Airplane! Star Robert Hays: Don't Call Him Shirley


Leslie Nielsen: "Can you fly this plane and land it?"

Robert Hays: "Surely you can't be serious?"

Leslie Nielsen: "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."

You'd think a guy like Robert Hays would get a little tired of strangers coming up to him and asking if he still has a drinking problem, or declaring out of the blue, "Surely you can't be serious." But according to the Airplane! star, it's like a badge of honor.

"People will come up and say, 'I know you must be sick of hearing this, but Airplane! is my favorite film of all time," the now-sixtysomething star tells me. "And I'll take them aside; I'll stop and say, 'Okay, now look -- let's try to dissect this for a second -- you take a chance to come up here, and that I might be one of those Hollywood assholes, and you want to tell me that you like something that I did. How could I be offended at that? How could I be sick of hearing that?'"

More than 30 years after the comedy classic's release, Airplane! remains one of the most-quoted movies out there. The 1980 film, directed by the trio of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, debuts on Blu-ray this Sunday (exclusively at Best Buy), and the man who played troubled stand-in pilot Ted Striker is just as enthusiastic to talk about the experience as if the movie had wrapped a week ago.

"I got what would be considered today pocket change, or maybe lunch money, for the [film]," says Hays, recalling the first time he got to embellish a take on the set. "That was my first time [in a feature film]. I thought, 'You've got all these big people that are big names [like Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack] and everybody around me, and here I'm just a nobody,' and yet they listened to what I had to say, they tried it, and they liked it even better."

The story of ex-lovers (Hays with co-star Julie Hagerty) trapped on a commercial airplane that's lost its pilots due to food poisoning, Airplane! pioneered the satirical/rapid-fire joke-and-gag delivery that's a staple in many comedies today, from the Naked Gun series (from the same filmmakers) to the Scary Movie franchise. The inspiration for Airplane! was the 1957 drama Zero Hour, which had the same "Does anyone know how to fly a plane?!!" premise.

"That was the basic framework for Airplane! -- Zero Hour," confirms Hays. "But then we had all the other [film satires] – From Here to Eternity, and Saturday Night Fever, and all those different things. They had Zero Hour cued up for certain scenes that they wanted to copy the same camera angle, and the same lighting. That was one more little bit of trivia that could be put in the film for people. They did that all through the film."

Having grown up on TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and Sea Hunt as a kid, Hays adds that he was a bit star-struck to be rubbing elbows on the set with celebrities like Bridges and Stack, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Leslie Nielsen and June Cleaver herself, Barbara Billingsly. "The whole thing was just wonderful," he recalls.

And asked to pick his favorite moment from the film, he struggles to choose just one. "Oh man. We had 88 minutes of the film, and almost all of it is my favorite," he replies. "There are so many, I can't even try to list them all."

So, by the off-chance that you see Robert Hays in the supermarket check-out line, don't be shy. Tell him how much you loved Airplane! -- and don't call him Shirley.