David Zucker and Pat Proft talk about their dissatisfaction with their fourth feature draft, their unusual casting choices (Bo Derek as Jane? ), and their rough first test screening experience. “We’ve been totally blocked out of it.”
Although the Naked Gun franchise team discovered, turning a short-lived spoof TV series into a feature film always required some risk-taking, it wasn’t quite as risky as shoving your face in a fan.
The writer-director team of Airplane! (1980), consisting of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, found themselves grounded after the film’s breakthrough success. ABC subsequently canceled their police-satire series Police Squad! in 1982. Co-creators of the show, however, wouldn’t let the idea die and went on to adapt it into The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, which Paramount Pictures released in theaters on December 2, 1988. In the film, Leslie Nielsen plays an accident-prone police officer in a reprisal of his Police Squad! starring role Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalbán, George Kennedy, and O. J. Simpson costarred with lieutenant Frank Drebin.
In honor of the 35th anniversary of the groundbreaking comedy film Naked Gun, which made $78 million (currently valued at $204 million) and inspired two follow-ups, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with co-writer Pat Proft and director David Zucker, who collaborated on the screenplay alongside Jerry Zucker and John Abrahams. The two discuss their immediate regret at turning the project into a TV series, how Presley ended up playing the romantic lead instead of Bo Derek, the drama that surrounded the filming of the crucial baseball game, and why they aren’t a part of the upcoming Naked Gun reboot that Paramount is working on with producer Seth MacFarlane, director Akiva Schaffer, and actor Liam Neeson in separate interviews.
What gave rise to the television series Police Squad!, and how did the film come to be made a few years after the show ended?
David Zucker M Squad, a 1950s black-and-white television series starring Lee Marvin, is exactly like Police Squad! We really enjoyed it! In fact, we had originally planned to do a M Squad movie, but we were stuck on the story. Rather, Michael Eisner of Paramount, the only person to recognize Airplane’s potential, stated, “I can get you six episodes on the air if you do it as a half-hour TV show.” We made that decision, but we quickly changed our minds and asked ourselves, “What are we doing? A TV show is not what we want to do When we told Eisner we didn’t want to do this the following day, he responded, “No, I’ve already pitched it to ABC—they’re going to do it.” And we gave him credence.
Pat Proft: I created one episode of Police Squad! and served as a story editor for the show. After about three weeks, I receive a phone saying, “We’re going to do a movie version of this, and we want you to join us.” The show [only lasted] six episodes. That’s how we got started co-writing movies.
Zucker: It was not quickly enough canceled by ABC. Three episodes later, it was canceled. After that, in 1984 we made Top Secret!, then in 1986 we performed Ruthless People. We were so ready to get back to our favorite thing to do, which was the Airplane!-style parody. I suggested making a Police Squad movie! All we had to do was reword it to include a romantic interest and at that point, we understood that a character arc was necessary. We walked in and presented Frank Mancuso at Paramount with our movie proposal. Our easiest pitch to date.
How was the scripting procedure for the movie conducted?
Zucker: I wrote the first draft of the first script with Jerry, Jim, Pat Proft, and myself. I also wrote the 20 consecutive revisions while on set. On the set, Pat and I would rewrite every day.
Proft: All day long, we just made each other laugh. We joked about “nice beaver” for a full day and a half. Among the worst ideas we have ever had was that one.
Why was O.J. Simpson the perfect fit for Nordberg?
Zucker: We always cast our films with the specific intention of including people who have never been in a comedy. Leslie Nielsen was our fourth choice when it came to casting Airplane!; previous actors had rejected the role, and he was unknown. However, we desired a someone who had never acted in a comedy. He was a very charming guy, a superb actor, a practical joker, and something of a closet anarchist.
About your collaboration with Priscilla, what come to mind?
Zucker: To start with, you’re the kindest person ever—the girl next door, a great person. Although she was with Elvis, she was just like every other female I knew in high school. However, the first table I read is what I recall the most. Experiencing extreme anxiety, she remarked, “I don’t know how to be funny.” “You don’t have to worry about that at all,” I responded. Let the lines do the talking. I’d like to perform the precise role you did in Dallas. After realizing that, she felt completely at ease carrying it out and need very little guidance. Our type of spoofing isn’t based on comedic timing. The timing is spectacular. What Leslie excelled atwas, he pretended not to recognize that he was in a comedy.
Professor: Priscilla was flawless. Just writing for her was enjoyable. It’s evident that Leslie enjoyed working with her.
Were there any other candidates for Jane?
Zucker: Bo Derek was our first pick. Since she was more well-known at the time, we offered it to her, but she declined. Though I’m not sure how Derek would have handled it, Priscilla was amazing and never hesitated to do it.
Some lines from Police Squad! can be found in Naked Gun, such as Frank’s one about taking a gamble when you thrust your face in the fan.
Zucker: That’s one of my most cherished quotes. In real life, I always respond with that remark when someone says, “Well, that sounds pretty risky,” and only half the time do I get a laugh out of it. Most of the time, folks simply have no idea what I’m talking about. A lot of [Police Squad! pieces] were used. Al, the man whose head is out of focus due to his height, that entire performance that seems like it was lifted straight out of Police Squad! I simply assumed that many of the lines in the film were first-time experiences for the characters, and I really enjoyed them.
I think you finished the third act before the rest of the movie?
Zucker: Accurate. First, we asked, “What was the love story in all of the Naked Guns?” The question of what the third act was was then the most crucial one. It has to be a highly public location for the third act. Using the baseball game as a starting point, we were able to piece together the entire Queen plot, which included the assassination to take place during the Queen’s visit to a baseball game.
Did you get OK from the royal family to play the Queen?
Zucker: No, as their response would have been no. Subsequently, we discovered that the royal family found it enjoyable. Additionally, it was previously reported that Prince Philip loved the film Airplane. I believe the royal family was aware of our good intentions from the beginning.
Were there any specific difficulties in using the baseball stadium to make that happen?
Zucker: The Dodgers were quite hesitant to be linked to this. They claimed afterwards that they didn’t enjoy the rhubarb at the conclusion and that every player was fighting, as if it never happens. We were permitted to utilize Dodger Stadium, but we were not allowed to identify it as such. They wouldn’t let us utilize Vin Scully, who we also wanted to be one of the announcers. The Angels took it in stride. Major League Baseball insisted on using the Mariners since, at the time, they were a very underperforming team and they wanted to advance.
Proft: We were just giggling over the fact that I was making up the lyrics for the National Anthem. Enrico Pallazzo, who is mentioned When they discuss The Naked Gun, I used to have a silly name, but it’s now kind of popular.
Were there any notes in the studio?
Zucker: Quite a few. The studio took a largely detached approach. We would frequently slip behind schedule and there would be a studio goon on set, so the studio’s main concern was whether I made the days. At last, I simply threw a practiced tantrum on the set, and the guy never voiced any complaints again.
Was the best option for that cameo “Weird Al”?
Zucker: He had no other options. He became acquainted with our producer, Bob Weiss, and became an avid fan of Airplane! and Top Secret!. “How about ‘Weird Al’ to do this cameo?” Weiss then asks. And after that, we used him in every Naked Gun.
When did you realize you were unique?
Zucker: Every Naked Gun film’s premiere showing has been a complete bust. We were confident that the second and third previews were excellent and that all three of the films performed flawlessly once we saw them.
Is it harder to get a comedy created now than it was in the past?
Zucker: It is difficult to work with the studios to produce a comedy. The gatekeepers must be overcome. We’re going to film The Star of Malta, a film noir comedy parody that Pat and I wrote, in the spring, most likely on the Warner Bros. lot with Mike McManus as our third partner. Preproduction will get underway in January.It’s not like the studios would have ever done it.
Its funding is entirely independent. Superhero films, major franchises, and Tom Cruise films—I mean, I adore Tom Cruise films, but those have $200 million budgets—are the only options available to the studios. Our budget is $10 million, which is presumably the same as Tom Cruise’s catering expenditures.
I am aware that Liam Neeson is starring in and Seth MacFarlane is producing a new Naked Gun film. Was there ever a chance you might be involved?
Zucker: Jon Gonda at Paramount reportedly read the script that Pat, Mike, and I wrote for Naked Gun 4, and we laughed the entire time. However, they made the decision at some point not to accompany Pat, Mike, and me. At that point, they hired Seth MacFarlane, who is directing Liam Neeson under the direction of Akiva Schaffer. I never got to see Seth in person.
Proft: There’s a narrative behind why I’m not happy. However, I’m not happy. I sure as hell should be writing it, even though it might turn out fantastic and be wonderful for that. It’s the one I ought to have done.
Zucker: The head of production at Paramount had a meeting with Pat and me around four years ago. The woman expressed her dissatisfaction with a joke Pat and I had written about a police officer needing to modify her Kevlar vest or get a breast reduction, or something like. Even if it’s only a lighthearted jest, that got to them. Therefore, if they’re that scared, I can’t even begin to conceive how they’re restricting anyone plays Naked Gun 4. We have no involvementand we’re going to release what was originally supposed to be Naked Gun 4 instead of calling it that because it’s Counterintelijence, which is spelled with a J instead of an L.
Proft: It’s completely sealed off from us. The bad news is that Paramount owns it, so they’re free to do whatever the fuck they want. That concludes our discussion.
Did Akiva or Seth make contact?
Zucker: Akiva did get in touch with me and visit my home. We had a great meeting together. We just spoke about humor, and he’s a terrific guy. Maybe they were going to give me the script at some point. They wanted me to be engaged, but nothing ever came of it because I never received a script.
When you reflect on the first Naked Gun, what emotions come to mind?
Zucker: I’m glad it’s continued this far. I’m quite proud of it since, from what they tell me, it’s still funny. That there are still viewers makes me glad.
Proft: I knew right away when we started writing it that this was going to be amusing. I believe it’s a fantastic movie, and it just felt so good. It connects with humor. It simply clicks.