There are two types of people in the world. Those who believe that Airplane! is one of the greatest comedies ever made, and people who are wrong. The film has left an indelible mark on movie history since it was released in 1980. It’s been seen so often, by so many, that most of us could nearly recite the film from memory. However, now, for the first time, you’re about to see the entire movie in an entirely new way. Imagine if David Letterman had played the lead. Ok, now stop imagining it, and just see it.
The recently unearthed clip is from a 1982 episode of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman in which the three writer/directors of Airplane!, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker were guests. As part of the interview, the three show the clip of David Letterman’s 1979 screen test to play the lead role of Ted Striker, which eventually went to Robert Hays. If seeing Letterman looking that young isn’t an utterly bizarre idea to begin with, the idea of seeing him in Airplane! requires a certain amount of mental gymnastics.
To be honest, he’s not bad. He might be a little stiff, but it is a screen test. If there’s a weak link in the scene, it’s the actress whose timing seems a bit off. If Letterman had been working with Julie Haggerty, he probably would have looked a lot better. If we had to guess, it was probably the end of the sequence that killed his chances of being in the movie. He delivers the Ethel Merman setup like he’s already decided he doesn’t want the part after all, and just wants to go home.
It’s an interesting thought experiment. How would entertainment have turned out differently if David Letterman had landed the role? Airplane! was a smash hit, so if David Letterman had been the star of it, would that have inspired him to go looking for more acting work? He might not have been around two years later to begin his stint hosting late night TV, which he then proceeded to own for the next 30 years. Robert Hays has been a consistent actor since the Airplane! days, he’s never been without work, but he never made a mark quite like David Letterman. Still, it’s difficult to think of anybody else as Ted Striker.
What did you think of David Letterman’s acting chops? Did we miss out on a great talent...or did he make the right choice?
CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.
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