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The disaster film became a unique and profitable film genre unto itself in the early seventies, thanks to the box office success of Airport (1970). Based on the best selling novel by Arthur Hailey, the film is a contemporary update of Grand Hotel (1932) for the jet age. And like most good soap operas, the plot focuses on several characters over a seven-hour period during the worst Midwestern blizzard in thirty years. Although the film takes place at the fictitious Lincoln International Airport (it was modeled on Chicago's O'Hare Airport), most of the action takes place aboard a Boeing 707 carrying 110 passengers, including a mad bomber who precipitates one of many disasters that almost doom the flight.
A veritable "who's who" of the top box office stars and prominent character actors of its era, Airport was trashed in reviews by many prominent critics but proved to be a major hit with the public. It also earned a total of ten Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture. This was probably the first time since Cecil B. DeMille's circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), that such a blatantly commercial film had received so many Oscar nominations. Airport soon became a franchise and three sequels followed: Airport 1975 (1974), Airport '77 (1977), and The Concorde: Airport '79 (1979). Since each sequel got progressively sillier and more outlandish, it was only a matter of time until a parody of the series appeared which eventually happened in 1980 with the release of Airplane! from comedy writers David and Jerry Zucker and director Jim Abrahams. It was followed by Airplane II: The Sequel (1982).
Despite the end result, Airport was not an easy film to shoot. Screenwriter-turned-director George Seaton was unable to get permission to film at either the LAX or O'Hare airports so he resorted to shooting all interiors at the Universal soundstages and some exteriors at the St. Paul Airport in Minneapolis. Seaton also had to contend with Burt Lancaster's forceful personality on the set (Gregory Peck had been the original choice for the role). Lancaster was used to much more creative control on films and would occasionally question the director's decisions. Lancaster also was unsatisfied with the performance of his co-star Jean Seberg and later admitted that he only chose to do the film for commercial reasons. Although it would prove to be the most profitable film of his career, Lancaster would refer to it later as "the biggest piece of junk ever made." Seberg, for her part, hated her role and her gray, mini-skirted uniform that she thought made her look like a clown. It was quite a step-down from her critically acclaimed performances in such films as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) or Robert Rossen's Lilith (1964). On a more positive note, however, Airport was a great career move for George Kennedy who got to play the hero of the film - airport maintenance chief Joe Patroni, the man who clears the snowbound runway so the Boeing 707 can safely land. Helen Hayes also profited from the film, winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Ada Quonsett, a mischievous stowaway.
Director: George Seaton
Producer: Ross Hunter
Screenplay: George Seaton
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Art Direction: E. Preston Ames, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Mel Bakersfeld), Dean Martin (Vernon Demerest), Jean Seberg (Tanya Livingston), Jacqueline Bisset (Gwen Meighen), George Kennedy (Joe Patroni), Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett), Van Heflin (D.O. Guerrero), Maureen Stapleton (Inez Guerrero).
by Jeff Stafford