Why the plan for Airplane! 3 never happened

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Plans were already afoot for a Airplane! 3 as the second movie was set to be released – but two factors would stop it happening.

When Airplane! became a surprise hit – and then some – at the box office back in 1980, Paramount Pictures was taken aback. The film had cost a modest $3.5m to make – including the rights to the film Zero Hour of which it was an effective remake – and the returns came in at $158m. Plus the film keeps making money to this day. It used to be the go-to film for UK TV schedulers for the end of Christmas Day, for a start.

In an era where a follow-up was hardly commonplace, Paramount quite fancied some more money. As such, it pressed ahead with the idea of a sequel, and asked its then-young creative trio – writer/directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker – if they could put one together.

Whilst they considered the option, and were said to be initially interested, they decided it wasn’t for them. Furthermore, they thought the idea of a sequel was a bad one, and protested the idea of it. Paramount, though, felt it was a no-brainer, and against the wishes of the filmmakers, pressed ahead with the project.

The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team may not have been, though, but the core cast was game for another cheque, and another adventure.

As such, Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges duly signed up – although Leslie Nielsen didn’t (he opted to make Police Squad! with the ZAZ team instead) – with Ken Finkleman hired to write and direct the film (he’d written Grease 2 for the studio, and Airplane II was to be his directorial debut).

What’s more, Paramount – buoyed by the extraordinary profits of the first film – had its eye firmly on a trilogy. The plan was to release the second film, and then leave the door open for a third. As such, when the sequel arrived in cinemas on December 10th 1982 in the US, it came with the following at the end of its credits…

It was played for a joke, with William Shatner spitting out the line “that’s exactly what they’ll be expecting us to do”. But Paramount was deathly serious: it was looking for another film. It had informed the creative team of the plan, with the expectation they’d return for the new movie.

What hampered those efforts were two factors. Firstly, the significant box office depreciation between movie one and two. The sequel cost four times as much money to make – the final bill before marketing and distribution sat at $15m – and made but a fraction of its box office. Off the back of pretty hostile reviews, the film took just $27.2m – over $100m down on the first. It’d still make a profit, but just a modest one. The Zucker Abrahams Zucker team would declare in more recent times that they’ve never watched a frame of it.

For all the criticism aimed at Airplane II – The Sequel, it should be noted that it has a quite wonderful sight gag in its midst. One of the finest of all time, goes the argument, and we ain’t disagreeing.

Whilst common belief remains that Airplane 3 as a project died when the grosses for the second film came in, though, a different perspective was put forward by Robert Hays – who played Ted Striker, of course – in an interview with Moviefone back in 2011 (an interview that’s no longer on its site, else we’d link to it). For here is the second reason the film never happened.

In said chat, Hays revealed his nervousness about doing a further follow-up, and ultimately, his reluctance – combined with the box office disappointment of the second – ended the project’s chances.

“It was very close”, he admitted, when chatting about the possibly of a third movie. “You have to understand the atmosphere, 31 years ago. Sequels were frowned upon. You were really looked down upon if you did sequels – that was all you could do, you can’t do anything else. They’d go ‘oh, Robert Airplane Hays, you ever gonna do something besides Airplane?’”

“I was doing other films, it’s just that was the attitude that they took. Nowadays, sequels are called franchises. Now they look for them”.

As such, he took on a movie by the name of Scandalous, that he was shooting in London. Directed by Rob Cohen – who would go on to make The Fast & The Furious – the film gave him a lead role. Whilst he was shooting that, Paramount was chatting to him about a deal for the next Airplane. But Hays ultimately wasn’t keen, as the pressure to a sequel kept building.

“I was being ragged on by the press a lot when I’d go to events and the paparazzi’s there, and they would rag on me. I said ‘nah, don’t want to do it’”.

“Of course all that did was raise the price more and more and more. When finally I said ‘I’m not going to do it’ that was it, they didn’t do it”.

It was a decision he would come to regret. “Of course, I wish we had done it”, he said in hindsight. “but you know, that was then and this is now”.

Paramount, to its credit, kept the card at the end of the movie, teasing forever more a third film that’s not going to happen. But given that it had covered itself with the Shatner line, the vast majority watching now see it as that, one final joke. Whereas once upon a time, it was a very real possibility…

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