Charlie Sheen talks 'Hot Shots!' at 30: I borrowed everything from Leslie Nielsen (exclusive)
30 years ago this week, Hot Shots! introduced audiences to Charlie Sheen’s Topper Harley; cockpit pro, tortured hero and the man behind the best deadpan comedy performance since Leslie Nielsen boarded an aeroplane and asked people to stop calling him Shirley.
Taking its comedy cues from Tony Scott’s high-flying and more-than-a-little camp 1986 fighter pilot flick Top Gun, Hot Shots! (coming to Disney+ on 30 July) wasn’t just any old laugh-a-minute parody. It was helmed by Jim Abrahams, one third of the relentless comedy braintrust that brought us 1980’s goofy masterpiece Airplane!, the movie that rebranded Nielsen as a comic icon and forever changed the face of modern comedy with its ridiculous humour and dedication to deadly serious line delivery.
For Sheen, the chance to work with someone responsible for creating one of the most influential comedies of all time wasn’t just too good to pass up: it was a lifelong dream.
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“I had done Men at Work, Navy Seals and The Rookie and none of them really did any business,” recalls Sheen, speaking exclusively to Yahoo.
“I was pretty much flying blind. I went through a year of drinking and partying and woke up in rehab. I got the script for Hot Shots! a week out of rehab, read it and loved it,” he says, taking us back to his first encounter with the spoof script that Abrahams penned alongside long-time writing partner Pat Proft, the same scribe behind The Naked Gun trilogy.
“When I was younger, my brother Emilio (Estevez) and I sat on a Friday night in a packed cinema and watched Airplane!, and it was life changing. It changed everything; how we looked at movies, how we looked at the world. It was like somebody got our humour and was finally in-line with our inane foolishness,” smiles Sheen, explaining how Abrahams’ work with Director siblings Jerry and David Zucker (known collectively as ZAZ) impacted his childhood.
“I was a huge fan of the genre and influenced by it at a very young age. It had been drilled into my DNA.”
Watch a trailer for Hot Shots!
This deep-rooted familiarity with Abrahams’ very specific humour — a world where no line is without a double entendre, real-life adheres to cartoon rules and background jokes come thick and fast — made joining Hot Shots! a no-brainer.
“When I met with Jim Abrahams and writer Pat Proft, there wasn’t anything about the script I was confused about. I understood all of the humour and my role in it.” As for playing around with the bad boy leading man image he’d cultivated throughout the 80s? No problem: “They said, ‘are you comfortable doing this?’ and I said ‘Yeah — I’m going to borrow everything from Leslie Nielsen,” he laughs.
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“I’m just going to steal his best s*** and make it mine, and I’ve given him credit from day one in this film and its sequel, Hot Shots: Part Deux. They were thrilled that I was a fan of their movies.”
While Nielsen was absent from Hot Shots!, the movie did pair Sheen with another Airplane! alum in the form of the superbly silly Lloyd Bridges, who played Harley’s pratfall-prone boss Admiral Benson. Like most parodies, plot was largely irrelevant. Top Gun did much of the heavy lifting while Harley overcame the death of his ace-pilot father, thwarted a sinister military scheme and besting enemy fighter jets left, right and centre.
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Instead, it was the jokes that made the movie memorable; from Benson’s many auto-shop replaced body parts (“My eyes are ceramic. Caught a bazooka round at Little Big Horn”) to some very on-the-nose character names (‘Goose’ died in Top Gun, in Hot Shots! it was ‘Dead Meat’) and too many blink-and-you’ll-miss it sight gags to mention.
While Sheen knew full well what he was getting himself into, the job wasn’t without a few unexpected challenges. “I always knew the dialogue was going to be so silly and when it wasn’t, there was always going to be something going on in the background that was going to get a laugh. I played the straight man and knew that was my responsibility: to play it as straight as possible.
"Yesterday’s work was nothing like today’s,” he adds, commenting on the wide array of visual gags he was required to film that spanned Native Americans to Superman.
“I say this with all due respect to everybody involved in the movie, but I think they’d all agree that the film is a lot more fun to watch than it was to make because that type of humour is so specific,” he explains.
“I’d nail my dialogue, the other actors were fabulous but something in the background went wonky. It was always a balancing act between the sight gags and the performances. Everything had to work in concert.”
Despite some tricky synchronicity, one of the movie’s stand out moments — a sizzling sex scene between Harley and his dazzling therapist Ramada (Valeria Golino) that uses fridge leftovers to give new meaning to the phrase ‘hungry for love’ — came together quite seamlessly.
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“I’d never seen 9½ Weeks which is what that scene spoofs and it wasn’t until years later that I watched it and remembered that we did it. I was really pleasantly enjoying it,” laughs Sheen.
“When we filmed that love scene it was before all the computerised cheating that’s done now, “ he says with a smile.
“This is when you had to build actual effects and practical prosthetics. When Valeria shoots the olive from her belly button into her mouth, she had her hand snugged under a prosthetic torso and there was an air pressure hose in her belly button — but there’s still two feet to cover as it fires out and she catches it in her mouth,” he explains. “What’s in the movie is the second take. We were all so impressed.”
The film also paired Sheen with his future Two and a Half Men co-star John Cryer, who played as the visually impaired Jim 'Wash Out' Pfaffenbach — however it wasn’t the first time they’d met. “We crossed paths in the early 80’s audition days and everybody was pissed at him because No Small Affair was the hottest script in town. We all auditioned for it and he got it,” laughs Sheen, referencing Director Jerry Schatzberg’s 1984 rom-com that co-starred Demi Moore.
“We’re not on screen together all that much in Hot Shots! because he’s largely in the control tower, but there’s a bizarre moment where he’s being pulled by an ambulance, slams into it and says ‘Why thank you Andre, I’ll have the veal piccata’,” says Sheen.
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“The next thing we do together is the pilot for Two and a Half Men and his character has a line that mentions veal piccata. I’m thinking, ‘damn... 13 years apart, we’re finally back together and he’s talking about the same food’” he chuckles. “It was cosmically bitchin’.”
Hot Shots! officially hit cinemas on July 31 1991 and was an instant hit. It debuted at number one at the Box Office and went on to earn over $180million worldwide. However as time has passed, its irreverent and universally silly style has overshadowed any outdated time-stamps its politically-infused sub-plots may have imposed, giving the movie a comfort food quality that rewards repeat viewings, even three decades later.
“I feel like we left something cool behind and if now isn’t the time that we all need a few laughs, I don’t know what is” says Sheen candidly.
“I look back at it very fondly. I go back to the experience Emilio and I had in that theatre on that Friday night in Los Angeles watching Airplane!. To know that years later I left something behind that, when folks saw it, might have provided a similar experience — it’s a pretty special thing.”
Hot Shots! and Hot Shots!: Part Deux will stream on Disney+ UK from 30 July.
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