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Up North Escape: Vilas County

Movie director Jim Abrahams hails from Vilas County.

Did you know that Vilas County is a hot spot for the director of Hot Shots?

Have you heard the one about a writer/director from the comedy classic Airplane summering in Eagle River? Turns out that’s no joke. Jim Abrahams has been vacationing in Vilas County since he was a young boy. His parents fell in love with the area after honeymooning there and eventually built a little cabin that Abrahams and his family continue to visit.

“Spending summers in Eagle River was the best part of my youth,” recalls Abrahams. “So we made sure to take our kids there — to the same place — and now we take the grandkids.” 

“Every time I step off the plane, I just feel the weight of the world come off my shoulders. And that first hit of northern Wisconsin air is fabulous!”

What keeps taking him back? “Every time I step off the plane, I just feel the weight of the world come off my shoulders. And that first hit of northern Wisconsin air is fabulous! It has a very warm place in my heart.”

The University of Wisconsin–Madison holds an equally special place. While attending the UW in the ’60s as an English major, Abrahams admits he wasn’t the best student. “Back then my parents wanted me to be a doctor. I was never going to be a doctor,” he says. “But I had a ball and made wonderful friends.”

A few of those friends — David Zucker ’70, Dick Chudnow ’67, and Jerry Zucker ’72 — eventually helped Abrahams to find his way when they teamed up to create the Kentucky Fried Theater comedy troupe. From there it was on to Hollywood for Abrahams and a string of hilarious hit movies that stretch from the ’80s to the 2000s — Top Secret, The Naked Gun, Ruthless People, and Hot Shots, to name a few.

“Today my real modern passion is diet therapy for epilepsy … a field that’s no joke at all,” says Abrahams. That’s because in 1993, his then-11-month-old son, Charlie, developed difficult-to-control epilepsy that resulted in multiple daily seizures and multiple daily medications. It wasn’t until the family turned to a ketogenic diet that Charlie became seizure and drug free. 

“When he was cured so miraculously by the ketogenic diet, I felt like, I can’t just walk away from this,” Abrahams says. “I know there are millions of other kids who are as sick as Charlie. I have to do everything I can so other people don’t suffer unnecessarily the way Charlie had.”

Abrahams founded the Charlie Foundation for Ketogenic Therapies in 1994 to provide information about diet therapies for people with epilepsy, other neurological disorders, and select cancers.
Life hasn’t turned completely serious for Abrahams, though. He’s currently working on a script for a new TV comedy about the shortcomings of the health-care system. And in 2014 he returned to Wisconsin with the Zuckers to film commercials for the state’s tourism department that also reunited him with some of the stars of Airplane.

“I’ll be honest: I had very mixed emotions about doing this,” says Abrahams. “Because I thought, gosh, if these commercials work, there’ll be more people vacationing up north, and I won’t be able to fish the lakes by myself. But the greater good won out.”

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