The story behind Barbara Billingsley's hilarious cameo in ''Airplane!''

"People talk to me as much about that as they ever did about Leave It to Beaver."

After Leave It to Beaver ended, Barbara Billingsley's career hit a rough patch. The downside to being so well-known for her role as June Cleaver was that she was only seen as June Cleaver. Yes, Barbara had fallen victim to that Hollywood trap known as typecasting. Aside from two episodes of The F.B.I. in 1971, the world spent a long 17 years without seeing her on our screens.

Then, she reappeared, in possibly the most hilarious re-introduction. The 1980 disaster movie spoof Airplane! is now considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. Billingsley is only in it for a minute or two; her character doesn't even get a name. Yet her scene is often brought up as one of the funniest parts in an already laugh-out-loud movie.

In her scene, the stewardess can't understand two black men in distress because of their use of "jive speak". Billingsley, looking every part the sweet mother figure audiences knew her as, explains to the stewardess that "I speak jive," then proceeds to translate and get in an argument with the two men in full street slang.

Jerry Zucker, one of the co-writers and directors of Airplane! explained that getting Barbara for the role was a wild dream. "Barbara Billingsley, she's the perfect white lady you would never think of in a million years could translate jive. We never thought about if it would work. We just came upon a name and thought she would be great."

Billingsley didn't know what to make of the script at first. "I was sent the script," she explained in an interview with the Archive of American Television. "I thought that was the craziest script I’d ever read. My part wasn’t written, really, it was just that I talked jive. So I went to see the producers and I said I would do it."

Billingsley explained that the scene was actually written by the actors. She met the two men she would be sharing the scene with, and they went out to lunch to discuss. "These fellas were wonderful, and they taught me. They were great. It wasn't hard for me to learn, and I don't know why... maybe they were good teachers." Billingsley even studied up for her short scene, reading a book about jive and researching the origins of the slang.

That short cameo completely revitalized her career. "I went to New York to be on the Today show because of that role! All kinds of things happened for me because of that role. People talk to me as much about that as they ever did about Leave It to Beaver. I got fan mail!" Billingsley said. "It was remarkable. It started my whole career again."

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56 Comments

BrianThetubewatcher 14 days ago
When they dubbed the dialogue for release in Germany, they didn’t know how to handle the jive talk, so they had Al White, Norm Gibbs and Barbara Billingsley’s lines dubbed in “high German,” which is the dialect of the mountainous Bavarian region, whereas the rest of the movie was in “low German,” the dialect of the flatter northern Germany. There are vast cultural differences between socially conservative Bavaria and the secularized, eclectic northern Germany.
such a perfect way to translate... of course i don't know how well the difference between high/low German was but I assume using Cockney Rhyming Slang would have been simulator (had they needed to translate to "British")
shermybear 20 days ago
Chump don’t want no help, chump won’t get no help.
nubianqueen28 20 days ago
And we, of the black delegation loved it! She spoke jive so effortlessly and gracefully that she was invited to the cookout! ❤️❤️✊🏽
I told a black colleague at my call center job during a discussion of our multilingual phone calls that “I’m a graduate of the June Cleaver School of Jive.” He loved it.
musicman37 21 days ago
I always catch people/fans of the film with the trivia question "What did Dr. Rumack have for lunch?" Most people don't know!!
pdbronco musicman37 20 days ago
Ah, right. I had the lasagna.
spalding69 21 days ago
Robert Stack kung fuing all those pests in the airport
babyboomer56 spalding69 19 days ago
Jerry's kids. LOL
bdettlingmetv 21 days ago
One little nuance I laughed hard at was the "jive" subtitles. In Airplane 1 the fellow ranting finishes up with, "Sheeee-" and the subtitle is "Golly". In Airplane 2 the same fellow ends his rant with an emphatic "Golly" and the subtitle is "Sh**" - simple, but it gets me every time.
bradyguy 21 days ago
And if you're a ZAZ fan and have never seen TOP SECRET...do yourself a favor and check it out! Nearly as many (and as GOOD a set of) jokes as Airplane - it's all here; the word-play, the sight gags, although perhaps not as many complete non-sequiturs as Airplane!...like the spear and the watermelon??

Instead of doomed flight/disaster films, we have a parody of 50s/60s spy films with a dash of Elvis! (Yeah...i know...but it actually works!!) I've never figured out why the Airplane! audience didn't make this one a bigger hit.

Val Kilmer is brilliant. If you've seen Real Genius (another recommendation - a lighter, but darn funny entry into the teen/nerd movie genre...), then you know Kilmer can pull off comedy quite well...and you'll wonder why he didn't more of it! If you liked The Doors...good news! Kilmer sings three or four songs in this one. Funny...silly...subtle...and quite good if you ask me! AND a fun/funny cameo by Peter Cushing in one of his last roles...

My favorite line - after a French Resistance fighter is introduced with the name Deja Vu, he says " 'ave we not met somewhere before, Monseiur?" Also, the large, black Frenchman is named Chocolate Mousse.
AnnieM bradyguy 20 days ago
"Straighten out the rug!" Lol.
bdettlingmetv bradyguy 20 days ago
"Skeet Surfin'" should have been a Top 40 hit!
MaryMitch bradyguy 15 days ago
I fell on the floor laughing at the cow walking while wearing those boots!
“Shop at Macy’s, at Macy’s this year.”
cilardi61NY 21 days ago
My brilliant but eccentric mother (imagine a real-life Gracie Allen) sometimes didn't get the jokes in movies & TV. When she saw "Airplane" she laughed at parts but didn't get the "jive" scene. I explained it to her this way: "Mom, that was Barbara Billingsley---you know, Mrs. Cleaver. So that wasn't just *any* white woman saying she could speak jive...it was *THE* white woman!" THEN she got the joke!
Jimjr5560 21 days ago
Airplane was a really funny movie. Barbara Billingsley nailed the small roll she had in this movie.
bradyguy Jimjr5560 21 days ago
She ate a ROLL in this movie???
Well she didn’t eat the fish, that’s for sure.
LalaLucy 21 days ago
Fun little backstory. I have loved this movie for decades. It's so hard to pick a single favorite scene but this one is definitely high on the list. Love seeing her in such an unexpected moment. She really nailed it. 🙂
Steve2021 21 days ago
YO YO.. Barbara , you say you gots to help the man ! Jive Turkey......
JJ614 21 days ago
Absolutely, Airplane! is THE all-time best comedy ever. LOVED it. Watch it still often. Took me 10 views just to catch every one of the sight gags. It never gets old. And so many lines we could use IRL - and shirley still do to this day in my family.
JustReyome 21 days ago
For anyone who is a fan of the movie, or of any of the Z-A-Z films, I HIGHLY recommend their book, "Surely You Can't Be Serious: The True Story of AIrplane" You'll laugh yourself as silly as you did the first time you saw the movie!
teire JustReyome 21 days ago
And don’t call me Shirley.
bradyguy teire 21 days ago
As a watermelon lands on the desk!!!
pdbronco JustReyome 20 days ago
And get the audio book as well. Lots of guests in it.
MikeStidham 21 days ago
That said, some line of continuity can be created for BB to speak "jive". In a 1960 episode of "Beaver", Ward made the comment reminding June that she was elected the "Belle of East St. Louis" as a young woman and apparently had been born there. If June ever went back to visit her old hometown (I too was born there), she'd have learned to speak it very quickly!
bradyguy MikeStidham 21 days ago
Nice call/catch!
tootsieg 21 days ago
What a funny story. Must of been wonderful for BB to make a very “cool” comeback.
Irish 21 days ago
OH MY GOODNESS! I laughed so hard watching Barbara in Airplane ✈️
Absolutely hilarious. One of the best scenes in the whole movie! 😂
MichaelGreene Irish 21 days ago
Remember, for the scene to work, the person doing it had to have had no association with what were basically street characters, and be playing a character who, on the surface, would never have encountered folks from the 'hood of that era.
bradyguy MichaelGreene 21 days ago
Yeah...I think that's the point. LOL
jimmyvici 21 days ago
For me, that scene steals the show. I always look forward for that scene whenever Airplane! is on cable
AgingDisgracefully 22 days ago
The average person is impressed with the multi-lingual.
Especially one who is fluent in gibberish.
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