In a movie like 1980’s Airplane!, where the jokes are zooming past viewers at a rate of several per minute and the starring cast includes veteran stars the likes of Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen and Robert Stack, it takes a special kind of performer to make a lasting impression in a supporting role. However, that’s just what comic actor Stephen Stucker did in the role of the manic and–oh, how shall we say it?–flamboyant airport control room worker Johnny.
Born in Iowa in July, 1947, Stucker’s interest in performing led him to California, where he would become a member of the Kentucky Fried Theatre comedy troupe and work with future filmmakers Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker. Stephen’s debut film role, however, would be in 1973, as a psychopathic fashion designer who breaks out of an asylum with fellow inmates Bob Minor and Michael Pataki in the somewhat tongue-in-cheek exploitation thriller Delinquent Schoolgirls. He would later reunite with his stage colleagues in 1977’s sketch-filled Kentucky Fried Movie, playing a wacky stenographer in a courtroom scene.
The high point of Stucker’s Hollywood career, however, came in Abrahams’ and the Zuckers’ Airplane!, when as Johnny he would get the opportunity to truly camp it up and make off-the-wall remarks to whatever his more serious co-stars would say (“Johnny, what can you make out of this?” “This? Why, I can make a hat, or a brooch, or a pterodactyl,” or “What kind of plane is it?” “Oh, it’s a big pretty white plane with red stripes, curtains in the windows, and wheels and it looks like a big Tylenol.”). Stephen, along with several cast members, reprised his role in 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel, the less said about which, the better, and he had a cameo the following year in the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd hit Trading Places.
Unfortunately, only a handful of turns in minor films followed in the mid-’80s, by which time Stucker made another, more ominous, sort of Hollywood notoriety by being one of the first actors to publicly announce he was HIV-positive. Stephen made a memorable appearance on a 1985 episode of The Phil Donahue Show, candidly talking about living with AIDS and showing his trademark humor (“Don’t I look fabulous?”) , but he would die of AIDS-related complications the following April at the age of 38.