Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's iconic role in the movie Airplane! was originally written for another legendary athlete, according to the movie's writers and directors.
In The A.V. Club's recent oral history of the beloved comedy, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker spoke about getting Kareem to do the role after originally looking to MLB's hit king.
David Zucker: That was another lucky break that we got, because Kareem himself was not the first choice for that role. We actually wrote it for Pete Rose.
Jim Abrahams: I’m not sure if Pete Rose actually accepted the role or not, or if we’d even gotten the green light from Paramount to use him. We may never have even sent him the script. I just know that we ended up having to film in August, so he was still in the middle of baseball season.
The group also spoke about the salary negotiations with Abdul-Jabbar, which apparently hinged on the cost of an oriental rug the NBA legend was looking to purchase.
Jerry Zucker: When we offered the role [of Murdock] to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I think we offered him $30,000, and then the agent asked for $35,000 because that’s how much this rug cost that Kareem wanted to buy. It was an oriental rug—an art piece, not one to walk on, I don’t think—so our initial reaction was, “That’s got to be the best line we’ve ever heard from an agent.” It was like, “Boy, this guy’s really creative!” But then a couple of weeks later, there’s an article in Time with a picture of Kareem standing in front of the oriental rug that he’d bought for $35,000 after we’d paid him.
Luckily the salary and casting all fell into place, giving the world one of the funniest athlete acting performances to date.
- Brendan Maloy