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The actor: Dashing leading man Robert Hays is best known as the protagonist of 1980’s Airplane!, a classic that spawned an entire genre of joke-a-second spoofs and inspired a sequel, 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel. (Airplane! recently debuted on Blu-ray.) Hays followed up Airplane! with a string of vehicles that failed to catch on with critics or audiences, such as 1981’s Take This Job And Shove It and 1983’s Trenchcoat, before finding another memorable role as the title character of the television adaptation of John Carpenter’s Starman, which ran from 1986 to 1987. He’s gone on to work consistently as an actor and voiceover artist, including a stint as the voice of the title character in the ’90s cartoon adaptation of Iron Man.
Airplane (1980)—“Ted Striker”
Robert Hays: Oh, boy. I read the script while I was on a plane going back to Minneapolis-St. Paul for ABC. There was something on every single page that made me laugh out loud. And then doing the show itself—I went in and met with the guys the following week and just had the greatest time. They were the greatest guys. We got along wonderfully. They liked my reading, they liked the screen test, obviously. It was done with Julie [Hagerty]. Then we got on the set and started working and it was just the greatest experience. It was wonderful.
The A.V. Club: When you read the screenplay, did you get the sense that this was a different kind of comedy? That there was a density to it?
RH: I was already kind of that insane, I think. [Laughs.] It seemed like very normal and funny to me. But it really was refreshingly surprising, sometimes, the way things catch you off guard and make you laugh. That’s kind of what this was, for me.
AVC: Airplane has three directors. How was the job of direction split up?
RH: With them, it was great. Jerry Zucker was out next to camera and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams were back either on location in a little trailer or, when we were in the studio, in a little room off back a ways with the video feed so they could look at what the film was actually going to look like. Then they would confer after each take, and if they all agreed that was good, “Yeah, we got everything good,” and that was a print. It’s like three different bodies with one brain, they all think alike. They do this thing where they’ll start talking and one will say half a line and the other will finish the line. They all think so much alike, so it was great. It wasn’t hard at all.
AVC: Did they tell you to play it straight?
RH: That’s what they wanted. That, I think, is one of the most important parts, the most important ingredients, of the whole thing. The most important is the script and what they wrote, and then after that would come to play it straight. I think I was really into doing it that way, I think everybody got into that. It was why it pulled it off. That’s what they wanted.
AVC: Your character, in particular, had a willful obliviousness in that people are committing suicide next to him, five or six over the course of the film, and he never notices, which seems like a difficult thing to play completely straight.
RH: Yeah. When Jesse [Emmett] in the turban, when he douses himself with the gasoline and when Lorna Patterson asks me to come up to the cockpit, you know, “The cockpit.” “What is it?” “It’s a little room where the pilot sits, but that’s not important.” When I leave he blows out the match and he heaves a sigh of relief and drops his hand into his lap and then in the background you hear that the match ignited and it all explodes. There’s never any indication of anyone ever hearing that, no other passengers, there’s no hole in the plane, there’s no black scorch mark. I just love that.
AVC: Rewatching the film, I was struck by how many of the jokes are non-sequiturs.
RH: And don’t you think that bangs up against each other, each one of those non-sequiturs, which is part of what makes it funny?
AVC: Definitely, it builds up a rhythm, “joke, joke, joke, joke, joke” so even if a joke doesn’t work, you’re on to the next one. So after Airplane!, which was a huge, huge hit, were you inundated with offers?
RH: Yeah, I went through a really wonderful period of life where I would have stacks of scripts and I could pick out what I wanted to do. It was all so exciting, and when I look back on it, I’ve talked about it with people, there are choices that you make—there are films I could have chosen that would have probably been better for me in the long run for a career. But I had a lot of fun doing all the things that I did.
AVC: Is there anything you regret having not taken?
RH: I kept having all these offers to star in all these films. What I could have done was, it has been suggested to me and there might be something to this, that I could have taken another direction instead and pursue a role that wasn’t offered to me, but pursue it in a bigger film, but a smaller role in a bigger film. And I might have had a different kind of career. As it is, I’ve had a really wonderful career and have been really blessed, but it might have been different.
Take This Job And Shove It (1981)—“Frank Macklin”
RH: That was based on the country-Western song that David Allan Coe wrote and Johnny Paycheck sang it. David Allan played Mooney, the owner of Mooney’s Bar, where we have the big toilet paper… Use that as a football, and had a football game inside the bar. The guy who comes out with a platter full of hamburgers and sees it and throws them in the air, disgusted, and turns around, that’s Johnny Paycheck. But it was fun. Working with Art Carney, ay-yi-yi, it was incredible. And Barbara Hershey. Tim Thomerson’s an old buddy of mine. Royal Dano was in that. God, one of the great old character actors of all time. It was really fun. It was really hard. It was six days a week and I was in every scene. I had one day off and I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the set. It was really, physically, just in terms of time and the long hours, it was a really exhausting show.
AVC: Were you a big country music fan before you signed on?
RH: Not really all that much. I became more so after that and then since then have gotten even more into it. It was a lot of fun doing that and getting work with those people, that was great.
AVC: When you were working on Take This Job And Shove It, were you ever tempted to quit in a huff for the dramatic irony of it?
RH: [Laughs.] Actually, I can’t remember doing that, although, just as a joke, we may have. We were in a brewery, so there was a lot of beer that was consumed on that show, and there’s a scene in it where David Keith, Tim Thomerson, and I are at Tim’s place, in the backyard, in his white-trash place with all the junk in the backyard. Tim’s in the tub and he’s got a cat laying on his chest and they’re drinking beer and I come up, and I’ve come back to my home town but I’m different, they don’t feel like I’m the same guy anymore, so I’m trying to convince them that everything’s still the same. So we’re drinking and we told the director, “We’re going to drink through this whole scene. Can we shoot it in sequence?” So we did. The only thing that wasn’t real was the half a bottle of Jack that I downed. That was tea, that was stage liquor. The rest of it was all real. At the end of that, staying in character, both those guys were absolutely, staggeringly blotto. I went around and made sure we got all their bags out of their motor home, got everybody in the van back to the hotel, got everybody in, made sure it was all taken care, got back to the hotel, and then I collapsed.
AVC: You were the responsible one.
RH: Actually, we went into the bar to celebrate how good the shooting went that day.
Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)—“Ted Striker”
RH: Ken Finkleman wrote that one and directed that. It was really a lot of fun. Ken was a very funny guy and had some really fun and good ideas. There was an entire sequence—I wish that they would re-release that one also, with the deleted scenes—there was an entire sequence with the French Foreign Legion that we shot, where I ended up after Mucho Grande. I end up with the French Foreign Legion and I wind up being in charge because of my prior command experience. I’m leading all these guys with camels over the desert, and we attack the tribes of whatever, and I bring them in too high because I kept remembering, “You’re too low, Striker, you’re too low.” And all my troops are wiped out, and camels and donkeys and everything. I’m the only one and I’m going across the desert and I wind up hearing something over the next sand dune, and there’s the beach and there’s Annette Funicello and there’s Julie [Hagerty] and all these people, like a Beach Blanket Bingo scene, the whole surfing deal, everything. That whole scene was cut, and it was great fun doing it! I wish they’d release both of them as a box set and have all the deleted scenes. I bet that would sell like hotcakes.
AVC: How do you feel the second holds up to the original?
RH: I think it’s good. Just from my own personal thing, I have such fond memories of the first one and because it was my first feature, and because of so many things. It’s my favorite. But the second one—there are a couple of little edits that I thought could have been a little tighter and I think the boys would have caught it. But those are so minor and so tiny. I think Ken did a really good job. I think if people don’t know about the first one they’d really laugh. The people that say they don’t like the second one as much, I think they would have laughed more had they not seen the first one.
AVC: There seems to be an innate prejudice against sequels, the idea being, “Why does this film have to exist?”
RH: Sequels were looked down upon, and that’s why we had that poster, when Sonny Bono goes in there to buy the magazine, the candy bar, and “I’ll take the third bomb on the left,” in the airport store. Behind him, in the background, is a big poster with a little bald guy with flag shorts and boxing gloves and it says Rocky 38. It was really looked down upon, and people in the media would say, “So Robert ‘Airplane’ Hays, you think you’ll ever do anything besides Airplane?” They were really getting down on me. Nowadays it’s called a franchise.
Trenchcoat (1983)—“Terry Leonard”
RH: Trenchcoat with Margot Kidder. We shot that in Malta. We were over there for, I think it was two and a half months. Someone who had worked on some film with Michael Caine, he was sitting with the press and the press said, “Michael, what’s the one thing you shouldn’t miss when you’re in Malta?” And he said, [adopts English accent] “The plane out.” For me, I had a wonderful time. It was full of so much history and the ancient ruins and all the archeology, and I love all that stuff. I had a great time. David Suchet was terrific and our director was a lot of fun. We had a good time.
Utilities (1983)—“Bob Hunt”
RH: That was up in Canada, in Toronto. It was Brooke Adams, and Brooke was really great, she was wonderful. We had a lot of fun people in that. It was one of those films you get offered, it comes along, and you go, “Wow, great! Sounds like fun!” and you go up and do it. It was one of those films where I probably could have—you look back at your career choices, and there might have been a bigger film, more of an A-film or something where I could have maybe made a choice to do a smaller role in another film, which might have done more for me career-wise.
AVC: It sounds like you don’t have a lot of regrets as far as how your career has been conducted.
RH: No. Except for some extremely rare exceptions, I’m just thinking of one right now [Laughs]. I have a great time. It’s hard enough when you work on the set, the long hours, especially if you’re doing a lead in a show, you just get exhausted. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard work. I’ve had 22-hour days. It’s really, really tough. For me, when you have a good crew, you get along great, and everyone’s getting along well, you can accomplish so much more. You can get it done without the heart attacks and the ulcers. It really helps a lot.
AVC: What would be that one exception that springs to mind?
RH: One actress that was a bit difficult. I’ll leave it at that. [Laughs.]
Starman (1986-87)—“Paul Forrester”
RH: That wound up being, probably next to Airplane!—that would be my favorite thing television-wise, because it means so much to me and to all of us working together. We had a crew on that that was as tight as the crew on Airplane! in terms of, “We got only five seconds and we gotta get this shot!” Everyone worked together so hard and everybody helped each other and everybody felt like they were really a part of it. The lowliest member of the crew felt like he was every bit as important as everybody else. And that’s the way we all wanted it. I had a—it was almost a producer-type position, and an ownership position. All of us wanted that same feeling to go down to everybody. And it seemed to come to pass. When I was doing the press junket I had about 12 or 15 people lined up on the other side of these tables and I was in the middle there fielding questions from all of them. They were all really, really kind and nice. Good questions and interesting questions. But there was one woman who had her arms folded and she really had an attitude, and finally she asked a question. A real, kind of a snotty attitude. She asked, [in a nasally voice] “So, how do you like playing Jeff Bridges?” And everybody looked at her like, “Oh, dude. What a jerk.” And I kind of looked at her and said, “The guy is an alien, but even he knows that after 13 years Jeff Bridges’ body will smell pretty bad. So he took mine.” She, of course, just got really fuming, but everybody laughed and it wound up in all the newspapers that they were representing all over the country. That was the only asinine question I had from anybody, and rude.
But everybody else was really wonderful. The way I figured it was, when he came back all these years later he still had to get used to the body and I tried to show that in the beginning of it, but very quickly I wanted to get to where he had some prior knowledge of having the body, of moving the body, so he became more normal a little quicker than it did with Jeff Bridges. We also had to be very careful, because every time I learned something, then I had to know it from then on. Unlike Airplane! where you could do something and there’s no mention of it later, one second alter you can be like it never happened. So with this, if I learned what something was, then I knew what that was from then on in the show. So we had to be very careful how to parse out the little things that were new to me. I just absolutely loved that show. I loved everybody on it, and the cast. It remains one of the most special things in my life.