The Takeoff Artist

AIRPLANE! (1980)
The ZAZ team took the directing reins themselves with a spoof of a long-forgotten 1957 disaster movie called Zero Hour! Budgeted at $3 million and starring an odd array of actors not known for comedy, the resulting orgy of inspired comic mayhem would gross a staggering $83 million.
We wrote many drafts of Airplane! because we didn't know what we were doing. We were just fortunate we had the best plot I've ever seen to do a spoof of: Plane goes up, there's food poisoning, our hero has to fly it down. The studio put the script out to Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, and we were horrified. We wanted guys like Robert Stack, Peter Graves, and Leslie Nielsen to give it the facade of a serious movie. I remember one day talking with Leslie and he said, ''The s--- hitting the fan — that's not funny. People aren't going to laugh at that.'' I said, ''We'll try it and see.'' And that became one of the most famous bits. After Airplane!, we were really in the World Series, and we were free to do anything we wanted, whether it made sense or not. And we did.

TOP SECRET! (1984)
ZAZ tried to replicate the success of Airplane! with a smash-up parody of World War II dramas and Elvis flicks. Audiences chose to see The Karate Kid instead and the film earned only $20 million, though it had the distinction of introducing a temperamental young actor named Val Kilmer, who starred as hip-swiveling rocker Nick Rivers.
Val had his difficult days. He was dating Cher at the time, and she'd come on the set and tell him this was a silly movie and what was he doing in this stupid thing? I'd be so annoyed with her. Never mind that she was right, she shouldn't be messing with his head! One time, I was sitting with Val at a party, and I was in a dark place and I just said, ''I hate everybody.'' He turned to me and he just lit up! Suddenly we had connected! [Laughs] We thought Top Secret! was so much better than Airplane! We all said, ''This movie is just going to kill!'' And it was out of theaters in weeks. That was a big wake-up call. My dad used to tell me he never learned a lesson that didn't cost him money.

Believing audiences were tired of spoofs, the trio changed direction with a dark farce about a kidnapping plot gone awry. The movie, starring Bette Midler and Danny DeVito, put them back on top at the box office, but it also marked the end of their partnership. Jerry Zucker would go on to direct Ghost and First Knight, while Abrahams would helm the Hot Shots! and Mafia! spoofs. Though they'd remain close and continue to pitch in on projects as writers and producers, they would never again codirect a movie.
By the end of Ruthless People, we knew that was it. Everything had always been a two-out-of-three vote, but by that time everyone wanted to have their own way. It never had the acrimony of not speaking or anything, but there was a strain. It's nothing you can blame anybody for. It's just hard to keep a team like that together. I've always thought the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. We'll never know what would have happened if we'd stayed together.


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