Imagine this: you’re aboard a plane and happen to see that one of the passengers is the famous host of a popular reality TV show about pulling pranks on people in random situations. Now, picture this: the plane you’re on just got hijacked. What would you think? That you’re the subject of the pranking show’s latest stunt? Heck, so would I. And so did they…
On February 2, 1969, the passengers on Eastern Airlines Flight 7, heading to Miami from Newark, couldn’t believe their luck. Who knew their initially boring flight would suddenly become part of a classic Candid Camera stunt? But they weren’t so lucky after all…
Don’t Smile! You’re Not on Candid Camera
Oh, the passengers were in for a ride, all right. They just didn’t expect the ride to take them to Cuba instead. The flight to Miami was hijacked by armed men and heading for Cuba. The hijacking was very real, but the passengers weren’t really taking it seriously.
Why? Because Allen Funt, the former host of Candid Camera (which aired on TV from 1960 to 1967), was on board. And so, everyone thought it was all just some joke that they would later see on TV. Interestingly enough, the laughter and immense feeling of relief felt on that flight may have actually saved the day.
Allen Funt Was With His Family… and a Camera Crew
On that February morning, Allen Funt and his wife and two young children boarded a plane from New Jersey to Florida. At the time, his son, William, was one, and his daughter, Juliet, was two. Considering that Funt spent the past decade as the face of the hit prank show Candid Camera, he was famous and easily recognizable.
The show, which began on the radio and then moved to TV between 1960 and 1967, made Funt a loveable yet mischievous prankster known to millions. If you’re wondering why he had a camera crew with him, you’ll see there was a very good reason.
He Was Heading to Shoot an Adult Film
Funt was heading to Florida to work on – get this – an adult movie version of Candid Camera called What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (More on this 1970 film later.) Since he was going to a film shoot, he had a camera crew with him. But to those who didn’t know his plans, he looked like he was on yet another Candid Camera outing.
Hijackings are obviously very rare today (with the insane amount of security at airports), but back in 1969, they were surprisingly common. In 1969 alone, at least three dozen hijackings to Cuba were either attempted or successful.
Fidel Castro Welcomed All the Hijacked Planes
In those days, there was (shockingly) little to no airport security. As for the hijackers, many believed they were going to Cuba as heroes. Fidel Castro was actually happy to have the planes make their way to his country as it both embarrassed the United States as well as put a ransom in place for the aircraft to make their way back to the airlines.
In fact, hijackings were so common that comedians often joked about them. Carol Burnett and Monty Python, for example, did regular bits about them.
Okay, so let’s get back to Eastern Airlines Flight 7…
20 Minutes Later…
Funt’s daughter Juliet told Radiolab that she and her family were sitting in first class and that the flight was uneventful for the first 20 minutes. Then, about 100 miles offshore, as the passengers were in their seats, reading a book or staring down at the clouds…
Juliet said that a man stood up at the back of the flight and took out a knife. He placed the knife at the throat of one of the flight attendants, and he walked her all the way down the center aisle.
The Flight Crew Was Waiting for Breakfast
They then entered the cockpit, passing every single passenger on the flight. Fred Weaver is a retired Eastern Airlines pilot, and he was one of the flight crew on Flight 7. With him that day was co-pilot Lowell Miller.
The two recalled the event on the Radiolab podcast, saying that when the hijacking began, they were expecting breakfast. Miller heard a knock on the cockpit door and opened it. Miller and Weaver then saw the flight attendant standing there with the man and the knife at her throat.
Uh Oh, Here We Go
As Weaver recalled, the man was agitated, saying only “Cuba, Cuba!” But he then uttered something about his friend having a bomb at the back of the airplane. “I knew, right then I said, uh oh, here we go,” Miller shared.
The flight crew weren’t the only eyewitnesses; someone in coach named Jim Zack had his own part to tell. Zack was only 11 years old at the time but old enough for the event to make a mark on his memory.
Attention Passengers, We’re Going to Cuba
Zack told Radiolab that the “stewardess was walking around, talking with all the passengers, asking them if anybody knew how to speak Spanish.” He didn’t think much of it at the time, that is until an announcement came over the loudspeaker.
Passengers suddenly heard the captain make an announcement over the intercom: “We’ve got a man up here that wants to go to Havana. So, we’re going to Cuba.” Bizarre? Yes. Scary? Only for a minute. As soon as passengers noticed Allen Funt and his camera crew on the flight, their worries subsided.
Hey, Isn’t That the Candid Camera Guy?
Juliet Funt held multiple interviews about the event, and while she was only two years old at the time, she knows all of this is because “it’s family law,” as she stated on a Radiolab podcast. Juliet explained how one woman recognized her famous dad and got excited.
The woman a few aisles down from the Funt family recognized Funt. She started “to look back and forth to other folks and point a little bit, and there was a slow-building of her certainty.” And then, all of a sudden…
The Plane Went Nuts
The woman “bolted up and said, ‘Wait a second! We are not being hijacked. It’s a Candid Camera stunt!’” And just like that, the fear died down, and the word spread fast. Everyone figured that it was all a joke.
Heck, they were clearly on an episode of Candid Camera! Some of them even approached the host about it. The day after the incident, Funt told reporters all about the event. He mentioned that “at least four people who recognized me pounced on me.”
The 10-Inch Knife Didn’t Scare Them
Well, everyone except for the actual hijackers and the flight crew. Despite the terrifying scene of seeing a man hold a 10-inch knife to the throat of one of the flight attendants, passengers were laughing and in a good mood.
They were stomping their feet and dancing in the aisle. (If this sounds like a scene from the ‘80s film Airplane! then you’re not alone). Funt recalled: “The unbelievable thing is the way everybody took it as one big joke. We saw the knife, but everybody was cool and calm.”
They Asked Him to Sign Their Air-Sickness Bags
As word spread that Funt was on the plane, some passengers asked him for his autograph. Some even asked him to sign their air-sickness bags! The attention shifted from the hijackers to the TV host, despite his consistent attempts to tell everyone that they were definitely not part of a prank.
These passengers were so relieved in their belief that it was a prank that they were celebrating. It got to the point that some even applauded the hijackers! The only thing that bothered the passengers was that the flight was delayed.
But It Wasn’t All Fun and Games
“It is strange how you can be so close to danger and not feel it,” Funt said. Juliet later described the whole event as a party atmosphere – people were laughing and cheering. But not all passengers were on the same page.
The flight crew, for example, were worried. They knew what was really happening and weren’t exactly cheering and stomping their feet. Funt was in a state of his own. He pleaded with his fans: “No, no, it’s not me. I’m not involved.”
The Priest Didn’t Believe Him
Funt (and his family and crew) were the only ones who knew what was really happening. Funt tried his best to get someone to believe him. There happened to be a priest on the flight, and Funt pleaded with him.
He said to him, “Father, will you please help me convince these people?” He told the priest that this was not a stunt – “that maniac is for real.” Despite his serious tone, the priest wasn’t buying it. He said to Funt, “You can’t get me, Allen Funt. Oh no, you don’t!”
It Looked Like a Bad Movie
There was another factor that seemed to influence people’s opinions on the event. And that was the hijackers’ appearance. In an interview, Funt described “a little fat man with a 10-inch knife held at the neck of a stewardess.”
Funt admitted, “The biggest joke for me was how much the whole thing looked like a bad movie.” Apparently, they more closely resembled paid comedy actors than actual armed hijackers. “Nobody looked the part. The hijackers were ridiculous in their business suits.”
Meanwhile, in the Cockpit
While the rest of the plan enjoyed their party, the hijackers were in the cockpit, terrorizing the flight crew. Miller remembers at one point hearing all this commotion coming from first class. He opened the door and poked his head out.
He then saw everyone applauding. Meanwhile, Funt wasn’t succeeding in convincing the passengers that this wasn’t his plan. So, in pure frustration, he decided to come up with a plan to deal with the hijackers himself. According to Juliet, his plan was to attack the hijackers.
Funt Concocted a Plan
As Funt was telling his wife Marilyn what he wanted to do, she said to him, “Don’t you do anything.” She called him an “idiot” and reminded him that they had two babies on the plane. Reportedly, the flight attendants even told Funt to sit down and remain calm.
Then, the plane started to make its descent – they were going to land very soon. Of course, everyone thought they were landing in Miami. And as they were landing, some passengers even gave a standing ovation. But they weren’t in Florida at all…
They Were Taken to Varadero
Only after they touched down did the passengers realize that the hijacking was, in fact, real. As soon as they landed, Cuban police and military rushed the plane. It was the first time that everyone really got it – that it was, indeed, a hijacking.
According to Julie’s account, many of the passengers did a complete 180 on Funt and were now angry with him for the whole affair. As they walked out of the plane, they started cursing at the former TV host – the one they had been applauding just minutes earlier.
“Smile My Ass”
Juliet said they felt as though he had lied to them, as if he had tricked them, despite all his protests during the flight. One of the last passengers to walk out of the plane turned to Funt and said, “Smile my ass.”
Marilyn attested to that anecdote: “That did happen. ‘Smile my ass’ was the closing remark on the whole business.” The passengers were immediately taken off the aircraft and shuttled to the resort town of Varadero. According to Juliet, once they arrived in the town, they were the “guests of Mr. Castro” for 11 hours.
Mr. Castro’s Guests
By guests, she means they were treated well. “They fed us, guided us, and treated us with courtesy,” Juliet explained. There was one exception, though. “If you wanted any information, everybody was suddenly deaf and dumb.”
She explained how there was no telephone, no way to send a message, and no one to talk to other than the Cubans.” And the Cubans wouldn’t say a word. While they were “guests” of a dictator, they still knew that they were not in control.
Funt Turned Down an Award
Zack remembers seeing a Cuban soldier. “He had a gun in his hand, and he had bandoliers, with lots of bullets on it.” Later that night, the passengers were flown back to the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration offered Funt a citation for bravery, but he turned it down.
He made a point to say that he was just a passenger – like everybody else. He said he was even more panicked than everyone else, considering they were having such a good time.
What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?
Remember the tidbit about Funt and his camera crew heading to Miami for an adult film shoot? Well, as Inside Hook wrote, the X-Rated ’70s prank film, What Do You Say to a Naked Lady “scandalized America.”
Before we get to that, it would help to know a bit about the show’s history for a moment. Allen Funt’s career in showbiz revolved around his curiosity (or fixation) on people’s reactions. He was keen on creating bizarre scenarios and documenting how people responded to those scenarios.
From the Candid Microphone to Candid Camera
The mastermind behind Candid Camera started out doing wacky stunts on NBC’s Truth or Consequences radio show. He then cut out the middleman with his own show in 1947, which he called The Candid Microphone.
The young Funt tricked unsuspecting pedestrians on the show while a 27-pound mic unit was kept hidden in a park or office. Funt believed he stumbled onto something magical, and so he looked around for a televised equivalent to his radio show. In 1949, he landed NBC and created Candid Camera.
X-Rated Films Became Popular
The show was such a hit that it stuck around for the next six decades. Something else about Funt: he like to see people with their clothes off – and see how other people reacted. By February 1970, X-rated movies infiltrated movie theaters across the country.
People realized that an X-rating didn’t necessarily mean it was pornography. Then, when the nude-infused Midnight Cowboy won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the public was happy to ride the X-rated film train. Funt recognized an opportunity when he saw one.
Naked Gals, Unsuspecting Guys
Funt proposed an idea to the big wigs at United Artists: a sex-themed parody of Candid Camera. He also wanted the film to be feature-length and played in theaters. With the approval of the FCC, he could place naked gals and unsuspecting guys in unusual circumstances and catch it all… on camera.
The flirty film was made, and the opening frame gives viewers a pop song summary: “These are real people you’re gonna see / people like you and people like me! / These are real people, caught unaware / none of these people knew we were there!”
That Devious Grin
Audiences were mixed; seniors were outraged, while youth thought it was no big deal. The film begins with a Mamas-and-the-Papas-type of the theme song: “What do you say to a naked lady/one that you barely know?”
You see an average Joe around a corner and bump into a naked woman as the song plays. He then collects himself and continues on his way. But the camera zeroes in on his devious grin, and that’s precisely what Funt wanted. But this was just the beginning.
RIP, Allen Funt
Funt was born in 1914 to a Jewish family in New York City. Having studied commercial art, he worked for an advertising agency’s art department before entering the company’s radio department. Apart from his time on Truth or Consequences, he also assisted Eleanor Roosevelt with her radio commentaries.
He was then drafted into the Army during World War II and stationed in Oklahoma. Candid Camera was partially inspired by Funt’s time in the military. He thought that it would improve morale at the post if GIs were given a chance to air out their complaints.
He Gave Soldiers Room to Whine
Funt set up a “gripe room” for soldiers to whine about their superiors. Funt later played the soldiers’ grievances on recordings for their own entertainment, officers included. It turns out the bit was a hit.
“It’s a bit of a time capsule,” Funt said about Candid Camera in 1974. “In a world that seems to be changing like crazy, we’ll see that people in certain ways have changed very little. Something is reassuring about the fact that the human-animal is still pretty much the same.”
Funt Visits Lucy
By the time Funt played himself on Here’s Lucy in 1971, he was a household name. Funt played an Allen Funt impersonator (yup). He convinces Lucy to rob a bank, which is supposed to be part of a Candid Camera stunt.
Funt suffered a stroke in 1993 and became incapacitated by 1999 when he passed away a mere 11 days before his 85th birthday. Candid Camera kept shooting, with his son, Peter Funt, as the host. But for a while, as you must remember, Suzanne Somers was Funt’s co-host. Somers co-hosted the show for two years, between 1997 and ’99.
Funt’s Favorite Prank
In 1960, Allen Funt told The Los Angeles Times about his then-favorite prank from the show. He hooked up a microphone into a mailbox and stood back at a distance, behind some shrubs. That way, he could see the people walking by.
One man came by eating an apple, and he stopped when he heard a voice asking him if he saw the mailman. The voice told him the mailman better come soon because he “was all filled up.” (If that isn’t a “dad joke,” I don’t know what is.)
The Mailbox Can Talk, You See
The voice, obviously, was Funt’s. And the funny thing is that this apple-eating man carried on a whole conversation with him. The man then hailed another passerby to tell him the mailbox could talk. “Say something,” he said to the mailbox.
After all, the box was silent (Funt had a sense of humor), and the apple man almost went out of his mind. Funt described how “He screamed, he kicked, and he pulled at the mailbox. Finally, the other guy walked away shaking his head.”
From Dolly Parton to Muhammad Ali
Of course, Candid Camera wasn’t known for its Hollywood talent, but that doesn’t mean that celebrities didn’t enjoy making an appearance. Dolly Parton, for one, enjoyed being a part of one of the skits. She pretended to be injured in her episode and asked men to carry her to her car in a parking lot.
Then there was an episode with a young pre-fame Woody Allen, who played a young businessman who dictates a very un-professional love letter to a stenographer. There was even one kid who got the chance to spar with boxer Muhammad Ali.
Like Father, Like Son
Like his father, Peter takes fun seriously. Peter is the son of Funt’s first wife, Evelyn, to whom Peter dedicated his book. As a kid, Peter Funt spent his summers working on the Candid Camera set, making his first appearance at the age of three.
He was the shoe-shine boy, charging $10 per shoe. He went on to show up in hundreds of the show’s sequences. Peter later hosted over 250 episodes. After his stint on the show, he released his memoir, Self-Amused: A Tell-Some Memoir.
The Laughter Therapy Foundation
He explained in his book how he and his father spent their lives finding things that “tickled” them. Peter later took over as President of the Laughter Therapy Foundation, which his father actually started in 1982.
Funt made use of the Candid Camera archives to send special tapes to terminally ill people across the country. “Sometimes, our most useful laughter,” Peter said recently, “is when you’re all alone in the room, and you read something in an email or see something out the window that strikes you as funny.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Sometimes Hilarious
“The ability to laugh when we’re all alone is a wonderful gift.” The first book he wrote was in college, called Gotcha, about practical jokes. When his dad suffered a stroke in 1993, Funt was in the middle of writing his own memoir. Peter then stepped in to complete a large portion of it.
In 2013, Peter published Cautiously Optimistic, a book of 75 essays that covered the American spirit during tough times. The book invites readers to see the good, the bad, and the sometimes hilarious things in life.
The Memoir Pandemic
“Sure, Americans are concerned about taxes, education, and crime,” Peter wrote. “But we also care about mobile apps that talk back to us, Paul McCartney’s hairdo, and raccoons that destroy our lawns.” And recently, the pandemic reared its ugly head.
Peter realized that he was just one person in a sea of writers who used the lockdown to write. Peter found himself in the midst of a “memoir pandemic.” Peter’s first attempt at a memoir during the lockdown had the working title “Nice Work.”
From Nice Work to Better Work
When finished, he couldn’t get even one agent’s interest. His own wife wasn’t a fan. She told him his writing was “too far down in the weeds,” including six pages devoted to how copy machines work. He then turned Nice Work into Self-Amused – the book that was actually picked up and sold.
It helped that Peter wrote about Candid Camera. Peter is also the founder of the Monterey County Young Journalists program and launched a Courtroom Journalism competition. These days, he writes for The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
The Most Elaborate Set
One of the most elaborate sets of Candid Camera featured Peter at the reception desk of a “dual” business. For those visiting for the first time, they recognized it as a quick film developing store. However, when they came back to pick up their photos, the place transformed into a dry cleaner.
The set was elaborate, with different signs and pictures and everything. One woman paced up and down the street six times before Peter finally let her in on the joke.