For Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fast Times Are Slowed by Personal Tragedy

It should have been her year. For Jennifer Jason Leigh, the baby-faced, 5’3″, 100-pound actress, her unheralded Fast Times at Ridgemont High is making the kind of box office noise ($23.6 million to date) that gets a newcomer noticed. Playing a California high schooler trying, successfully, to lose her virginity, Leigh, 20, has won raves. But her triumph is shadowed by the death, on July 23, of her actor father, Vic Morrow, 53. Morrow, best known for the 1960s TV series Combat, was finishing shooting on director John Landis’ segment of the upcoming Twilight Zone film when a helicopter went out of control and crashed into him and two Vietnamese child actors.

When her mother phoned with the news, Leigh recalls, “I went into shock for four or five hours. I didn’t know what to feel.” Her confusion stems from more than grief. Leigh, whose parents separated when she was 2, hadn’t seen her father in three years or talked to him in two. She has no pat explanation for the estrangement. “I think Carrie was Daddy’s girl,” says Jennifer, referring to her older sister, now 23 and a mother. “I was Mommy’s girl.” Her mother is screenwriter Barbara (Freedom) Turner, who now is adapting author Stephen King’s Cujo. “The kids are staying very close together and making sure it doesn’t tear them apart,” says Turner. “I’m very proud of them.”

Though Leigh will not deny that the family may yet sue the parties involved in her father’s death, she claims there is no truth to published reports that Melvin Belli’s law firm is representing them in a $100 million action. Right now they’re still adjusting to the situation. The evening after Morrow’s death, Jennifer, Carrie and their mother found a print of Blackboard Jungle (the 1955 film in which Morrow made his memorable debut as a young punk) and watched it together in Turner’s den, each observing, in her own way, a special remembrance.

Born Jennifer Leigh Morrow, she decided to drop the name Morrow early on (Jason comes from family friend Jason Robards). But she doesn’t believe her father was hurt by her change. However, a source close to Morrow speaks of his “bad temper.” Of Morrow’s two wills, Jennifer says the first left her $1, the second only $100. “I didn’t expect to be left a thing,” says Jennifer defensively. “But I’m feeling pain, guilt and rage. I loved him. I have a picture of him taken when he was 16, and he looks like me.”

The resemblance doesn’t stop there. Jennifer has inherited her father’s grit. When her nude sex scene in a pool cabana was snipped from Fast Times to change the rating from X to R, Leigh sounded off. “I wanted the scene restored because it showed the awkward, clumsy reality of what sex is for 15-year-olds.” Like her father, Jennifer has always seemed to know her own mind. Her mother tried to postpone her acting ambitions but, at 14, Jennifer was studying drama. A 1977 Disney TV movie, The Young Runaways, started her off in a G-rated vein; at 18, she dropped out of high school in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Her subsequent work on TV (Angel City) and in movies (Eyes of a Stranger) rendered her deaf, dumb, blind and raped. Later she was starved as part of her acclaimed role in last year’s ABC movie The Best Little Girl in the World, in which she dropped to 86 pounds to play a victim of anorexia nervosa. Carrie reports that Morrow caught her sister in that one and was “very proud.”

Even more precocious than the teenagers she usually plays, Jennifer had a yearlong affair with actor David (Only When I Laugh) Dukes, now 37. The age difference hardly mattered. When he returned from Europe, where he had filmed ABC’s Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War miniseries, Dukes announced to Jennifer that he had fallen out of love with her and in love with feminist poet Carol Muske, 36. Jennifer seems unfazed, but there’s no replacement for Dukes so far. Now the only roommate in her one-bedroom Hollywood apartment (10 minutes away from Mom) is her cat Mitsou. “I don’t have time for anything but work,” says Leigh.

After recently wrapping the ABC movie The First Experience, she went directly into a co-starring role with Rodney Dangerfield in the film comedy Easy Money. Then there’s a possible new TV project, Call Girl, written by her mother. “I like the idea of being able to play anything from waif to prostitute,” says Jennifer.

Carrie says her dad also would have approved, adding that Morrow’s career, about to be revitalized by The Twilight Zone, would have made it easier for him to reconcile with his daughter. Jennifer agrees. “I always hoped we could work together and, through that, resolve whatever needed to be resolved between us,” she says. “Now that chance is lost. That’s the real tragedy.”

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