While growing up in suburban Wisconsin, Jim Abrahams became friends with brothers David and Jerry Zucker. Their fathers worked together in a business called A to Z realty. The two families attended the same synagogue. As adults, Abrahams and the Zucker brothers would become known for their spoof films before deciding to set off on solo projects.
A Private Investigator before becoming a filmmaker, Abrahams makes films that delve into the past. Independent women trying to protect their family tend to occupy the center of his films.
Early Works: ‘Airplane!’ and ‘Police Squad!’
The trio started their career as a theater troupe known as Kentucky Friend Theater. They first started making skits and short films at the University of Wisconsin before moving their operation out to Los Angeles. The sketches from this troupe would eventually become their first produced screenplay (Kentucky Fried Movie (1976), directed by John Landis). While they had an amicable experience with Landis, the experience taught them that they also wanted to direct their own material.
Then came their most successful film, Airplane! (1980), starring Leslie Nielsen and Lloyd Bridges. The trio comically rewrote from the 1957 film Zero Hour! (with scenes spoofing movies such as Crash Landing (1958) and Jaws (1975) thrown in). Airplane! featured both a claustrophobic tight narrative and gags to spare. The film spoofed everything about Airplane Disaster movies, including the celebrity cameos (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s role spoofs Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch’s casting in the original), the corny dialogue, and absurd plots. Much of the humor came from the actors playing the lines seriously amidst the chaos.
Not knowing what to do next, they decided to make the short-lived Police Squad! (1982) TV series with Nielsen. The series marked a turning point in the careers of the young filmmakers. The series would mark the trio’s first foray into parody TV shows and movies. It would also mark the first time they all worked with comedian and comedy writer Pat Proft. Proft would perhaps become most famous for his collaborations with David Zucker, but also wrote the Hot Shot! Series with Abrahams. While the TV series did not succeed, it sent the trio on a new path.
Their next film, Top Secret! (1984) involved Elvis Presley-esque personality Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) getting unwittingly involved in a spy conspiracy. While it had arguably better jokes, it did not have the narrative thrust of Airplane! An uneasy mix of Elvis movies and World War II spy movies, it flopped at the box office.
Although not considered a masterpiece by the three directors, it does present elements of all their work. With Abrahams, the most influential element does not come in the hero, but in the love interest Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge). In a Blue Lagoon (1982) parody, Hillary lived on an island with her lover Nigel (Billy J. Mitchell). On this island When she finds out that he is head of the resistance, she has to confront her unrequited love for him. Things become more complicated when Nigel turns out to be the main villain in the film. Although not the main part of the plot, she became the blue print of Abrahams’ heroines: a rural woman who must confront her past in order to obtain a better future.
The Split: ‘Ruthless People’
In 1986, the trio directed the dark comedy Ruthless People from Dale Launer’s screenplay. It was a first time for them in many their areas. As directors, it marked the first time they directed a film from somebody else’s screenplay. Unlike their other work, it was not a parody. For the first time, they allowed the main actors to act in a broad comedy style. Most importantly, it marked the first time they truly disagreed on how to make the film. With this disagreement, the filmmakers amicably decided to go their separate ways.
Screwball Comedy: ‘Big Business’
The first to make a solo film, Abrahams directed Big Business (1988) starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler as two sets of mismatched twins who meet up at the Plaza hotel in New York city. A more conventional comedy, Abrahams claimed he made it partially to find his place in the movie business.
From the sets to the performances, the film plays like screwball comedy. The ludicrous premise seems similar to Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1946). A big part of the film’s reality comes from the pace of the world it’s set in. The more leisurely Tomlin does not fit into New York and the snappier Midler does not fit into the country town of Jupiter Hollow. The film’s farcical nature allows for broader performances, a fact noted by Abrahams in the DVD commentary. Abrahams learned on Ruthless People that audiences paid to see the actors perform rather than just act.
Like many studio comedies about women in the 1980’s, Big Business focuses on women’s roles in society. Private Benjamin (1980) examines a woman going into the military. Outrageous Fortune (1986) features two actresses acting their way in and out of trouble. Big Business wraps up its plot by having the women fill different roles than they did before. For example, the country Midler becomes mother to the more business minded city Midler’s son (Seth Green). Similarly, the city Tomlin ends up with the country Tomlin’s boyfriend (Abrahams regular Fred Ward). While simplistic, it fits the movie’s light comic style.
Coming of Age story: ‘Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael’
Abrahams took a more serious turn with his next film, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990). The film follows adopted troubled teenager Dinky Bossetti (Winona Ryder), who never quite fits into a small town that’s obsessed with the return of its most famous resident Roxy Carmichael. When Roxy’s high school sweetheart (Jeff Daniels) tells Dinky about a baby he and Roxy had, she becomes convinced that Roxy is her biological mother and decides to meet her. Like Abrahams’ other heroines, Dinky’s story centers around her trying to find the family she belongs to.
The film plays like a Roald Dahl story without the whimsy. Sometimes the filmmaking seems naturalistic and truthful. Sometimes it feels like a Tim Burton movie. However, unlike Burton, Abrahams never quite sees people in a stark good versus evil manner. The adults seem less evil or conniving and more pathetic.
While the film did not do well critically or commercially, everybody seemed to agree that Winona Ryder gave one of her best performances in it. It also came out the same year as another more famous movie of Ryder’s, Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.
Parodies: the ‘Hot Shots!’ movies and ‘Jane Austin’s Mafia!’
After leaving ZAZ, Abrahams would make three parodies. Each of them would make fun of very masculine genres and feature male leads. All three would also star Lloyd Bridges.
These movies came most naturally to Abrahams. In an interview in Robert J. Emery’s book The Directors: Take One (1999), Abrahams explained how he learned the importance of a story on Top Secret!. While many critics would focus on the jokes told in the movies, they would come last in the writing process. For most of the process, Abrahams and his co-writer would focus on crafting the best character and stories possible. When the jokes did come in, they would be the easiest part.
Hot Shots! (1991) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) both star Charlie Sheen and Lloyd Bridges. They came from an idea by co-writer and executive producer Pat Proft. Both films came out at a time when Sheen was primarily known as the dramatic lead from such films as Platoon and Wall Street. Sheen had previously made Major League (1989), but felt apprehensive about doing parody.
Both films parody action film of the time. The first Hot Shots! parodies Top Gun (1986) and Dances with Wolves (1991). In continuing the series, Part Deux makes fun of the later Rambo films where Rambo lives in a jungle.
His last film to date, Jane Austin’s Mafia! (1998), was also the last film of Lloyd Bridges. A spoof of mafia movies, it follows the absurd adventures of a Mafia family. The film follows the plot of the first two Godfather films pretty well, but also sprinkles in Goodfellas (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), and Casino (1995).
Mafia! came out to mixed reviews in a summer full of comedies. The film came out the week after There’s Something About Mary (1998), which would become one of the highest grossing comedies of all time. While Mafia! made back three times its budget, Mary made back sixteen times its actual budget. The week after Mafia! premiered, former collaborator David Zucker’s film BASEketball premiered. Within three weeks, three distinct comic films had come out and were competing with each other for box office.
Abrahams’ Approach to Parody
While all three films focus on men, the films have independent women at the center of them. One of the final showdowns in Part Deux has two women fighting. In the original Godfather, Kay (Diane Keaton) leaves Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and becomes a school teacher. In Mafia!, Diane Sheen (Christina Applegate) leaves Tony Cortino (Jay Mohr) and becomes president of the United States. In a parody of Forrest Gump, Tony wins her back by showing up with the son she sired with him without her knowledge.
All three films also feature an extensive use of flashback. Hot Shots! begins with a traumatic even that connects all the characters. Part Deux reveals the villain as an old nemesis of the love interest. Mafia! Flashes back to both Tony and his father’s earlier life often.
Personal Work: ‘…First Do No Harm’
In between parodies, Abrahams made his most personal work: a television drama named … First Do No Harm (1997). Abrahams’ son Charlie suffered from seizures until his parents put him on the Ketogenic diet. Before discovering Ketogenic diet, the Abrahams had tried medication and surgery without results.
It focused on a mother (Meryl Streep in a Golden Globe nominated role) who tries to find the cause of her son’s epileptic seizures. When she finds a cure in the Ketogenic diet, her son’s doctor shows resistance and prepares to take legal action against her.
The film works as a melodrama. It tells the story of a blue-collar rural mother and her family going up against a flawed medical system. The film starts on people reading the Hippocratic oath over an article about Hippocrates. It also sometimes plays like an extended PSA for the Ketogenic diet, due to the time it was made in. The very end of the film reveals that the ketogenic diet helped multiple cast members (including Charlie) before putting up the phone number for the Charlie Foundation.
However, the film gives everybody more credit than another film might. While the film considers Streep’s Lori Reimuller a good person, she does not always do the right thing. This includes trying to illegally take her son out of the hospital. She also does not have a chaste marriage to her husband (Fred Ward), which makes their relationship seem more realistic. Similarly, the film does not present the antagonistic character of Dr. Abbasac (Allison Janney) or hospital as evil. Abbasac does not like the ketogenic diet as its results are based on anecdotal evidence and not science. A sympathetic nurse also tells Lori that many kids do get better in their program. Even though it has a side, the film understands the complexity of this issue.
Although Abrahams found a new calling in life, the experience effectively killed his passion for filmmaking. Since then, Abrahams has served as executive producer on the documentary Voice of Epilepsies (2018). The documentary follows a mother and father’s journey to discover a cure for her epilepsy.
Return to Writing
Abrahams reunited with David Zucker to write Scary Movie 4 (2006). Although not as noticeable as the films he directed, the film does feature a narrative that Abrahams would create for one of his movies.
In the film, Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) has lost her husband during a boxing match. In a parody of Million Dollar Baby (2004), Cindy falling down causes everybody in the audience to fall over and split their neck. This event eventually factors into the film more than any of the characters will expect. It turns out that a boy that got killed in the audience is the son of the primary villain.
Throughout his career, Abrahams always tried to push the limits of what he had done before. Big Business had him trying out a more classical style of comedy. In Roxy Carmichael, he made a coming of age story. With the Hot Shots! films, he experimented with cinematography. Those movies have shots in them as beautiful as any shot in a Tony Scott movie. Mafia! experimented with the editing of Scorsese films. More than anything, Abraham brings a curiosity to all the films he worked on.
More than anything, Abrahams’ films focus on family. Hot Shots! focuses on a man traumatized by the death of father. Mafia! tells a mafia family saga that celebrates family. A fiercely independent person occupied the center of many of his works. In his three non-parody films, this character tends to be a woman fighting to save her family. Big Business features two sisters from the country trying to save their family business. In Roxy Carmichael, the lead character tries to reconnect with the people she believes to be her true family. …First Do No Harm focuses on a mother trying to save her son at all costs.
Abrahams ends his most recent film Mafia! with Sister Sledge’s “We are Family.” Although a small choice, it exemplifies much of Abrahams’ work.