Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Before I knew who they were

There are many pleasures to revisiting a favorite movie you haven't watched in 20 years, but one of the most delightful is seeing actors you didn't realize were in it because you didn't know who they were at the time.

Case in point: Airplane II, which my wife and I watched on Sunday night. I watched this movie almost as much as I watched Airplane! when I was growing up (I had both on VHS, having copied them off cable), but my wife had never seen it. So something like my tenth viewing, first since the late 1980s, excited me not only because I wanted to share the movie with her. And not only because we'd just revisited the original about three weeks ago. And not only because of William Shatner.

But I also wanted to see if what a friend of mine recently told me is true: We may not realize it, but when we still, to this day, quote Airplane!, more of our quotes are actually from Airplane II. Airplane! just gets all the credit, because, as the first movie and an undisputed classic, it's "obviously" better. It seems crazy to think this, but for my money, the two are close enough in quality that this proclivity of ours (if true) is not blasphemy.

I won't comment on that, in part because it would be hard for me to come up with a definitive list of our favorite quotes from these movies and determine which ones are from which. Except to say that my friend's instinct seems right. I think the movies are able to blend together so seamlessly because they got almost the entire cast to return from the original movie, the only prominent exceptions being Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen. Of course, in just ten minutes of screen time, the aforementioned Mr. Shatner more than compensates for the both of them. ("No tower? WHY THE HELL AREN'T I NOTIFIED ABOUT THESE THINGS?!")

But back to the original point. I kept seeing familiar faces pop in Airplane II, though only now are they familiar to me. Here's a short list:

Who: John Vernon
Where I first met him: National Lampoon's Animal House
Who he plays in Airplane II: Dr. Stone, Ted Striker's doctor at the mental hospital, who "doesn't do impressions"

I now think it's safe to say I haven't seen Airplane II since before I went to college, because it was my freshman year in college (1991) when I saw Animal House for the first time. (And then saw it about ten more times before the end of the year.) If I had seen Airplane II since then, I would have had that "Hey, that's Dean Wormer!" moment before now. In retrospect, I can imagine that Vernon must have seemed familiar to me in some way, but I don't think I consciously acknowledged that I recognized him from Airplane II. And in this case I would have, because he doesn't just blend into the scenery like at least one other person I'm going to mention here.

Who: Rip Torn
Where I first met him: Defending Your Life
Who he plays in Airplane II: Bud Krueger, one of the bigwigs behind the shuttle program, who is "familiar with" the Des Moines Institute (which specializes in treating impotence)

Coincidentally, 1991 was also the year that I saw and fell in love with the wonderful Albert Brooks film Defending Your Life, where Torn plays Brooks' afterlife attorney, who is going to try to make the case that Brooks should get into heaven (rather than going back to Earth for another human life, where he'll try to be a more self-actualized person). Torn is pretty hilarious in that film, displaying a kind of daffy disinterest in whether Brooks is successful in his case. Yet more proof that I have not seen Airplane II since 1991.

Who: Oliver Robins
Where I first met him: Poltergeist
Who he plays in Airplane II: Jimmy Wilson, owner of Scraps, "a boy dog"

Okay, I saw Poltergeist in the theater, so I saw Robins getting sucked into the tree outside his window long before I saw him board the shuttle in Airplane II (which came out the same year as Poltergeist, but which I did not see until it was on cable). Come to think of it, my Poltergeist screening was probably on a re-release, but that still wouldn't have been any later than 1985. I just don't think I made the connection that Jimmy Wilson was also Robbie Freeling. Or maybe I just did my best to block the terrifying Poltergeist, probably the single most frightening experience I've ever had at the movies, out of my memory. Especially the tree scene.

Who: David Paymer
Where I first met him: Quiz Show? The American President? Get Shorty?
Who he plays in Airplane II: A court photographer, who takes a couple pictures of Striker (literally -- he is handed one from a manila folder)

Paymer is one of those character actors who has not really had one defining role, so it's likely that he just seeped into my awareness over time. But I definitely wasn't aware of him until the mid-1990s or later. Even if I had been aware of him, though, it's very likely that I could have overlooked him. His role in Airplane II is of the "blink and you'll miss it" variety.

Who: Pat Sajak
Where I first met him: Wheel of Fortune
Who he plays in Airplane II: An anchor reporting on the impending shuttle disaster, working out of the thriving metropolis of Buffalo, NY

Okay, I think I did know that Vanna White's partner in crime was in Airplane II. But I'd forgotten. So the delightful feeling of discovery was similar. Even though I really, really don't like Wheel of Fortune.

Okay, that's just about enough of that.


Nick Prigge said...

It's funny about this post - I remember always thinking the scene where the guy in the space shuttle opens the window (I thought it was the airplane window) and tries to toss out his cigarette was in the first one until I finally saw the second one again and realized I had it wrong.

Oh, and I love it when Jack Jones turns up singing the "Love Boat" theme song. Classic.

Vancetastic said...

Well, there was probably a good reason you thought that, which is that a passenger opening a window in outer space would immediately kill everyone aboard. Of course, if you're trying to apply the ordinary natural rules to the Airplane movies, you will be sorely disappointed.