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On the set of 'Hot Shots!' (1991)

On the set of ‘Hot Shots!’ — How to keep a straight face on the wacko set of Jim Abrahams’ hit ”Top Gun” parody

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Charlie Sheen squints from the cockpit of a fighter jet as it roars down the runway of an aircraft carrier. He’s playing Topper Harley, a Navy pilot with a humiliating past and a broken heart to deal with. Suddenly Topper jams on the brakes. Is it that darn rebellious streak of his making him disobey orders again? No, it’s his girl, Navy psychiatrist Ramada (Valeria Golino), who is racing across the flight deck to stop him. On an Andalusian stallion.

Why is there a horse on an aircraft carrier? one might ask. ”Because it’s a comedy,” director Jim Abrahams explains. Sincere absurdity has been Abrahams’ hallmark ever since he first collaborated 20 years ago with his childhood chums from Wisconsin, Jerry and David Zucker. As the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team (ZAZ), the trio brought us a raft of sublimely silly films, including 1980’s Airplane!, 1984’s Top Secret!, and 1986’s Ruthless People. Most scored with critics and audiences alike. Then ZAZ split up and Abrahams, 47, took two directorial solo flights, Big Business and Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, neither of which got off the ground at the box office. Now, as he supervises the strangeness on the set of Hot Shots!, his send-up of 1986’s Top Gun, Abrahams is back on familiar turf: a film with good punctuation.

The Navy, understandably, is keeping its distance. ”When you can get kids to recruit off a film, like with Top Gun, they let you have ships,” says production designer William Elliott. ”Our script didn’t feel like that kind of movie, so we had to make our own.” The flight deck for today’s shot is actually just a parking lot perched on the promontory of a cliff in a former marine park in Palos Verdes, Calif., but the wind whipping up from the Pacific is teeth-chatteringly authentic. The crew, in ski wear, moves about like Day-Glo snowmen. Abrahams wears earphones to keep his ears warm. Even the boom mike is covered in fur.

Unfortunately for Valeria Golino, best known as Tom Cruise’s girl in Rain Man, she must wear a sleeveless sundress for the plane-meets-horse scene. She stands alone, shivering, looking into the sun for warmth, deliverance, a tan. Sheen sits in his warm cockpit, smoking. Just before the shot, he takes a big drag on his cigarette and hands it to his dresser; Golino sprays Binaca into her mouth.

”They’re going to kiss,” explains Abrahams.

A low-flying Cessna ruins the take. The gulf war is raging, and private planes have been buzzing the set all day, trying to get a glimpse of what seems to be top secret Desert Storm activity on the California coast.

Shooting a war parody during a war has made everyone a little uneasy. ”It’s a weird feeling coming to work wearing a piece of wardrobe that you’re seeing on the front page of the Los Angeles Times every day,” says Sheen. The script of Hot Shots!, written months before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, called for the fliers to bomb a Middle Eastern nuclear weapons plant. But all similarities to actual military operations end there. The Hot Shots! backup targets, for example, are an accordion factory and a school for mimes.

Still, Sheen is struck by an eerie parallel between his roles and world history. ”I do Wall Street, and the stock market crashes,” he says. ”I do Hot Shots!, and we go to war with Iraq.”

Though there was a technical adviser for military details on the set, his expertise presumably was not needed for all the features of the Hot Shots! aircraft carrier: A matador waves planes off the flight deck, and there are parking meters for the jets. In most comedies, it’s the actors who do or say funny things; in Jim Abrahams’ world, actors implacably concentrate on mundane tasks while all hell breaks loose around them.

Valeria Golino is well suited to such deadpan humor. Her foreignness (she’s half Italian and half Greek) and classic beauty give her a sense of remove, like Buster Keaton walking along unaware of the sets crashing down around him. Is the comedy of oblivion difficult to pull off?

”Oh, no,” Golino says. ”It’s easy not to laugh. Ramada never knows she’s made a mistake.”

Okay, but aren’t those stunts dangerous?

”Only kissing Charlie,” she jokes. ”But that was the warmest part of the scene. We were so cold, we were hugging like we were in love.”

Unfortunately, love doesn’t always last: After more than 14 takes to get the kiss on film, Abrahams scrapped it for a prologue and epilogue that ape Dances With Wolves. ”When you’re making a movie, you don’t have time to see movies,” says Abrahams, who caught the hit by accident when he tested a Hot Shots! trailer before a showing of Dances at his local theater. Inspired, he worked out the new parody scenes — featuring Sheen as Fluffy Bunny Feet and an elder who needs new batteries for his Walkman — with Pat Proft, his cowriter and a longtime ZAZ collaborator.

If Abrahams’ humor adheres to a golden rule, it is this: Don’t laugh at others when you can laugh at yourself. He attributes this philosophy to a Midwest upbringing. ”If you are raised in a high-profile metropolis, you see your town on the news more and you think: ‘I’m where it’s at,”’ he says. ”If you are from the Midwest, you know you are the butt of jokes. Your best chance of survival is to take a self-effacing position.”

This attitude shows up not only in Abrahams’ films but in his assessment of his own career — a subject few people in Hollywood would care to joke about. At about the same time that his former partner Jerry was directing Ghost, Abrahams was working on Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, a drama about a celebrity’s effect on a small town. ”One worked, and one didn’t,” he says without hesitation. ”It’s great for Jerry. But I don’t live my life in comparison. Next time I do a dramatic movie, I’ll be clearer.”

Abrahams is happy to be working solo — ”You don’t lose any arguments” — but he doesn’t rule out future ZAZ projects. ”I’m genuinely proud that we managed to go through 20 years together and there were never any blowouts or drug rehabilitations,” he says. ”I count them among my best friends.”

”Jim’s humor is subtle and dry, and I can relate to that,” says Sheen, but he finds comedy solemn work. ”People think that on a comedy, you show up and crack jokes, then you do the movie, then you go home laughing. That’s not true. When you do a drama, that’s when you cut up on the set. You do it to relieve the heaviness.”

Today, in a hangar in a small airport, Sheen’s sense of humor will be sorely tested. Among the Hot Shots! sight gags is a parody of those sentimental falling-in-love montages. It begins with shots from the movie and then moves on to include Sheen, standing in a boxing ring Rocky-style, while Golino, doing a Talia Shire imitation, vows eternal love. Then Sheen, dressed like Rhett Butler, carries Golino in Scarlett O’Hara garb up the famous staircase from Gone With the Wind. Now, for the final scene, Sheen strides onto the set in a Superman costume: red boots, blue tights, and a cape.

With his square jaw, dimpled chin, and humorless gaze, he looks astonishingly like the man from Krypton. Golino is decked out as Lois Lane, and she, too, is perfect in her diaphanous blue gown and spit curls. The crew attaches guy wires to hidden harnesses, then hoists Golino and Sheen into the heavens — strings of Christmas-tree lights sparkling against a black curtain. A huge fan provides wind to ruffle the costumes.

Hanging from a stabilizing bar, Golino and Sheen sway back and forth. Sheen wears an expression of pure pain. (”It was so awful in that harness,” he says later. ”Without getting vulgar, it’s much more difficult for men to wear than for women.”) Golino tries to cheer him up, and fails. Abrahams shouts, ”Hey Charlie, could you please stay on your mark?” Swinging three feet above the ground, Sheen scowls.

The cameras roll, and Golino and Sheen stretch out horizontally to fly. ”Look at all those stars going by!” Abrahams says with a genuine sense of wonder. Then he tells Sheen to slip his arm around Golino, and Sheen obliges, which starts her spinning in circles. A technician wearing a black ski glove is dispatched to stabilize Golino by holding her foot.

As the crew sets up for this new approach, neither Sheen nor Golino speaks. Dangling from their wires, unhappy puppets, Lois Lane and Superman smoke Marlboros.