Today marks the anniversary of the release of Airplane!, one of the funniest comedies of the last several decades. A comedic remake of the 1957 melodrama Zero Hour!, Airplane! redefined cinematic comedy, for better and for worse, for years to come. Watching it today, it seems hard not to think of anyone else but Robert Hayes leading the ensemble of actors as war-scarred Army pilot Ted Stryker. But there is at least one other person who was up for the role that may surprise fans of the film – David Letterman.
The audition happened during the film’s casting process in 1979. At this point in his career, Letterman had been in Los Angeles for several years already, working first as a standup comic and then as a writer and performer on both of Mary Tyler Moore’s 1978 and 1979 variety shows. He had had several appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and the previous year had become one of the guest-hosts who would step in when Carson would take vacation. Letterman was enough of a heavyweight in the Los Angeles comedy scene that participating in the comedians’ strike against local venue The Comedy Store and owner Mitzi Shore lent credibility and visibility to the action.
When writer/director trio Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker appeared on Letterman’s late night talk show in March of 1982 ostensibly to promote their upcoming television series Police Squad!, they brought along the screen test to show America and a very uncomfortable Letterman.
Here’s their complete appearance on Late Show, with the screen test coming at the 6:50 mark –
First off, compared to Hayes’ performance in the film, it is easy to see why Letterman didn’t get the role. Letterman is just rushing through his lines, not giving them the dramatic read that helps sell the comedy of the scene. He also doesn’t have any real chemistry with the actress he is reading against here, compared to Hayes and his co-star Julie Hagerty.
Interestingly enough, this was not the first time that Letterman had auditioned for Zucker-Abrams-Zucker. He was previously up for the part of the newsman in the trio’s sketch comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie, which was directed by John Landis. Given the tone of the jokes in the cutaways to the news anchor (“Moscow in flames, missiles headed toward New York. Film at eleven.”), that role seems like a better fit for Letterman than the Ted Stryker part ever was.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that the right choices were made all around. Within a year, Letterman would start hosting the short-lived morning talk show for NBC that would lead to his groundbreaking Late Night with David Letterman. And Late Night would be just as influential on comedy in its own way as Airplane! was.
It would 14 more years before Letterman would appear on the silver screen. For a small cameo role in former Letterman show writer/performer Chris Elliot’s comedy Cabin Boy, he would be billed as “Earl Hofert.” It would be a nom de screen he would use when he lent his voice to Mike Judge’s 1996 Beavis And Butthead Do America. Every other film appearance Letterman would make would be playing himself as in movies like Private Parts and Man On The Moon.