Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, and why they went their separate ways as directors

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It’s not often you see three directors credited with a run of movies – but comedy directorial legends Zucker Abrahams Zucker ultimately had to go their own way.

From Kentucky Fried Movie through to Ruthless People, the team of Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams in their own way ripped up the Hollywood textbook. After all, when it comes to directing movies, you expect to see one name listed. Occasionally – and there’s usually a reason for it – a project is co-directed by two people (on the 90s comedy Fierce Creatures, for instance, Terence Young all but directed the movie, but wasn’t available for reshoots. Fred Schepisi stepped in, and shared credit).

But three people credited with directing not just one movie, but four? Including flat-out comedy classics Airplane! and Top Secret? Well that just wasn’t supposed to happen. Not least without falling out.

After 1986’s Ruthless People, though, the trio would never co-direct again. Instead, Jerry Zucker would helm movies such as Ghost and First Knight. Jim Abrahams made the Hot Shots! movies and Big Business. David Zucker directed the first two Naked Gun! movies, as well as the underrated Baseketball, and some best forgotten Scary Movie sequels.

Why, then, the split? A couple of reasons. Firstly, as you might expect, they were ready to head off in different directions. “After a while, it became too many guys sitting in the same chair” David Zucker told Premiere magazine back in 1988.

But there was also a fiscal issue too to consider. In that one directing salary had to be split three ways each time. Studios weren’t paying three times the fee for three times the number of directors. In the case of Ruthless People too, the trio came up against studio accounting. In spite of being a generous box office hit, two years after the film’s release, the trio hadn’t seen any of the profits generated.

As such, they realised they couldn’t rely on a cut of the profits to pay the bills and make up the three way split they were taking up front. The confluence of circumstances led to one of contemporary cinema’s most successful comedy teams going off in slightly different directions.

They still overlapped. The Naked Gun trilogy was an extension of their Police Squad! television series, and thus Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams had producer hats on. That said, when Jim Abrahams went off and explored the spoof genre himself with the two Hot Shots! films, there wasn’t a Zucker in sight. Even then, there’s still been the occasional overlap, with Jim Abrahams one of the screenwriters on David Zucker’s Scary Movie 4.

As such, this was no story of a Hollywood falling out. Rather, as a trio of directors, they took things as far as they logically could. And – I’m going out on a limb here – no trio since has directed four Hollywood features in a row. Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments…

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