Long before Tom Cruise started doing his own stunts, Peter Graves starred in the classic TV series Mission: Impossible, making Captain Clarence Oveur—”over, Oveur”; “we have clearance, Clarence”—the man to pilot this flight, until he’s felled by the fish, of course.
Like Barbara Billingsley, he didn’t understand what he was reading, either, when he first got the script and called it “crap,” but his agent assured him it was going to be funny.
Meanwhile, L.A. Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still smack in the middle of his playing career when he signed on to be co-pilot Roger Murdock. “Every few months someone will holler a line at me on the street and give me a thumbs up,” he told Cryns in 2019. “…You’d think it would get old or annoying [after 39 years], but it really doesn’t. It’s gratifying to know that I was part of something that has been giving people pleasure for nearly four decades.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who had some acting experience (he had done TV and fought Bruce Lee in The Game of Death), also said that Graves was “very easy to work with” and helped him “stay focused” in his scenes.
According to The Making of Airplane!, however, baseball star Pete Rose (who was not yet banned for life from the sport for betting on the team he was managing) was the first choice to be the athlete-as-co-pilot (just like in Zero Hour!, featuring football player Elroy Leon “Crazylegs” Hirsch) who stays in character unless you question his regular-season effort.