Date with disaster: A short history of the 'Airport' films

The 1970s was the golden age of the blockbuster disaster, and the "Airport" series was the greatest of them all.

Culture
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Karen Black, as flight attendant Nancy Pryor, flies the plane and chews the scenery in "Airport 1975."

Mondadori via Getty Images

The 1970s was a glorious decade for several reasons: disco was on the radio, the 747 entered service, "Star Wars" premiered and the disaster film genre had its golden age. Movies like "The Poseidon Adventure," "The Towering Inferno," and "Earthquake" were the highest levels of cinematic camp, which is exactly what made them so great. Overacting and improbable situations were hallmarks as an "all-star cast" struggled to avoid death (some unsuccessfully) while falling in love, arguing and succumbing to other human foibles.

As a kid, I was instantly hooked, and I still am today. "Earthquake" remains a top choice (I grew up in LA), but the "Airport" series rules the genre, hands down. Each had an airplane and George Kennedy, and they only got more spectacularly unbelievable as the series went on. Even better, they were brilliantly spoofed in my favorite film of all time, "Airplane!," which was an almost shot-by-shot remake of the 1957 disaster luck, "Zero Hour!"

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From left to right, Otto the autopilot, Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays save the day in "Airplane!"

Paramount Pictures

If you're never watched the "Airport" series, I urge you to cancel your weekend plans now. To help you get started, here's a handy guide. There are abundant spoilers, but don't worry. For most of these films, plot is really just an afterthought.

'Airport'

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Universal Pictures

Plot: The most sober and believable of the series, "Airport" (1970) also was the touchstone for the decade's disaster films that came later. We start in Chicago where a blizzard is invoking Murphy's Law at "Lincoln International Airport." As he struggles with a deteriorating marriage, airport manager Mel Bakersfield (Burt Lancaster) is faced with a stuck airplane blocking a runway, nearby residents complaining about jet noise, and a nice old lady (Helen Hayes) trying to stow away on a flight to Rome.

Meanwhile, a construction demolitions expert (convenient!) who's lately been having a hard go of it, boards the same flight to Rome intending to blow it up with a suitcase bomb so his unknowing wife can collect life insurance. And if that wasn't enough drama, the flight's captain (Dean Martin) is married, but also sleeping with the chief flight attendant (Jacqueline Bisset) who's pregnant with his child.

After takeoff, everyone on the flight realizes the danger, but they're unable to prevent the bomb from exploding. Though the bomber is sucked out to his death, the captain is able to land the plane intact, saving everyone else on board. Of course, that's only after the disabled plane on the runway is towed out of the way just in time.

Believability rating: High, if you buy the part of a Boeing 707 landing safely after a bomb blows a hole in its side.

An all-star cast? You also get Gary Collins, Maureen Stapleton, Van Heflin and Barbara Hale.

George Kennedy's role? A mechanic called Joe Patroni who maneuvers the stuck airliner, also a Boeing 707, off the runway so the damaged Rome flight can land.

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Helen Hayes pretty much stole the show in the original 'Airport.'

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Trivia: Though based on Arthur Hailey's book of the same name -- Hailey also wrote the screenplay for "Zero Hour!" -- the plot also resembles a real-life event. After a Continental Airlines 707 crashed in Missouri in 1962, investigators determined that a passenger had intentionally exploded a bomb after purchasing a large life insurance policy.

Hayes would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her canny-ditsy character. Four years later, she'd play another nice, but forgetful old lady in "Herbie Rides Again."

Minneapolis-St. Paul's airport stood in for the fictional Lincoln airport, which stood in for O'Hare International Airport.

After the film: Much of the bombing sequence would be parodied in 1982's "Airplane II: The Sequel" when Sonny Bono played a suicide bomber. It had it moments, but "Airplane!" is far superior.

The 707 aircraft used during the production would go on to crash in 1989 while in service with the airline Transbrasil.

Just a theory, but perhaps Marilyn Hartman's story was just life imitating art.

'Airport 1975'

Plot: Here's where things get a little crazier. A Columbia Airlines Boeing 747 is flying from Washington, DC to Los Angeles with Hollywood royalty onboard, including Gloria Swanson who plays herself. Due to bad weather in Los Angeles, the flight is diverted to Salt Lake City, Utah when disaster strikes.

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Universal Pictures

The pilot on a small private plane flying nearby suffers a heart attack, which causes him to collide with the 747 ripping a large hole in the cockpit. With the flight crew killed or gravely injured, a flight attendant (a deliciously melodramatic Karen Black) takes the controls and prevents the plane from flying into a mountain.

That's all well and good, but everyone soon realizes that flying lessons over the radio will only go so far. A safe landing only comes after Charlton Heston, the airline's chief pilot and Black's estranged boyfriend, is lowered into the cockpit in midair from a helicopter.

Believability rating: Low to medium

An all-star cast? Oh my, yes! Not just Swanson, but also Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell, Sharon Gless, Sid Caesar, Erik Estrada, Linda Blair and Helen Reddy (she is woman, hear her roar). If only Joan Crawford had accepted a bit part.

George Kennedy's role? Still Joe Patroni, but now he's Columbia's vice president of operations.

Trivia: This was Swanson's last film appearance.

Heston and Kennedy finished filming "Earthquake" days before production on "Airport 1975" started.

The actor who played the heart attack-victim pilot, Dana Andrews, was the original Ted Stryker in "Zero Hour!"

After the film: The scene between Reddy, who played a singing nun with a guitar, and Blair, a patient being flown to an important operation, was parodied in a memorable scene in "Airplane!" In that film, Jill Whelan (of "The Love Boat" fame), was the patient.

The private plane used in the film, a Cessna 180, collided with another plane in midair over central California in 1989.

'Airport '77'

Plot: Philip Stevens (James Stewart) is a nice rich guy who owns a private 747 outfitted with a bar, bedrooms and a posh lounge (complete with a blind piano player). He's flying his daughter (Pamela Bellwood), grandson and some pals down to his weekend house in Palm Beach, Florida. Sounds nice, right? Well, not so much.

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Universal Pictures

Also onboard is his collection of priceless art, which a few nefarious members of the crew are keen to steal. They knock out the passengers with sleeping gas and the evil co-pilot (Robert Foxworth) flies the plane out of radar range smack in the middle of The Bermuda Triangle. Spooky!

The plan is to land the plane on a remote island, take the art and disappear. But trouble comes when the 747's wing collides with an oil platform in the middle of a fog bank. Foxworth is able to ditch in the ocean, but before the passengers can evacuate the plane sinks to the seabed not far below the water's surface. Things look bad, but eventually most onboard are saved when the US Navy raises the 747 momentarily using several large balloons.

Believability rating: Low, though the closing credits tell viewers that the Navy rescue capabilities depicted onscreen are real.

An all-star cast? Like you need to ask. Watch for Christopher Lee, Olivia de Havilland, Lee Grant, Jack Lemmon and for you fans of "The Golden Girls," Monte Markham and Brenda Vaccaro.

George Kennedy's role? Our friend Joe now works for Stewart's company managing his aircraft fleet.

Trivia: Joan Crawford was again offered a role, but she declined. She died the same year.

It was the only movie in the series where an aircraft used in the production was not later involved in a crash.

The video game Pong and an early laser-disc player both make appearances.

After the film: Even camp can be respectable. The film received two Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Director Jerry Jameson had a thing for raising sunken things. He also directed the spectacularly bad "Raise the Titanic," released in 1980.

'The Concorde...Airport '79'

Plot: LOL. OK, try to stay with me. Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner) is a wealthy industrialist with a dark secret: He's selling arms to communist countries during the Cold War. His girlfriend is Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely), a tough TV journalist who is about to fly to Moscow on a Concorde for the 1980 Olympics. At the controls are Joe Patroni, (yes, him) and actual French guy Paul Metrand (Alain Delon). Naturally, Paul is also involved with one of the flight attendants.

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Universal Pictures

Just before she boards the flight, Maggie learns of Kevin's secret and vows to report the truth. To stop her, he first tries to shoot down the flight with one of his company's drones. When that fails, he hires a fighter jet (from Hertz, I assume) to do the job with heat-seeking missiles. That also fails after Joe and Paul pull a few barrel rolls and eludes the missile by firing a flare gun out the window. Yes, you read that correctly.

When the Concorde lands safely in Paris, all seems well. But for the next flight to Moscow, one of Kevin's henchmen programs the baggage hold door to open midflight, which should cause the plane to explosively depressurize and crash. The door does open after takeoff and the fuselage almost ruptures, but Joe and Paul manage to land on a snowfield in the middle of the Alps. The passengers live, Kevin shoots himself while watching the whole thing on TV, and Maggie goes on to present her story.

Believability rating: You're kidding, right?

An all-star cast? There's Charo for starters, but also Cicely Tyson, Jimmie Walker, John Davidson, Eddie Albert and Martha Raye. Harry Shearer also lends his voice as an announcer. Oh, and did I mention Charo?

George Kennedy's role? He's finally a pilot! But frankly, knowing his record thus far, I wouldn't go anywhere near that plane.

Trivia: An early scene (skip to 1:45) references the public outcry against Concorde flights in the United States over noise and environmental concerns when the aircraft started commercial service in 1976.

The film does its best to show the then-futuristic design of Washington Dulles and Paris Charles de Gaulle airports. The scene (keep watching the previous link) when police pursue a bad guy across de Gaulle's runways is a highlight.

After the film: The Concorde used in the film was the same Air France Concorde that crashed after takeoff from Paris in 2000.

Despite the detente depicted onscreen, the United States would go on to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

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