NBA icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar starred in the 1980 parody flick “Airplane!” where he portrayed a pilot named Roger Murdock. One would assume that a kind and coy guy like Kareem would’ve agreed immediately. Interestingly, Kareem only said yes when he received a $5,000 salary increase from the producers’ initial offer.
Jerry Zucker, one of the film’s directors, narrated how the negotiation went with Kareem and his agent. He admitted that the Lakers center wasn’t the first choice. It was actually baseball legend Pete Rose, but they couldn’t even send the script to him. And so they pushed hard to get Kareem, even if he wanted an increase in his talent fee.
“When we offered the role [of Murdock] to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I think we offered him $30,000, and then the agent asked for $35,000 because that’s how much this rug cost that Kareem wanted to buy. It was an oriental rug—an art piece, not one to walk on, I don’t think—so our initial reaction was, ‘That’s got to be the best line we’ve ever heard from an agent.’ It was like, ‘Boy, this guy’s really creative!’” Zucker said, per AV Club.
They agreed, and they went on to make the film. Later on, they saw Kareem in a magazine with the aforementioned rug.
“But then a couple of weeks later, there’s an article in Time with a picture of Kareem standing in front of the oriental rug that he’d bought for $35,000 after we’d paid him,” Zucker added.
Judging Kareem’s performance
Jim Abrahams, one of the film’s directors, was impressed by Abdul-Jabbar’s performance. Not just that, but he also got to know the real Kareem whom he heralded as a Renaissance man.
“He wasn’t supposed to be able to act. [Laughs.] So that just played into it all the more. But he’s a really bright, fascinating man. He’s the original Renaissance man and just a very interesting guy. Basketball never defined him, ever. Not even during his heyday. He was about a lot more stuff than just basketball,” Abrahams said.
Actor Frank Ashmore, who portrayed Victor Basta, initially believed that the producers cast Kareem because the Lakers had just won the title. Kareem’s presence alone would boost box office sales. But just like Abrahams, Ashmore was amazed by Kareem’s persona.
“He’s a very kind, gentle, gracious man. He’s somewhat shy, though, to tell you the truth. Although maybe “humbleness” would be the word you’d use to describe Kareem after meeting him for the first time. But he was always very available, and he was just a really cool guy,” Ashmore said.
"Airplane!" was a commercial and critical success. Abdul-Jabbar’s cockpit scene became so iconic that he reenacted it in various commercials for Delta Air Lines and Travel Wisconsin. And Kareem got his rug!