Airplane!, the beloved parody of disaster movies, is basically a perfect movie. But what if instead of starring Robert Hays as the pilot with a fear of flying, it starred a pre-late night host David Letterman? Would that have made it even better? Or actually worse? According to Letterman himself, probably the latter.
As per Entertainment Weekly, a new book about the blockbuster, Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True History of Airplane!, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the directorial debuts of David Zucker, Jim Abraham, and future Ghost director Jerry Zucker, collectively known as ZAZ. They reveal that Letterman — back when he was a sardonic Tonight Show regular but not yet the star of Late Night with David Letterman — did a screen test for the role of Ted Striker. He struck out.
“I get out there, and they had set up a cockpit for the aircraft with chairs,” Letterman recalled. “I had a chair, and there was another chair where the copilot would be. We did the scene once, and then they came in and gave me some notes, and then we did it maybe two more times. And I kept saying all along, ‘I can’t act, I can’t act, I can’t act,’ and then one of them came to me after the audition and said, ‘You’re right: you can’t act!'”
Letterman had acted before. He was a cast member on The Mary Tyler Moore Hour and appeared on an episode of Mork & Mindy. But save his stint as a toy monkey salesman in Cabin Boy (and voicing a roadie in Beavis and Butt-head Do America, albeit under a pseudonym), all his “acting” roles in movies and shows has been as himself.
As it happens, mere days before Airplane! was released in the summer of 1980, NBC debuted The David Letterman Show, their first show with the future late night star. That program, however, was a morning show, and despite winning two Emmys, it was cancelled after only three months. But, well, you know, he did pretty okay for himself.