In 1969 Allen Funt was one of the most famous men in America. His brainchild, Candid Camera, had been a CBS mainstay from 1960 to 1967, entertaining millions of Americans every week with its trademark hidden camera pranks—everyone knew Allen Funt, and everyone associated him with Candid Camera. “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” was a catchphrase known to just about everybody.
But fame has its curious effects. On February 2, 1969, Funt, his wife, and his two youngest children boarded Eastern Airlines Flight 7 in Newark with a destination of Miami. The plane never made it to Miami because two men hijacked the airplane and demanded passage to Cuba—but some of the passengers, having spotted Funt, took the whole thing to be a Candid Camera stunt.
Allen Funt’s daughter Juliet Funt, who was 2 years old at the time, recently recalled the incident in front of a live audience. Her account is engaging, but she draws conclusions about the difficulty of breaking groups of people from a “trance” that, well, aren’t the conclusions I would have drawn. In addition she gets a couple of basic details wrong. The flight didn’t leave JFK Airport in 1968, it was a flight out of Newark Airport in February 1969.
According to the New York Times, 93 people were on the flight, and it was the twelfth hijacking incident of 1969—remember, this happened in early February. For reasons that are difficult to reconstruct today, hijacking planes and taking them to Cuba became a “thing” in the late 1960s. It was a common trope that people like Johnny Carson and the Monty Python guys used regularly. I guarantee that Laugh-In had jokes about it. I’ve added not one but two Monty Python hijacking sketches; they’re at the end of this post.
Here’s the text of that article, which was written by Funt himself and appeared in many newspapers, including the Ocala Star-Banner, on February 4, 1969.
Hijack No Stunt By Allen Funt
When the captain of our plane announced that we were going to Havana instead of Miami, at least four people who recognized me pounced on me, certain that it was a Candid Camera stunt.
But it was anything in the world but a stunt. There was a little fat man with a 10-inch knife held at the neck of a stewardess and he was not smiling.
It started out as a combination business and pleasure trip. My wife, Marilyn, and the youngest two of my five children, were coming with me as well as a complete camera crew.
For 11 hours we were the guests of Mr. Castro. They fed us, guided us and treated us with courtesy, with one exception.
If you wanted any information, everybody was suddenly deaf and dumb. There was no telephone, no way to send a wire, no one to talk to except Cubans and they wouldn’t say a word.
When they were good and ready and that means, when they ran up a bill for about $5,000, they found our airplane which I know was sitting there waiting for us for five hours. This was at Varadero, where we had been taken by bus from Havana airport.
Looking back at the experience, the unbelievable thing is the way everybody took it as one big joke. We saw the knife but everybody was cool and calm, just a little annoyed at the delay.
It is strange how you can be so close to danger and not feel it.
The biggest joke for me was how much the whole thing looked like a bad movie. Nobody looked the part. The hijackers were ridiculous in their business suits. The captain with super calm announced that we were going to Havana because two gentlemen seemed to want to go there.
On the bus to Varadero, we went through the heart of the formerly gay Havana. It was obvious that something had been allowed to go to pot. The guide makes sure you notice the new and rather imposing buildings which include the President’s Palace, the army headquarters and the Havana library.
The hero and heroine of the trip were my 1-year-old son William and my 2-year-old daughter Juliet. They spent the longest day in their young lives with hardly a whimper. We were planning to put the finishing touches on our feature film entitled “What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?” but the little fat man with the long knife changed all that.
The movie we are making is the only one in history which is done 100 per cent with a hidden camera. Now we are going home. There has been so much publicity that anything suspicious that occurs will make people watch. We’ll come back one day and film the scene.
Juliet Funt makes it seem like the passengers decided to make the whole thing a big party—Allen’s account doesn’t really support that. Juliet mentions that the passengers gave the hijackers a standing ovation—Allen mentions no such thing.
As Funt says, he was traveling in order to do some work on his “adult”-oriented movie version of Candid Camera—good idea!—a movie called What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? That movie was released in 1970 and was initially given an X rating; eventually an edited version received an R. The trailer is pretty darn diverting:
Here’s Juliet Funt’s presentation of the story:
Here are two different Monty Python sketches that have to do with hijacking a plane:
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Mods: New Jersey garage band on ‘Candid Camera’
Buster Keaton on ‘Candid Camera’