The Story Behind The Rejected Airplane Sequel That Could Have Been

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Written By Maya Cantina

One of the best comedies known to this species, or any existing amidst the cosmos, Airplane! was the movie that made brothers Jerry and David Zucker, along with co-writer/co-director Jim Abrahams, into comedy legends. An off-kilter remake of Zero Hour, the picture would turn its creators into overnight sensations, leading studio management at Paramount Pictures to almost instantly want a sequel.

While we did end up with Airplane II: The Sequel, it was nowhere near where the team known as ZAZ wanted to go. In fact, their original sequel pitch was so wild, I’m still mad it never happened; and I only learned about its existence as recently as I realized that Airplane’s run time is somehow under 90 minutes! Here now is the story behind the Airplane sequel Paramount couldn’t refuse… but did. 

(Image credit: Paramount)

How Airplane Made The Zucker Brothers And Jim Abrahams

This history lesson comes from a recent book I highly recommend: Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane! Through newly collected anecdotes and archival interviews, The Zucker Brothers and Abrahams recall their journey making their name, and making this iconic movie.

With the gang landing a surprise smash with Airplane! in 1980, Paramount’s big whigs undoubtedly wanted to make another round of magic happen. Which is only wilder when you consider that this classic went through years of development with Jerry, David, and Jim had worked on for years; which then led to the arduous process of finding it a home.

Cut to this post-release frenzy, which saw former CEO Charles Bluhdorn pitching hard to keep ZAZ on the lot. A mood that laid out the path for Airplane II’s first incarnation to take a very prolific Paramount movie as its inspiration for what could have been a wild sequel. 

The Story Behind The Rejected Airplane Sequel That Could Have Been

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

The Original Pitch For Airplane II

As the wheels started to turn on Airplane’s proposed sequel, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams went from no idea to one hell of a pitch. The ingenuity reflected in this concept was something Abrahams highlighted in Surely You Can’t Be Serious, as he admitted that the group had “pretty much run out of airplane jokes” after one movie. Through the personal accounts of the Zucker Brothers, here’s the idea that could have been Airplane II:  

David Zucker: At first we had no interest in that, but then we actually came up with an idea that we really liked: after Striker and Elaine fly down the plane at the end of the first movie, they want to get married, so Striker takes Elaine to meet his family, and it’s the Corleones. 

Jerry Zucker: We wanted to do Airplane II: The Godfather. The poster would be the twisted plane dangling on puppet strings, like the logo for The Godfather.

Honestly, this is exactly what I would have expected from the ZAZ team when it came to Airplane II. The possibilities are endless too, as Paramount could have probably propositioned legacy cast members, or even actors shortlisted as potential The Godfather cast members, to play the Corleone family. 

Also, seeing Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty playing their way through a mafia themed spoof is practically comedy gold. Throw in the potential to work in Dr. Rumack (Leslie Nielsen) as the family doctor, and you can see where things could have really cooked. 

Unfortunately, all that exists for this pitch are these remarks, and a quick mockup of that poster concept included in Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane! That’s all anyone should need to see that imagining the fun that could have been had by all with Airplane II: The Godfather is still a pretty big treat. 

So naturally, you’re probably wondering what could have possibly kept this all grounded? Well, prepare to get a bit upset, as there’s a somewhat reasonable, but still disappointing reason behind that.

The Story Behind The Rejected Airplane Sequel That Could Have Been

(Image credit: Paramount)

Why Airplane’s First Sequel Pitch Was Rejected

There’s something else you need to keep in mind when thinking back to the meteoric success of Airplane!, and that’s the fact two heavy hitting Hollywood types made up the film’s cheering section within the Paramount brass. Before they went on to revitalize the Walt Disney Company, and become bitter rivals as a result, then COO Michael Eisner and president of production Jeffrey Katzenberg helped fight to make the movie possible. 

Sadly, they were also part of the process that kept Airplane II’s initial form from coming to pass. Though it wasn’t because they didn’t like the idea. As Jerry Zucker explains in Surely You Can’t Be Serious, this very necessary hoop had to be jumped, but couldn’t be cleared: 

Eisner and Katzenberg loved the idea and thought it was really commercial. But they couldn’t say yes without talking to Francis Ford Coppola. The answer was a quick no, because he might want to do a third Godfather. I think everyone would have been better off if he had said yes.

Knowing what we know now, brushing off The Godfather Part III looks like it would have been the wiser move. Deemed a disappointment for numerous reasons, that 1991 sequel is still a long standing black mark on its own franchise; even with the existence of one of the most famous director’s cuts, 2020’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.

Nobody can argue that proper procedure was followed, and in the wake of 1974’s The Godfather Part II, that third installment still represented white hot potential. So Airplane II: The Godfather was sent to sleep with the fishes before it could get too far. Although the folks at Paramount still wanted that sequel, and in 1982 they’d get their wish; just in a way that they probably regretted after the fact. 

The Story Behind The Rejected Airplane Sequel That Could Have Been

(Image credit: Paramount)

The Airplane Sequel We Eventually Got

1982 was unintentionally the year that Paramount saw two sequels to superstar properties arrive, and almost instantly become black sheep of the family. And strangely enough, both Airplane II: The Sequel and Grease 2 have a common link between them: writer/director Ken Finkleman. 

The man tapped to go where the original creative teams didn’t want to tread, the writer’s version of an Airplane! follow-up took those “airplane jokes” and transferred them to a familiar venue for many a mediocre sequel: space. The reception, while bringing in grosses that did outweigh the production costs, was nothing to write home about. And though Grease 2 has earned its supporters over the years, Airplane II: The Sequel continues to fly under the radar; and for good reason. 

Through various interviews in the aftermath, co-writer/director Jim Abrahams’ more frank reasons for not watching the sequel have made the rounds. That point can’t be stressed enough, as Abrahams once again swears the following claim is still very true, thanks to this short and much more diplomatic remark in Surely You Can’t Be Serious

To this day, none of us have seen Airplane II.

No one could blame anyone involved with Airplane for souring on its sequel. That much is true, even with a handful of the original players, including Robert Hays, Julie Hagarty, Peter Graves, and Lloyd Bridges, returning for The Sequel. But perhaps the largest back that was turned on the Airplane franchise was that of its home studio, as Paramount almost made an Airplane III

The Story Behind The Rejected Airplane Sequel That Could Have Been

(Image credit: Paramount)

The Airplane Threequel We Never Got

Now here’s a third act I certainly didn’t expect. Apparently, Paramount was very hot on Airplane continuing to dominate in the comedy space, and those ambitions were laid out early enough that audiences were let in on the gag. Per the AFI Catalog’s history of Airplane II: The Sequel, here’s how this potential game plan was laid out:

After a well-attended “sneak” preview at the Cinerama Theater in San Diego, CA, on 29 Oct 1982, where several hundred Airplane! fans were turned away, Paramount approved a Jan 1983 production start date for Airplane III, according to [Daily Variety]. Release was scheduled for Summer 1983. However, Airplane II: The Sequel received generally lackluster reviews from critics for failing to match the charm of the original, and production on Airplane III did not move ahead.

As you’ll see at the head of this section, Airplane II: The Sequel ended with a title card that promised Airplane III would be “coming from Paramount.” Though it’s accompanied by a repeated gag that uses cast member William Shatner to couch it in a humorous coda, that intent was very much in play. Of course, if the second installment of Ted and Elaine’s disastrous romance was as widely rewatched as the first film, more people may have remembered this fact. 

I certainly didn’t, as while I’ve watched Airplane! so many times I have quotes burned into my memory, I think I’ve only seen The Sequel once. And that’s saying something, as the original movie is something that shaped my sense of humor as much as The Muppet Movie in my childhood. 

What could be considered the greatest sign of the continuing legacy of Airplane! is the fact that its subpar sequel hasn’t tarnished its predecessor. ;On its own, this would-be franchise starter’s production is a Cinderella story about how Jerry and David Zucker, along with Jim Abrahams, took a scrappy parody concept and made it into a comedy legend. 

Throughout the story woven in Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane!, that fairy tale is made all the more striking and exciting, as it details just how much work went into getting it all into the air. However, looking at the history of the sequels that could have been, that story becomes a bit more tragic. As with any rushed sequels, Airplane II: The Sequel dampens the legacy of that first movie, which is only all the more upsetting when plans for an Airplane III are brought into the fold. 

While the closest thing we’ll get to Airplane II: The Godfather is the Jim Abrahams’ own parody film Jane Austen’s Mafia, there is a silver lining to this concept never coming to pass. And that’s the fact that we don’t live in a universe where both The Godfather Part III and Airplane III occupy a list of the most hated sequels in a once promising movie series.

Before you go, it’d be rude of me to not include one final plug for Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True Story of Airplane! The book is currently available for purchase on Amazon, or wherever you pick up your in-flight reading materials. It’s not only able to be stored in most seatback pouches, but it also proclaims itself as “a book you can judge by it’s cover.” That claim is surely serious, just don’t call this book Shirley.

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