New Beverly Cinema was packed more than usual when the revival theater screened one of the funniest comedies ever made, “Airplane,” in honor of its 35th anniversary. After the movie was over, the audience got treated to a special appearance by Al White, the actor who played one of the jive talking passengers in the satirical comedy (to be more specific, he was the one with the beard). He ran up to the front of the theater to a thunderous applause and remarked how the movie still holds up after all these years, and the only thing which has changed about it is the color of his hair.
White was born in Houston, Texas but was raised mostly in San Francisco, California, and he decided to pursue an acting career after working as a janitor at Golden Gate Park for eight years. In addition to his role as the jive talking dude in “Airplane,” a role he would reprise in “Airplane II: The Sequel,” he also had a memorable role in “Back to the Future Part II” as an angry homeowner who tries to beat up Michael J. Fox with a baseball bat. He was also a member of the American Conservatory Theater for several years and originated the role of the military officer in the Tennessee Williams play “This is an Entertainment.”
White told the New Beverly audience that making “Airplane” proved to be a lot of fun. While the movie was distributed by Paramount Pictures, much of its filming took place in Culver City, California.
Acting opposite White as the other jive-talking man in the movie was Norman Alexander Gibbs whom has since moved back to the east coast of the United States. White remarked at how Gibbs talked so much to where he didn’t want to compete with him, so he tried to fill in the blanks when Gibbs wasn’t saying anything. That made for one wonderful scene after another in this comedy classic.
Many in the audience were curious about the jive language White, Gibbs and Barbara Billingsley, who played the elderly white woman who understood what they were saying, said throughout and if it was a real language. White said it was something he and Gibbs worked on throughout shooting. The movie’s writers and directors, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, apparently got the idea for the jive talking guys while they were in a restaurant and sitting next to some black men who spoke in a language they couldn’t understand.
Jeff Zucker, the one who worked with the actors on set the most, gave the actors free range to come up with dialogue, and White described how a line of dialogue like “each of us faces a moral choice” turned into “that gray matter backlot perform us DOWN, I take TCB-in’, man!”
Following the screening of “Airplane,” White hung out in the lobby to sign autographs and talk with the fans. I thanked him for coming down to the New Beverly and told him how I always wondered if the jive language was real or if it was gibberish. He replied, “It’s gibberish to those who don’t understand it, but it makes perfect sense to those that do understand it.”
The genius of “Airplane” is that all the actors never played their roles as if they were in on the joke, and that’s a lesson lost on many filmmakers today when they make satires. These days, filmmakers seem far more concerned about the jokes than anything else, and the movies they make suffer as a result. To this White replied, “The old stuff is better.”
COL’ got to be! (How true!)