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A Hysterical Takeoff

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In an off summer when even Clint Eastwood flamed out, Hollywood’s possibly mightiest and certainly highest vehicle is a loopy satire called Airplane! that almost no one thought would fly. A raunchy $3.5 million airball comedy shot in 35 days, Airplane! spoofs a squadron of movie clichés from Jaws to Saturday Night Fever and has already grossed $54 million. Ironically, Airplane! got off the ground only after five years, 30 script rewrites and resisting studio pressure to use billable comedians like Chevy Chase and/or Bill Murray. “The heart of the movie was the casting,” says Jim Abrahams, 36, who created it with two fellow Milwaukee film nuts, David Zucker, 32, and his brother, Jerry, 30, previously responsible for Kentucky Fried Movie. Adds David: “We wanted to get actors with images far away from comedy.” Thus the characters include stone-faced Peter Graves as a pederastic pilot whose food poisoning triggers the mid-flight crisis. Staid Leslie Nielsen is a doctor who assures passengers of their safety while his nose grows like Pinocchio’s. Lloyd Bridges plays a glue-sniffing airport manager, and Robert Stack is a demented ground officer who won’t turn on the field’s landing lights because “that’s just what they’re expecting us to do.” But it’s Hollywood newcomers Robert Hays, as an aero-phobic ex-pilot, and Julie Hagerty, as the stew who loves him, who deliver most of the zingers. And Airplane!, they now find, is wafting their own careers to dizzying new possibilities.

Robert Hays: Fame is his new co-pilot

Robert Hays, 32, wasn’t completely winging it as Airplane!’s feverishly flaky pilot who barrels in for a landing with a vulture clutching his shoulder. An aviator for three years, he numbers among his buddies such fly-boy stars as Christopher Reeve and John Travolta. “Chris has always been a hustler,” says Hays of the pal he knew pre-Superman. “He’d go to Hollywood and take meetings, and I wouldn’t. But now we’re both achieving things in the same area. The same with John,” he continues. Then he laughs, “Of course, both those guys are bigger than I am. I’m just a little punk hanging out.”

The self-deprecation is characteristic, perhaps, but no longer justified. Hays has zoomed from Airplane! into his second feature, Take This Job and Shove It, based on the Johnny Paycheck song, now shooting in Iowa with Art Carney. Hays’ fee per movie has zoomed tenfold. That’s a heady change for a guy whose major previous credit was the ill-fated ABC sitcom Angle—which he claims nearly cost him his seat in Airplane! “My screen test was better than anyone else’s,” says Hays. “Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker wanted me. Then they went home and watched Angle—and hung their heads in horror. They thought they had made a terrible mistake.”

Hays doesn’t blame them for their reaction to his once stuffy TV role. “Angie was originally about a feisty ballbuster and a wimpy guy,” Robert admits. “But then it turned into more fun, and we became a real family.” Rumors said he was more than a pal to co-star Donna Pescow, but they both laugh off the suggestion. “Bob is terrific,” says Donna. “We have a great friendship, and it’s difficult for people to accept it’s just that.” He also sometimes squires singer Maureen (The Morning After) McGovern, who plays a nun in Airplane! But Hays says his real girlfriend is high school sweetheart Terry Becker, who joined him on his Iowa location.

“I’ve never really lived with someone. We’ve had separate places but stayed with each other,” says Hays. “I like my independence and I suppose I’m afraid of the responsibility of a relationship. I’m very selfish because my work requires me to pay a lot of attention to myself. There are long gaps when Terry and I don’t see each other, but I can see myself getting serious with someone in a couple of years.”

That would be a major concession for the footloose Hays, who has been on the move since childhood. Born in Bethesda, Md., to a Marine colonel fighter pilot and a housewife, Bob and his older sister, Lynn, lived on both coasts and in the Midwest but never anyplace very long. Shy as a child, Hays recalls, “It always took time for me to make new friends.” At 10, he moved with his family to Izmir, Turkey for three years. “That was wonderful. We traveled through little towns and worked on being self-sufficient.”

After finally settling in San Diego (his parents now live in a house Bob helped his father build), Hays discovered acting at the local Grossmont College. To make ends meet, Bob cleaned the school gym (and used its shower) while living in a decrepit VW bus tagged “Buster.” He switched to San Diego State for a semester, then dropped out to join the city’s Old Globe Theatre. For six years, at $45 a week, he played everything from Shakespeare to Neil Simon. He finally landed a 1974 TV bit part in David Janssen’s Harry-O and moved to L.A., working steadily enough since in shows like Love Boat and Laverne & Shirley to resist TV commercials.

A year ago Bob bought a two-bedroom first home in Nichols Canyon in L.A. An antique rolltop desk reproduction and an upright piano he bought from Pam (Mork and Mindy) Dawber, whom he met when they filmed a syndicated TV movie, are among the bachelor abode’s sparse furnishings. Not that he’s home enough to care. Besides flying, Hays surfs, scuba dives, fences, rides horses, rock climbs and practices karate (he’s a brown belt). Work still comes first. He reunited with buddy Pescow for the upcoming NBC stock market crash movie The Day the Bubble Burst, but his own doesn’t seem likely to. “Buster” is still parked in the drive, though Hays may never need it again. “People are interested in me who weren’t before. The feeling of being wanted,” sighs Bob, “that’s real nice.”

Julie Hagerty: Making it without Bob Fosse

“No wonder you’re upset,” a grandmotherly fellow passenger tells lovelorn Hays after his tiff with stewardess Julie Hagerty in Airplane! “She’s lovely. And a darling figure. Supple, pouting breasts, firm thighs…” And, ahem, not to mention those blue eyes, a Botticelli face framed by a golden cinnamon mane, and a breathy vulnerability that melds something of Monroe with the young Judy Holliday. At 25, ex-model Hagerty’s only previous experience was eight weeks in two off-off-Broadway plays, but she showed no signs of inexperience on-screen. “She has a perfect comedy instinct,” lauds Airplane! co-creator Abrahams. “She’ll go far.”

It didn’t seem so two years ago when Julie auditioned for All That Jazz. She didn’t get the part, but she did get a callback from Jazz’s director, Bob Fosse. Since breaking up with his third wife, Gwen Verdon, in 1971, Fosse has tangoed with Jessica Lange, protégée Ann Reinking and a veritable conga line of dancers. He and Hagerty ended their two-year affair last April, and Julie still feels the effects. “I certainly learned a lot from him,” Julie manages. “He was a special person to me, but we haven’t talked since we split up.” Fosse now is seeing college student Liz Canney, but Julie remains unattached. “Some girls can go from one man to another,” she says, “but I’m not like that.”

Nor was she the kind to use such high-powered connections to further her career. One of 75 actresses who tried out for the Airplane! lead, she remembers being “terrified” when Paramount flew her to L.A. for her screen test. “I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t do anything,” says Julie, who celebrated landing the role by calling “everyone I have ever known.” During filming, Hays, “a real giving actor,” and the rest of the cast helped. The biggest problem, Julie says, was to keep from breaking up on the set. “Once I laughed so hard I cried and ruined my mascara.” Now that Airplane! is out, she’s had “a lot of ribbing from my friends,” including jokes about her risqué scenes with Otto, the inflatable autopilot dummy. “It was spooky,” says Julie. “I would get real embarrassed because he took on a personality of his own.”

The only daughter and youngest of three children born in Cincinnati’s ritzy Indian Hill suburb to a model-turned-mom and a jazz musician, Julie saw her parents split when she was 3. Her mother remarried twice, but the divorces, Hagerty says, weren’t that upsetting. “It was like, ‘Oh, boy, another dad.’ ” Though her family was well-to-do, Julie was shy (like Hays) and fat—once hitting 155. One problem was her mother’s Southern cooking: “ham hocks, cornbread and stuff like that.”

Still, at 15, Julie was sufficiently slender to catch the eye of modeling mogul Eileen Ford while working as a “teen board” mannequin in a Cincinnati department store. “I had never heard of her and went to the library and looked her up,” says Julie, who spent a “wide-eyed” summer working for Ford and living at her house in New York. “There were some neat experiences,” Julie remembers. “Like I had never had red caviar and sour cream. It was a very elegant dinner party, and I thought it was Jell-O and whipped cream. I took a big bite and almost died.” Julie returned to New York after high school and later spent a more sophisticated year in Paris working for Johnny Casablancas (now the Ford agency’s chief rival), but during her six-year modeling career she “never got the glamorous jobs. I did catalogue stuff.” She finally mustered courage to audition at the Production Company, a small theater her actor brother, Michael, 29, helped start. An agent caught her performance and booked her into the Airplane! audition.

After her five-month sojourn in L.A., Julie now sublets a two-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment. At first her phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook, so she started speech lessons, took up karate to “get the tension out” and sold ads for her brother’s theater programs—”anything to keep it going.” With Airplanel’s release, however, her career has begun to soar, and she now has a lead role in the upcoming NBC movie Every Wednesday. After filming, Julie plans a break, but for now there’s lots to learn. “We’re having a hoot,” says Julie. “The director’s real patient,” she adds, “because I still don’t know what I’m doing.”