Murder on Flight 502 (R.I.P. Hugh O’Brian)


Hugh O’Brian died earlier this week at the age of 91. While Baby Boomers and older probably know him best as the title character in the smash tv series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961), I came along later and have only had a glancing acquaintance with that show. My introduction to the tall, understated (former) leading man came when he had a sort of second (brief) hot period in the mid 1970s. Among the things I would have seen him at that time were The Shootist (1976), where he played one of three men out to shoot dying outlaw J.D. Books (John Wayne — O’Brian was fated to be the last actor Wayne ever “shot” on camera); AND the pilot episode of Fantasy Island (1977).

Now, the pilot of Fantasy Island was ripping television indeed. At least that’s how it seemed to me at the time as a tween — I’ll have to go back sometime soon and see how it measures up to my memories. In that two hour tv-movie, O’Brian played a guilty Great White Hunter who gets to experience life as the prey for a change. But I think it only fitting that I save my post about that show for another occasion — an occasion whose name ends in “Montalban“.


Instead, today I thought I would give a bit of attention to the 1975 ABC TV movie Murder on Flight 502. You will be alarmed and dismayed to know that, to refresh my memory for this post, I watched this film for the fifth or sixth time last night. Because that’s not just how I roll, that’s how I taxi onto the runway. (Warning: I always include spoilers.)

Murder on Flight 502 debuted during the height of the disaster movie craze, and is an obvious knockoff of both Airport (1970) and Airport 1975 (which actually came out in 1974). And, surprisingly, its all-star cast compares favorably with those films and others of the era like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and Towering Inferno (1974).  We meet most of them prior to takeoff in a corner of Kennedy Airport I like to call the Exposition Lounge. Going roughly in order of appearance:

There’s Walter Pidgeon as a soporific octogenarian with three months to live, who gets seated next to Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon. Do they bond? Do they talk? Oy, gevalt, that’s all they do — inserts of their mundane conversations must fill a third of the film. Pidgeon must say “You’re a very lucky woman” to her about 15  times.  Little of Picon’s reputed genius is in evidence here. Essentially she’s relegated to playing the yenta from central casting. To hammer that home, familiar character actor Steve Franken plays her son, who sees her off at the airport and says things like, “Mama, don’t get so excited! You’re on vacation yet! So enjoy!”

Sonny Bono plays a fading rock star desperate for a comeback. Ironically, believe it or not, Sonny was one of the hottest stars in the cast, fresh off four years of his hit variety show with Cher, who had just left him for Gregg Allman. (In reference to that, which was big news at the time, in one particularly bathetic moment, Bono’s character stares off into the distance and says, “And the beat goes on.”)

Also in the cast is The Partridge Family’s Danny Bonaduce, typecast as an obnoxious, pranking teenager. His foil, for awhile at least, is singer Polly Bergen as a sassy, brassy, hard drinking mystery writer in sunglasses. Later, she will exchange Bonaduce for Fernando Lamas, playing a famous burglar who “once got away with seven million dollars”.

Theodore Bikel is a mysterious foreigner with a goatee — he’s clearly up to no good. Ralph Bellamy is one of the country’s top doctors, on his way to London to treat a “world leader”. And Dane Clark and Laraine Day (both actors with some name recognition in the 40s and 50s) play a tense, bickering middle aged couple.

And let’s not forget the crew! Robert Stack is the ridiculously stoic and omniscient pilot, paving his way for his performance five years later in Airplane! The stewardesses are none other than Brooke Adams (the lovable, clumsy one) and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, not yet famous as the star of Charlie’s Angels, although that was right around the corner.


And Hugh O’Brian? Why, he’s just an off-duty New York City police detective, that’s all. And that’s about to come in handy. Why?

Oops! We left out a celebrity. The airport security chief is played by George Maharis of Route 66 (not to be confused with George Chakiris of West Side Story). After diffusing a cake bomb left in the waiting area as a prank by Bonaduce (this was in the era when authorities just said to such scofflaws, “Alright now, you incorrigible rascal! Go ahead and get on the plane! We wouldn’t want you to miss your flight!), Maharis receives a letter informing him that there will be murders on Flight 502. (It’s not intended to warn him; he accidentally receives the letter early). In between complaints about a toothache (the screenwriters’ substitute for creating a character) Maharis begins investigating all the passengers to try to determine who the killer and his victim(s) might be.

And now is when it starts to get really silly. It turns out several people on board ARE planning murders against fellow passengers — separate, coincidental murders that aren’t even the ones promised in the letter. Bikel wants to kill Bellamy for skipping out on an operation that might have saved his wife’s life. Ironically at the very moment we learn that information, Bikel has a heart attack and Bellamy saves his life. Not only is Bikel now too incapacitated to kill him, he has to sit and listen to a lecture from him about how noble the medical profession is. (I hope he kills him later).

THEN Dane Clark tries to stab Sonny Bono with a knife! It turns out his teenage daughter OD’d while partying in Bono’s mansion. Instead of tying the man up, they make him listen to a conciliatory talk by Bono (“Kids today, they wanna be part of somethin’, Mr. Garwood. But ya oughta be proud. My roadie said she was a very special girl.” (I also hope HE gets killed later).

It isn’t until 2/3 of the way through the film that we get our first murder. A priest! Who turns out to be one of Fernando Lamas’s crime partners! Strangled and placed in a dumb waiter for maximum theatrical effect! And then stewardess Brooke Adams! Stabbed in the neck with a meat carving fork, because they used to serve real meals on planes!

Investigating all of this throughout, in conjunction with Stack and Maharis, is O’Brian, who is even more subdued and laconic than usual in this picture. Is he supposed to be “world weary” here? Drunk? On downers? Just wallowing? It seems to take him an eternity to spit out his lines, a no-no for actors. But then the big twist: it turns out HE was the killer, it’s his idea of justice since the gang of robbers had gotten off scot-free. He gathers all of the celebrities together so he can have his big dramatic moment, and then he shoots Lamas, which triggers an electrical fire. Here, in the film’s final moments, do we get our “disaster”, although the fire is soon put out and the plane has a safe landing. A little anti-climatic, but not as anti-climactic as I imagine this new Sully movie is gonna be! (“They ditched in the Hudson and nobody even got wet!”)

When last we see O’Brian, London bobbies are leading him away in handcuffs while he mutters insanely like Tony Perkins at the end of Psycho. Looks like the tables have turned, eh, Wyatt Earp?

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