Meet Ted Striker: He's incompetent. He's oblivious. And judging from the vacant stare permanently plastered on his face, we get the sense that he's not exactly the most emotionally stable guy in the world.
When we first encounter Ted, he's frantically exiting his taxicab (he's a cab driver) in hot pursuit of his romantic interest, Elaine, an airline stewardess. We learn that he and Elaine have a long history together, but recently things have taken a turn for the worse. Ever since serving as a fighter pilot in an unnamed war, Ted's been unable to adjust back to normal life. He was in charge of a mission that got his men killed. He's moved around from job to job, city to city, and as a consequence, his relationship with Elaine has suffered.
He's developed a serious drinking problem, which involves him being unable to bring a cup to the correct part of his face, soaking himself every time.
He's a mess.
Desperate to salvage his romance, Ted swallows his pride (and a handful of anxiety meds) and follows Elaine aboard her flight to Chicago. On board the plane, of course, our protagonist gets a little more than he bargained for. After the passengers and pilots get desperately sick from food poisoning, he's forced to find his courage and land the plane, as the only healthy (i.e. conscious) person on board with any flying experience. When he's brought to the cockpit, he's terrified:
ELAINE: Ted! What are you doing here? You can't fly this plane!
TED: That's what I'm trying to tell these people!
But after a pep talk from Dr. Rumack, he feels empowered. When Rex Kramer forbids him to try to land the plane, he's a new man—cocky, even:
KRAMER: Don't be a fool, Striker, you know what a landing like this means, you more than anybody. I'm ordering you to stay up there.
TED: No dice, Chicago. I'm giving the orders and we're coming in. I guess the foot's on the other hand now, isn't it, Kramer?
Well, maybe he's not completely over his problems…
Ted's new-found confidence and take-charge attitude help our guy win back Elaine, and the two live happily ever after. At least until the sequel.
In many ways, Ted's our generic action movie lead. Actor Robert Hays hits what Nathan Rabin of the Dissolve eloquently calls "the perfect note of oblivious, purposefully white-bread heroism," playing on the cliché of the hyper-serious disaster film protagonist typical of the era. (Source)
In the context of ZAZ's barrage of gags, Ted's hilarious in his ineptitude. But at the same time, he's earnest and believable. With unassuming blandness, he accomplishes what a more blatantly laughs-oriented comedian simply couldn't, a fact that ZAZ recognized. In fact, a young David Letterman, then a stand-up comic, actually screen tested for the role.
We love ya, Dave, but we think Hays nailed it.
Though Airplane! is a comedy in every sense, there's a more serious, underlying element to Ted's character that makes him especially compelling: his PTSD. Ted suffers from what's essentially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a result of the trauma he experienced during the war. Though this theme is handled rather tongue-and-cheek throughout the movie, the fact remains that Ted's wrestling with some very serious issues. He's got flashbacks and is stuck back in time when he thinks he got his men killed. He's constantly in a state of panic and has developed a drinking problem (a strange one, in his case). He life is in chaos.
These challenges make Ted a more nuanced hero than we might first realize. He's able to experience a full character arc, undergoing a significant transformation from the anxious, distracted nobody we meet in the beginning, to the confident hero who saves the day and gets the girl in the end. This storyline is one of the things that makes the film more than just a bunch of laugh-a-minute gags. It's also a story of redemption while being a total spoof of all those movie stories of redemption where a man finds his courage and, yadda yadda yadda, things work out in the end.
Doe-eyed, soft-spoken, and utterly bewildered, Elaine Dickinson is our female lead and beautiful love interest of Ted Striker. Oh, and she has the mouth (and the personality?) of a sailor. Her wide-eyed innocence plays off some of her rather raunchy dialogue and actions in the film.
Elaine was wild about Ted when she met him in a bar on the Barbary Coast and planned to spend her life with him. But when he came home from the war a damaged man who couldn't get his act together, she had to move on.
We're introduced to Elaine as she's ready to board a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. As a flight attendant, embarking on this trip is part of her job description; but it's also her escape from her struggling relationship with a floundering Ted. When they meet in the airport terminal, Elaine tells Ted with gentle firmness that she can't keep waiting around for him to take back responsibility in his life. This sentiment is sincere; in these moments, we feel empathy for Elaine in her genuine sweetness.
Aboard the airplane, Ted continues his attempts to win Elaine back. It becomes apparent that Elaine still has feelings for Ted, but can't commit to him as long as he's unable to get his life back under control. It's not until Ted confidently takes the controls of the plane at a life-or-death moment that Elaine begins to come around. She believes in Ted and Ted believes in himself; with Elaine's help, Ted's able to land the plane safely while a loving Elaine looks on.
Elaine is well-meaning, but she always seems to make things just a little worse. For example, even when she and Ted are in the thick of their past romance, she helpfully sinks his spirits while trying to comfort him:
TED: Because of my mistake, six men didn't return from that raid.
ELAINE: Seven. Lieutenant Zip died this morning.
She wants to reassure the passengers but can't quite seem to get it right:
ELAINE: Ladies and gentlemen, this is your stewardess speaking... We regret any inconvenience the sudden cabin movement might have caused, this is due to periodic air pockets we encountered, there's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you enjoy the rest of your flight... By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?
Hagerty, herself a rookie actress, brings to the part an earnest sweetness, remaining perfectly innocent even as the world crashes around her (source). Ultimately, Elaine infuses an understated sense of humor into the movie, not to mention some cluelessly raunchy moments with Otto. While Robert Hays's performance as Ted Striker parodies the bland, hyper-serious action hero of the day, Julie Hagerty's portrayal of Elaine Dickinson plays on the trope of vacant love interests and beautiful but one-dimensional female leads in cinema.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of 'em.
If you were to argue that Dr. Rumack is the most iconic character in Airplane!, we'd probably say something like "surely you can't be serious."
Then you'd respond by saying "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley."
And that would be the end of the argument.
The dour, grim-faced Dr. Rumack surely gets some votes for the most memorable character in the movie, as a key player in many of Airplane!'s greatest moments. As a doctor, you can tell him anything, and in pressure situations, he's the man to trust. He's truly an individual who can keep cool when everyone else is losing it.
Ultimately, Dr. Rumack emerges as a spirit guide of sorts for Ted, providing encouragement in key moments and helping our young protagonist overcome his fear and blossom into the hero he was always meant to be.
Though the dialogue itself is pretty amusing, we can credit the success of Dr. Rumack mostly to master of deadpan Leslie Nielsen. His delivery is tirelessly despite the sheer absurdity of the situations Airplane! presents. He remains gravely serious, never letting on for a second that he's in on the joke.
Just don't call him Shirley.
Steve McCroskey is the gruff, fast-talking Chicago air traffic controller who does his darndest to help get the airplane on the ground. He also apparently really picked the wrong week to quit smoking, not to mention drinking and sniffing glue. The part is minor, but certainly memorable; veteran actor Lloyd Bridges (father of actor and notable "The Dude" Jeff Bridges) goes all out in this role.
Bridges' performance is deadpan, just like those of fellow veteran actors Leslie Nielsen and Peter Graves. And just like Rumack and Oveur, McCroskey's success depends on the wholesale commitment of the actor to maintain a straight face through all the absurdity.
Well, to a point.
Grizzled, savvy, and no-nonsense, there's no one you'd rather call in a pressure situation than Captain Rex Kramer. A former combat veteran and military colleague of Ted Striker, Kramer has since moved on to become a commercial airline pilot. With his expertise and cool under fire, Kramer's ultimately able to talk Ted to the ground, giving our panicked hero instructions on how to land the plane.
Robert Stack was ZAZ's first choice for the role, which proved to be a masterful casting job (source). Given his long, established career of playing abrasive, blunt military men in dramatic films, Stack's role in Airplane! subverts the archetype of the battle-hardened tough guy. Of course, in playing the role perfectly straight, Stack pokes fun at this cliché character role out of which he'd made a career.
Captain Clarence Oveur only makes it about halfway through the movie before falling violently ill at the hands of the infamous fish dinner. But Oveur still gives us some memorable moments before it's Oveur—er, over.
Peter Graves, who plays Captain Oveur, was famous at the time as a dramatic actor with an impressive list of serious roles to his name, including Jim Phelps in the "Mission Impossible" TV series. In fact, due to this reputation, Graves was reluctant to take the part. (Source)
In typical Airplane! fashion, Graves plays this character just like he would any other: completely straight. Like everyone else in the movie, Captain Oveur goes about his business with no awareness of the abundant ridiculousness, a reality that's heightened by Graves's track record and experience playing serious characters with supreme gravitas. Because of this, Oveur pulls off lines that nobody else could.
And with a crew named Roger, Unger, and Victor, he's got the best puns in the film.
Air Traffic Controller Johnny isn't an essential character in Airplane! He isn't crucial to the plot. He doesn't help advance the story in any way.
But boy can he land a joke.
In his limited screen time, he manages to crack as many memorable jokes and one-liners as anyone in the movie. He's colorful, animated, and adds a bit of light-hearted lunacy to a control room dominated by stiffs and cynics.
Johnny's especially notable because in his flamboyance and decidedly non-deadpan approach, he has the distinction of being the one significant character in the entire movie who doesn't play it straight—pun intended. In this sense, to some, Johnny represents one of the movie's more problematic parts: an offensive stereotype of a gay man that hasn't aged well, time-stamping Airplane! firmly in the distant past. (Source)
It's also possible, however, that Johnny is actually progressive for his time, a character that is unapologetically gay in an era where that was still taboo. He isn't harassed by the caricature manly-men characters that dominate Airplane!; instead, he turns the joke around on them, providing the perfect foil to their sternness and self-importance.
We come to understand Johnny a little better when we take a look at the actor who played him. ZAZ developed the character explicitly for actor Stephen Stucker, who wrote his own lines for the part. Stucker has a notable legacy as one of the first openly gay actors in Hollywood at a time when there was serious paranoia around the AIDS epidemic. A strong-willed and eloquent advocate for LGBTQ rights, Stucker ultimately died from AIDS-related complications in 1986, but not before fearlessly challenging stigma and raising awareness about the disease.
So is the character of Johnny offensive? You be the judge.