Comfortable and Furious

The ABC’s Of Airport: 1970-79


Abortion: Three years before Roe v. Wade, we had Dean Martin asking his co-pilot, ever so tenderly, about a procedure that would end a kid’s life, but pretty much save his marriage. You see, the abortion was for his mistress, and shit, man, he’s too damn old to be a father again. This being the first Airport, we knew we’d be knee-deep in melodrama, but this was simply asking too much. It’s a sad, reflective Dino, and we want him so cocksure he’d be leaving dozens of knocked up broads in his wake. A girl in every port, with a shattered heart to match. But is this love?

Man, I just want to get to Rome in one piece and, this being 1970, I paid $13,000 for the privilege. Keep your eyes, ears, and fucking mind on the flight, not some girl two decades your junior with a bun in the oven. The last pilot I remember who had shit on his mind crashed that goddamn thing in the sea on the way to Egypt. Still, kudos to a disaster movie for changing the culture. It would be like The Poseidon Adventure clearing the way for gay marriage. Which it did, by the way.

Bad Health: While it’s likely you could fly twice a day, every day, for the next 75 years and not experience a crash, it’s just as likely you could fly six times a day, every day, for several centuries and not share an airplane with a dying child. But in a series with only four installments, shit happens twice. In Airport 1975, it’s Linda Blair. She needs a kidney, and fast, and she’s so tender she can barely be moved without someone fearing she’ll topple over into instant death. And yet, no one seems to mind her being assaulted by a gal like Helen Reddy.

Fortunately, the kid is so chipper and can-do that she appears to rally, even as the plane dips and dives and damn near frees up the waiting organ for a more worthy recipient. Then, in the Concorde finale, it’s Cicely Tyson’s son, and he’s so fragile he needs a new heart. Here’s the rub, though: this time, the organ itself is on board. Supersonic flight for a kid with but hours to live. Now, I ask you: who puts a frozen heart on the same plane as Jimmie Walker? Jane Pittman should have given J.J. the once over and just steadied her nerves for an early funeral.

Catholicism: Airport 1975 had Helen Reddy, as we’ve mentioned, and given that it’s the nasty wench behind I Am Woman, her job is to sing. Nuns are like that; guitar-strumming extroverts who roar with pleasure, even in full habit. Before Helen’s turn, though, there was Father Steven Lonigan, only he was no musician. Just a dick, nothing more. For a man of the cloth, he sure is trigger-happy, and when not crossing himself for permission, he’s smacking the shit out of unruly passengers.

There’s always confession to unburden the guilt. Still, let’s get down to the real issue: have you ever seen a priest in full collar or a nun in full habit on an airplane? I thought not. I mean, where the hell would they be going? And aren’t they really bus people under the skin? Yet the Airport series is chock full of them, asking us to believe that they criss-cross the globe spreading the gospel. But if we’re also talking faith and the power of Jesus, why on earth does God pick on planes with His earthly instruments aboard? Was he tired and confused after taking out Jim Croce and Lynyrd Skynyrd? Given that the planes eventually land safely, one might argue the power of prayer worked its wonders, but that begs the question: does the creator of the universe really need to put a mother and her son’s new heart through holy hell, just to prove a point? My boyhood atheism begins and ends here.

Davidson, John: From 1970 to 1982, no one on planet earth could match J.D. for looks, charm, and, above all, hair. Before he set the world on fire with That’s Incredible!, he gave us Robert Palmer, a simply irresistible reporter who just happened to be on the one plane in Christendom to be attacked by terrorism TWICE in the same twenty-four hour period. Throughout, his glorious, unmatched locks remain the calmest, steadiest hand on the entire Concorde, and had George Kennedy not been in charge, few doubt that the hair alone would have landed that fucking plane. Speed of sound? Please.

Upside-down, nose-diving terror? What else you got? Not a single strand out of place, even when the rest of the passengers all but tore each other to pieces with panic. While occasionally betraying a smidgen of fear, Davidson remained, on the whole, a smiling, reassuring slab of disco-era manhood, and we loved him like a brother. A brother we’d pay good money to see naked, but a sibling-in-arms nonetheless. Sadly, Airport ‘79 was the final installment, but count me as the first (and perhaps only) to believe that he should have been in the catbird seat for Airport ‘82. I don’t even care if he had a pilot’s license. Just once more, for old time’s sake. Before the receding hairline set in.

Erik Estrada: Before CHIPs, there was Julio. Bucking every stereotype of the age, he was a Latino who loved the ladies, even at the expense of his skill in the cockpit. If there’s a stewardess, he’s flirting with her. If there are two, he’s asking to fuck them both in a cheap motel. Why he’s part of a crew that’s asked to get 200+ safely from here to there is beyond me, but some say he had sex appeal. Enough, anyway, to compensate for his total lack of familiarity with the modern airplane. For Airport 1975, he’s but a distraction; a way station from life to death. Consider that it seemed a far better idea to have a moronic cocktail waitress in the sky land the plane than a Mexican. Shit, not even Braniff would have him.

Freeman, Scott: You’re a successful businessman. You are rich enough to own your own Beechcraft Baron. You’re portrayed by Dana Andrews, for chrissakes, a man’s man if there ever was one. You have deals to close, and Boise is but a brief flight away. But you’re also short of breath. More so than usual. You have numbness and tingling down your left arm, and you’re sweating like a pig in heat. There’s also what feels like a boulder on your chest. And that dizziness? Hell, it’ll pass. Pale, sickly, and in need of immediate hospitalization? Who are you, my mother? Most men would find the nearest ER. This being Airport 1975, the man just described crawls into the cockpit of an airplane and takes flight.

Can’t let a little death warning keep him from making an extra dollar. In a story turn as predictable as a Patroni sex joke, Mr. Freeman suffers a heart attack in the air. Not just a cardiac arrhythmia, mind you, but, like, the worst heart attack in the history of the world. There’s talk his ticker all but exploded. So naturally, his fucking infarction puts hundreds at risk. And in the vast ocean of sky above Salt Lake City, his little mosquito crashes into the cockpit of a massive 747. The odds are incalculable, but there it is. That it would actually happen in real life a few years later is the cruelest of ironies. But we all know God takes his cues from Charlton Heston.

Gloria Swanson: Right around 1975, someone asked, “Anyone seen Gloria Swanson lately? I wonder what she’s up to.” Suddenly, there she was. Homeless, penniless, and bellowing endlessly about a need to play herself before the rot set in, Ms. Swanson begged the studio for the chance of a lifetime, or at least a final paycheck before the lightly attended funeral. No need for a script, dear, I’ll just talk about old times. Good lord, I have at least three hours’ worth of Cecil B. DeMille anecdotes alone.

And that was it. The ink barely dry, Gloria sunk her remaining teeth into the part, which consisted of nothing more than said anecdotes and endless reminders of how movies just aren’t the same since they introduced sound. Dignity intact, head held high, they saved the best for last, as the Sunset Boulevard star ended her appearance with an ass-over-tits dive into the evacuation slide. Let William Holden have his Towering Inferno, the bastard.

Honey: The next time you watch Airport 1975, do me a favor. If you haven’t seen it before, shame on you, but by all means, watch the thing. It demands your full attention. That out of the way, you can devote your next viewing (and there will be a next viewing, unless you’re clinically insane) to a drinking game. It involves Charlton Heston, so you know it’s legit. And while whiskey is preferred, tequila will do in a pinch. Set up a long row of shots, but leave room for a second, even longer row. Now wait. When Chuck appears, you’re set to begin. Just a minute, though, as we also need Karen Black.

Almost there. Okay, with shots ready to go, wait for the first declaration of “honey.” It might slip by in a flash, so pay attention. The first drink is the most important, because after that, you won’t be able to keep up. No back-up supply of liquor? You’re in trouble. But stay with it, as it will be a long night. Honey after honey, and you’re almost gone. If you’re one of the few, the proud, you’ll dance with the darkness. Fuck it, man, you’re going to die. No regrets.

In-flight Movies: It bears repeating that not a single flight in the series had one. What better way to ensure a safe arrival at one’s destination? I mean, not even God is enough of a prick to kill a man while sitting through Patch Adams.

Jerk: If you’re a pilot, you are one. If you’re a pilot in any of the Airport movies, you’ve pretty much applied for a patent. You use women like tissue, are so distracted by tits that you can’t see another plane right the fuck in front of you, and the brotherhood is so thick that even during a layover, your buddy is trying to get your ass laid. Flying leads to fucking, and so on and so forth. I’m starting to think these guys are just in it for the pussy. And while I’m on the subject, who the hell clears Dean Martin for takeoff?

Klingon: Four of these blasted movies, and only one Klingon. Still, he’s one of the good ones. Michael Pataki, to be exact, from the infamous The Trouble With Tribbles. While he’s not bearded and caked in bronzer like the era’s Klingons, he’s that guy. You know, the one who called James T. Kirk a Denebian slime devil and lived to tell the tale. Here, though, in the waterlogged Airport 77, he’s a nameless, faceless goon, and we don’t much care whether he remains good and dead on the ocean floor.

Lemmon, Jack: All things considered, probably my favorite actor who’s not Spencer Tracy. He’s good in everything, and few elevate crap like old John Uhler Lemmon III. But could he save Airport ‘77? Hell yes, even while sporting the least appropriate moustache in movie history. As always, he’s full of righteous fury, and though he doesn’t get a chance to land his plane, he’s the only actor alive (now dead) who could be expected to save all aboard despite the fucking thing being submerged somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle.

Sure, a just world wouldn’t require Billy Wilder’s favorite son to do this shit between Oscar nominations, but there’s a lot to be said for a man who gave this toilet paper of a script as much respect as if it were co-written by I.A.L. Diamond. The consummate professional, that one. And we just knew he’d have to be unconscious to surrender the controls. Of the plane, not his career.

Mountain Landing: You’re George Kennedy. You have the controls of the world’s fastest airliner. Even with the brakes applied, it’s running a cool 600 MPH. The nearest runway is a continent away. There’s talk you lack hydraulics, landing gear, and at least one engine. Fuck it, we’ll land on a mountain. The Alps? Sure, if that’s the best you’ve got. A runway of snow, hastily smoothed down by two or three Frenchmen with a single shovel? It’s 1979, you fool, I can do anything. Like Jesus’ dying breath, it is finished.

As if landing on an icy peak weren’t enough, he singlehandedly pulls everyone to safety. You know, before the plane explodes like a Hiroshima morning. But is it all enough to get a piece of the airline? Stock options for a life beyond the skies? You ruined our prized piece of machinery, you goddamn oaf, back to maintenance before you’re canned like grandma’s peaches.

Nancy Pryor: On the very day you’ll be serving tea and coffee to 196 angry as hell passengers, all with lives and families and stress to burn, you decide to break up with Moses himself. What the fuck you think God gonna do? And at the moment you think you gone and done it all yourself, like some triumph for feminism and shit, He be like, guess who be coming to save your bony ass? You got that right, the same damn Moses. You’re welcome.

Oscar: If you have one, you’re in the series. A mandate, like the studio contracts of old. Let’s check the roster: Mercedes McCambridge (All the King’s Men), Helen Hayes (she has two, but only the Airport triumph actually matters), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke), Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts and Save the Tiger), Lee Grant (Shampoo), Olivia de Havilland (To Each His Own and The Heiress), Jimmy Stewart (The Philadelphia Story), Chuck Heston (Ben-Hur), Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry), Van Heflin (Johnny Eager), Maureen Stapleton (Reds), and Charo (The Big Mouth). Curiously, none of the winning performances match the work done in the disaster classics. Maybe Charo.

Patroni: In Airport, his collar remained proudly blue, and when you needed a plane removed from a snowbank with little more than hip thrusts and a cigar, he was the man to call. What he lacked in formal education, he made up in sweat, learning the trade the old-fashioned way, by gladly getting his hands dirty. Management noticed. By 1975, he was bumped up to the suit-wearing corridors of power, even if he was too damned bulky to be the one to squeeze through the hole in the fuselage.

For now, he’d just have to sit by and stifle tears as wife and child danced on the brink. That, and ride a fire truck like he was aboard Secretariat for that final leg. 1977 was a transitional phase, just holding time until he got his wings. Cue Concorde, and he’s the man in charge, even though no one wants to know how and why a child-like IQ could end up behind the wheel of a jumbo jet. But who else knew the plane so well? Every last nook and cranny, even if he still breathed with his mouth open and moved his lips when he read. If he read. It’s possible he never learned how. But even after tragedy, pain, and loss, he’s still the industry’s horniest bastard, proudly so. He thinks with his cock, as a pilot must, and like hell he’ll ever lose an airplane. And you’d have to be a little dumb to think you could open a cockpit window at 875 MPH to shoot a flare at an errant missile going twice that. It works, dammit, so how you doin’?

Quonsett, Ada: She’s sweet, like your grandma. Quaint and charming, all 4’6” of her. Ain’t she just one plucky old gal, after all? To some, yes, but to the airline industry, and to anyone still in possession of working eardrums, she’s the world’s peskiest pest. If I was stuck next to this chatterbox on even the most routine of flights, I’d slit my wrists in the lavatory. Maybe even fake a hijacking just to be subdued elsewhere. Sure, she alone, the grand lady of the theater, Miss Helen Hayes, lent the original Airport its Oscar gravitas, but she’s like the typical blue hair in line at Wendy’s; the kind that has but $2 to spend, and she’s aiming to make sure she weighs every conceivable combination from the dollar menu before stepping aside.

Cheap, then, doesn’t even begin to describe her. Never paid for a flight, she says. Just likes to see the world, though the plane is only airborne because everyone else with a seat isn’t a fucking miser. I’d toss the bitch in the ocean, but since Dean Martin is in charge, getting rough isn’t on the table. Be gentle, like, because we’re a respectable outfit. Twenty viewings later, she’s still the one character I wish had been handcuffed to Van Heflin’s explosive suitcase.

Ropers, The: Stanley (Norman Fell) appeared, albeit briefly, in Airport 1975. He’s a nervous passenger, drinking heavily to ease the fear. But he’s still Stanley through and through, sans Helen and defiantly with the boys. Speaking of Helen, the genuine article is far from the action, but two doppelgangers have been kind enough to stop by. First up, in 75’s installment, is Webster’s eventual mother, Susan Clark, playing Patroni’s wife so damned convincingly she had to be killed off before the next chapter. But her trademark hairstyle is a dead giveaway.

Look closely and you can also see the endless bracelets and flowery muumuu. Then, in 1979’s Concorde, Helen Roper is back, albeit as Bibi Andersson in full prostitute mode. But it’s the more believable turn, as her insatiable lust for the ox-like Patroni best mirrors Helen’s obsession with the bedroom. But while Stanley was either gay, impotent, or bloodless, Patroni can go twice in ten minutes. At last, Mrs. Roper could come face to face with her orgasmic possibilities. Even if it wasn’t actually Mrs. Roper. Close enough, universe. Close enough.

Seberg, Jean: Hers is the most tragic tale of the series, both on film and through the slings and arrows of life itself. Ostensibly in customer service for a busy Midwestern airport, Jean’s Tanya Livingston is actually the long-suffering right hand of Burt Lancaster, a company man so married to his job (and current wife) that he can’t stop to notice the prized and willing pussy right within earshot. Just say the word, Mel. And say it again to help peel off that last, nasty layer of frost.

In the meantime, she’s frustrated. A dead husband haunts her dreams, and some goddamn stowaway threatens her future. Still, it’s the Life of Riley compared to Ms. Seberg herself. Maybe it was Airport that did her in. The lonely nights while Lancaster and Martin shared shots and sweethearts. From the end of filming to a nasty, drug-fueled suicide just nine years later. Barbiturates, some said. The FBI harassment, others knew. A bright star burning too hot, living just long enough for a sad Paris ending. Some judge, but the compassionate know full well the Concorde could have saved her. It’s coming, Jean, just hang on.

Turtleneck: It’s pretty much a given that only Charlton Heston could wear one and not be mocked with merciless mirth. It’s also a given that when he wears one, he’s going to wear the shit out of it. In Airport 1975, Chuck forgoes the bicycle built for two in favor of just such a shirt; a second skin so oversized and masculine that there’s room enough for George Kennedy. It could be cotton, wool, perhaps velour. No matter, as he takes it from terra-firma to terror-filled skies, all without a drop of sweat to send its ass to the cleaners. To this day, a man wonders what happened to it. Did it go home with Heston? Back to wardrobe? The trash bin? I’ve checked eBay at least twice a year in the decades since my first viewing, all with no luck. If it survives, it awaits its own Brokeback Mountain moment. The scent? Pure fucking accomplishment.

Underwater: It’s 1977. A fully-loaded 747 rests on the ocean floor; tenderly, like a kitten on a goose feather pillow. Does the pressure crack it open like a sardine can? Science has one answer, airline president and CEO Jimmy Stewart has another.

Van Heflin: It’s his final cinematic appearance, and he wants to die. Go out on top, taking down a packed airliner like a jihadist in his prime. As D.O. Guerrero, he’s hen-pecked and at the end of his already frayed rope; losing job after job to a temper that just won’t quit. But if you’re married to Maureen Stapleton, and she won’t ever shut the fuck up, you’re going to check out with the alacrity of a shark in blood-filled water. And while you’re a bum in a world of winners, a loser who hasn’t anything left to lose, you’re not about to leave the little lady without a way to pay the gas bill.

Insurance, and plenty of it, especially since an explosion over the ocean cannot possibly be investigated in 1970. He knew it, we knew it, and the hope remained that he’d at least have the courtesy to kill the lights above dry land. Just give me some room, allow me to take big, dramatic gulps of air to remain unnoticed, and I’ll quietly detonate while you’re eating your rubbery fish dinner. What’s that? I have to sit next to the stowaway? I hear she’s a talker. Good lord, is it too late to reset the timer?

Women: When they aren’t bitching, they’re complaining. They nag and roar, demanding the world for their own minimal effort. Entitled, nasty, selfish, and vain. Gimme, gimme, gimme, and take off work early so I won’t feel so alone. Oh yeah, in the movies, too.

X-ray Machines: Had there been any, Airport would not have happened. Ahh, but what salad days for aviation. When a sweaty, squinting, nervous-looking man could stroll on to a plane unmolested, especially if he was clutching a suitcase. Better yet if he had just purchased a massive insurance policy minutes before. You might prefer flying with security measures intact, complete with random searches, TSA agents, and metal detectors every ten feet, but call me a romantic.

I long for a more innocent age; a time when everyone trusted each other so damned much that we pretty much acknowledged that travel was inherently risky, and sometimes, people had to die. Anything to prevent a man from having to arrive four hours early to the airport. I want to run late, grab a cab, get lost once or twice along the way, refuse a proper check-in, and sprint to the finish line, even as the plane is backing out from the gate. If that means a fireball over the Atlantic, so be it.

Yoke: Please, for God’s sake, when you’re heading straight for the ocean, pull up on the fucker. You might be surprised by the results. No? Art thief, you’re no Sully Sullenberger.

Zimbalist, Jr., Efrem: No greater name exists, then and now. Armed with that moniker, even I could have been somebody. Started a business. Taken a planet. Married a series of women without concern for their ability to speak English. But there could only be one. Known best for his turn in 77 Sunset Strip, he’s reduced to a mere pilot in Airport 1975, and a blinded one at that.

Smacked dead in the face with fractured equipment and spark-filled wires, he spends most of the film in mumbling ineptitude, trying desperately to tell Karen Black that no cross-eyed bitch ever flew a bird over the Rocky Mountains, and he’s not about to stand for it now. Though it seems impossible that a man of such strength and lumberjacky good looks could be felled by a few glass shards in the eye, 1975 was a tough year for all of us, and airline pilots were no exception. But more than a fine career ended that day. Manhood itself was eclipsed by ditz personified; sheer willpower bested by a broad unfit to even serve coffee to Sid Caesar in coach.







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