Though Zucker doesn’t pretend to fully understand the vagaries of what movie viewers will like, he thinks “Rat Race” might make audiences happy. Although clearly a descendant of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” it avoids the forced zaniness that dragged Kramer’s film down. There’s no Milton Berle mugging constantly for the camera, no Jonathan Winters clearly outshining everyone else, no sense that the film is an out-of-control car looking for a wall to crash into.
“‘Rat Race’ certainly owes its form to those ‘60s chase comedies, but I was never really a fan of those movies,” he says. “They were a lot of fun, but it was just a lot of comedians who got 10 minutes to do their ‘schtick.’
“In this movie, we have comic actors--not comedians--who have invested in their characters. They’re actors who are believable in these roles, who can reach for that funny moment. But the humor comes out of the story and the acting, as opposed to saying, ‘OK, now it’s time for Buddy Hackett to do his schtick and be Buddy Hackett-funny.’ The character was just Buddy Hackett; it wasn’t written in any particular way.”
He hopes that in his film, the humor comes from the story, not just from the jokes.
“I’m a fan of the old comedies, of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati and Abbott and Costello,” he says. “The way comedy was done in those days, they’re not doing sketch comedy, they’re really immersed in their characters, and they play them very innocently and sincerely. And then the logical extension of what they do leads to the humor.”
That said, Zucker’s not expecting another home-run hit on the order of “Airplane!,” a film audiences will talk about for years. He’ll settle for one they talk about for at least a few minutes, as long as they at least chuckle during the discussion.
“I love to make people laugh,” he says. “To make a crowd-pleaser, this is really what I live for.”
Kaltenbach is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.