In director John Landis’ segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, the big-screen version of the spooky TV series, a bigoted businessman (Vic Morrow) steps outside his local bar and is transported to a Vietnam swamp, where he finds himself an enemy soldier surrounded by U.S. troops. As envisioned by Landis — after prodding from studio execs for a ”feel-good” ending — the racist would repent after rescuing two Vietnamese children. ”I’ll keep you safe, kids,” Morrow was to say. ”I swear to God!”
Tragically, Landis couldn’t do the same for his cast. At 2:30 a.m. on July 23, 1982, the director shot the climactic scene: Morrow held 6-year-old Renee Chen and 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le as a helicopter hovered over them on the Newhall, Calif., set. A special-effects explosion caused the chopper to crash, killing all three actors. The right skid crushed Chen, and a rotor blade decapitated Le and Morrow, a veteran actor, 53, who had starred in ABC’s Combat (1962-67) and whose survivors include actress-daughter Jennifer Jason Leigh.
On June 24, 1983, the same day Twilight Zone: The Movie was released to mediocre reviews and box office, Landis and four members of the film’s production staff were indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter. During the nine-month trial that began in September 1986, Landis admitted breaking child labor laws, but — contradicting testimony by several witnesses — said he hadn’t been warned that the scene was dangerous. The jury acquitted him and his codefendants on all counts.
”It’s unlikely children would be placed in that kind of extreme jeopardy again,” says Stephen Farber, coauthor of a 1988 book about the case, Outrageous Conduct, ”but things haven’t changed much in overall safety.” Landis has worked steadily since the crash, experiencing ups (1983’s Trading Places) and downs (1991’s Oscar). Peter Guber, now head of Sony Pictures, summed up the industry’s forgiving attitude toward Landis when he said in 1983: ”It would not make any difference to me if he’s convicted, any more than if John Dean or Richard Nixon walked in with a good project.”
July 23, 1982
E.T. did out-of-this-world business at the movies, while Dallas topped the TV ratings. Record buyers wanted the Human League’s ”Don’t You Want Me,” and Jane Fonda’s Workout Book sweated up to No. 1 on the best-seller list.