Before launching his late-night legacy in the 1980s, David Letterman had a few forays into the acting world, appearing in an episode of Mork & Mindy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a few other programs in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. As it turns out, though, the actor/comedian actually auditioned for a role that may have changed his career. The iconic 1980 comedy Airplane!. Through the magic of the internet, the video of his screen test for the Ted Striker role has surfaced, which is well worth watching.
The video surfaced on YouTube last week, and is actually taken from a 1982 episode of Late Night with David Letterman, the first year of this landmark NBC program, where the host welcomed Airplane! writer-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker as guests. During the episode, the filmmakers showed the audience David Letterman's 1979 screen test for Ted Striker, a role which was eventually won by Robert Hays. It certainly would be interesting to think of how David Letterman's career may have changed if he had landed the Ted Striker role.
The same year that Airplane! hit theaters, David Letterman launched The David Letterman Show, after serving as a guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. In 1982, he launched the now-iconic Late Night With David Letterman, which aired on NBC from 1982 to 1993. In 1993, he brought his show to CBS, where it became Late Show with David Letterman, where he stayed until his retirement last year. Stephen Colbert took over as host of Late Show in the fall of 2015.
Even if David Letterman had won the Ted Striker role, it's possible his career path may not have changed. Robert Hays went on to work consistently after Airplane!'s success, but he didn't exactly become the household name that David Letterman now is. The original Airplane! earned $83.5 million during its theatrical run, from a budget of just $3.5 million. When adjusted for inflation, that domestic gross is equivalent to a $266.1 million movie today.
Many of David Letterman's movie appearances since the Airplane! audition have been as himself, in movies such as Eddie, Private Parts and Man on the Moon, where he helped re-create the epic showdown between Andy Kaufman and wrestling legend Jerry Lawler for the movie. While we'll never know how Airplane! might have been different with David Letterman as its leading man, we can check out the late night legend's screen test below. Let us know what you think about how David Letterman's career may have changed, had he landed this role.