May 24, 2024

David Letterman relives his horrible “Airplane!” audition in the new oral history book, “Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True History of Airplane!,” an excerpt from which was published on Entertainment Weekly. Letterman was brought in to screen test for the lead role of Ted Striker, ultimately played by Robert Hays.

“He wasn’t an actor, but he was funny. And he looked great onscreen—like, leading-man good looks,” co-director Jeff Zucker says in the book. “But the thing about David is, he’s just really uncomfortable with the whole idea of acting. I think it all seems too phony to him, like he’s bullshitting. It just wasn’t him.”

Letterman adds that the “Airplane!” team was “really nice to consider me for a film,” but he tried to warn them that he was in no way shape or form an actor.

“I liked those guys, and when I saw the movie, it was just delightful, and I was delighted to see it knowing that I didn’t have to look at myself,” Letterman says. “Because that would’ve ruined it. If not the whole movie, it certainly would’ve ruined it for me. [In my audition], I get out there, and they had set up a cockpit for the aircraft with chairs. I had a chair, and there was another chair where the copilot would be. We did the scene once, and then they came in and gave me some notes, and then we did it maybe two more times. And I kept saying all along, ‘I can’t act, I can’t act, I can’t act,’ and then one of them came to me after the audition and said, ‘You’re right: you can’t act!’

“It was all so good-natured that I just laughed my way back to the car,” he adds. “I never felt any sense of disappointment, because from the very beginning I told them, ‘I can’t act.’ And then I was right, and we all ended up parting as friends. So it was a good time.”

Years later, Zucker went on Letterman’s talk show and surprised him by playing a clip from his disastrous screen test.

“Whether or not he was actually blindsided, or if his staff prepared him in advance for the clip, he was a good sport about it, and looked appropriately embarrassed, playing it to big laughs,” Zucker says in the book. “Now that was acting!”

“Surely You Can’t Be Serious: The True History of Airplane!” is available for pre-order and goes on sale Oct. 3 from St. Martin’s Press.

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