Prior to his death, Lee revealed that he was up for the role of Dr. Rumack in the 1980 parody movie “Airplane!” Rumack was portrayed by Leslie Nielsen in the surreal comedy film. Rumack was the voice of reason, particularly for Ted (Robert Hays), but always delivered his ideas in the most monotone voice. His deadpan nature is the major reason why Nielsen’s character is one of the most memorable from the film, as his devotion to acting serious added to the overall absurdity.
In a 2005 interview with Total Film, Lee explained that he was asked to appear in “Airplane!” at the same time that he was working with Steven Spielberg on “1941.” His colleagues cautioned him to avoid the film, which Lee described as a “big mistake” on his part. He expressed similar sentiments to the BBC in 2006, calling this decision his biggest regret.
“Airplane!” was a commercial success, grossing more than $83 million worldwide upon its release (via Box Office Mojo). It’s easy to picture someone with an inherently intimidating nature like Lee portraying a serious character like Dr. Rumack. It would have been a perfect role for him to combine his talent for acting as a villain with a film that’s rooted in comedy rather than action, drama, or horror.