Tragedy Is Stranger Than Fiction

The Accidental Death on The Twilight Zone

After writing about Spielberg’s departure from the Twilight Zone film, I thought it might be smart to recap exactly what caused the rift between him and John Landis. Since I’ve somehow been on this Landis kick (without fully realizing it until now) I figured I’d go full throttle and conclude it with this one. Sadly, it’s not a feel good story with a happy ending. It’s rather tragic, but managed to change the landscape in which child actors can work in movies, and for awhile made Hollywood one of the most conservative businesses around. Let continue where I last left off…

Daley Plaza in Chicago where the Blues Brothers crashed through the window.

When Spielberg decided he wanted to spearhead the Twilight Zone film for Universal he entrusted his friend at the time, John Landis, to help out. After his unorthodox approach on films like: Animal House, turning a standard horror movie into a visual delight of make up effects on An American Warewolf…, and convincing the mayor to drive the Bluesmobile through a Chicago landmark — Landis had a reputation for breaking the rules.

Now lets fast forward to the production. The first of four segments was being filmed by Landis. The story was set around a bigot named Bill Connor, played by Vic Morrow, who in a twist of irony, ends up having to survive various eras of persecution. The final climax tests Morrow’s character when he decides to rescue Vietnamese children from a hut in the midst of the Vietnam War. The pyrotechnics needed in order to pull off the scene convincingly would be substantial.

Actor Vic Morrow. On an earlier picture had a premonition he was going to die in a helcopter crash

July 23, 1982

The filming for this sequence took place at the Indian Dunes Park of Valencia, California. The site was popular in the early 80’s due to its various topography, and filming could be done easily at night without the light pollution from the city. The crew was excited to finish the first segment in the Twilight Zone film, on the last scheduled day shooting around 2 A.M. Vic Morrow was to take the two children named My-ca Dinh Le (age 7) and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (age 6) across the shallow pond and flee to safety. Now to be clear, the two children should have both had work permits and should have been wrapped much earlier in the night. Neither was enforced. The parents were thrilled to have their children part of a major Hollywood film, and Landis wasn’t overly concerned with all the paperwork being filed. Both children were paid under the table to circumvent the child labor laws, and they could be filmed without any time constraints.

Morrow was instructed to have the two children under his arms, running across knee-deep water in complete darkness while a helicopter pursued them. Four cameras at various angles were in place to capture the entire thing. In the background — the village under siege — giant fireballs, machine gun fire, pyrotechnics -all while a helicopter was belting towards the three.

The silhouettes of the three victims in the midst of the explosions.

“ACTION!” Landis shouted. The three made their way through the river while the explosion reverberations pounded on Morrow’s chest. The vibrations ripping through the water. To add an element of impending danger, Landis yelled from a bullhorn to bring the helicopter lower, almost hovering right over the three. Lower and lower it went.

The effects people began to panic as a lot of safety factors were at play. The wind calculations, the helicopter whips, the fires, pyrotechnics. The helicopter was so low it was just 24 feet above the water. Everyone was on pins and needles.

Then it happened…

Explosions from the village made the pilot decide to split the scene and fly off. Then two more fireballs came rolling into his view, engulfing his vision. The tail rotor got struck by a mortar effect, causing the helicopter to spin downward. Everything went to hell. Morrow got startled from the noise, causing him to lose grip on one of the kids. When he went to lift her back up, that’s when the helicopter came crashing down sideways on her, crushing her in the process. The blades decapitated Morrow and the other child he was holding. The cameras had captured everything.

Landis rushed down to the scene, as did his assistant. The crew of the helicopter made it out alive albeit stunned from the shock. His assistant was the one who found Mr. Morrow’s torso. He at first figured it was a dummy that must have fallen out of the helicopter. There was no blood, and it felt a bit rubbery. He then looked over and saw his head lying near the shore. Screams were heard. A voice from the loudspeaker asked everyone to leave their equipment and go home.

The helicopter lost control after an explosion ripped the tail rotor off, killing three people.

Jack Rimmer, a fire-safety officer, covered Morrow’s body with a sheet and placed in on a bank. While wading across the water to douse the fires from the village he also discovered Myca Le’s head in the water. The helicopter remained in place until an investigation could take place on what caused the damage.

It was the first time a director had faced criminal charges for events that occurred while filming a movie. The impending trail was a bitter one. Landis and several others, including the special effects coordinator and helicopter pilot, were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Spielberg was unaware of the violations Landis had imposed during shooting, and now that there were deaths on his set, especially ones involving kids, he severed ties completely.

1987 — Landis and 4 others faced criminal and civil charges. Harlan Bruan the high profile defense attorney stands next to Landis (second from left).

After an emotional 10-month trial, Landis and the others were acquitted on the basis they couldn’t have predicted the accident before shooting began. The parents of the children were awarded around $2 million and an undisclosed amount went to Vic Morrow’s family. Warner Bros. created special safety committees to establish acceptable filming practices for actors and set practices as well as issuing special bulletins and hotlines to call in case of danger on set. Next on the agenda was Spielberg’s episode. One that was going to involve a bunch of kids, but after the terrible tragedy, he hedged his bets with the uninspired segment “Kick the Can.” Productions decided to forgo elaborate explosions, instead finding ways to minimize risk. Between 1982 and 1986 accidents on set fell by a whopping 70%.

My personal views are that the verdict is a complete injustice to the family members, gross negligence on Landis and the pilot’s part, and could have been easily avoidable. It’s really a shame that a movie was seen in such a negative light, and also did a disservice to the legacy Rod Serling created. Oddly enough, Landis’ career never suffered other than his personal name and integrity involving the situation. It’s weird to think all this was going on at the same time Thriller was being filmed. Spielberg’s reputation remained shiny as well, although from what I understand he was extremely furious with Landis even before the incident occurred. It’s also my opinion that Spielberg would never have allowed such a careless display, especially since his reputation is an overprotective, kid-friendly director.

I don’t wish to post the video showing the incident, but for those of you who are morbidly curious, you can find the footage on Youtube or anywhere on the internet. Movies sometimes have that surreal feel to them. Where at the end of the day, you can shut it off and think to yourself, “it’s just a movie.” Sadly though, in the Twilight Zone, truth is sometimes more tragic than fiction.


A version of this was originally published at www.shoefactoryroad.com on November 17, 2015.