Twilight Zone Director John Landis Faces a Manslaughter Rap Over a Stunt That Went Tragically Wrong
For a director whose films offer a manically comic view of the world, John Landis was conservatively dressed—in a dark blue suit—and uncharacteristically silent. In a Los Angeles courtroom three weeks ago, he listened intently to a grand jury indictment accusing him and four associates of involuntary manslaughter—of causing the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children, who were decapitated last July when a camera helicopter on the set of the movie Twilight Zone scythed down on them. Landis pleaded not guilty, stating that “the accident was an overwhelming tragedy for many people. It had a profound impact on our lives. I know in my head and I know in my heart that we did not cause the accident.” Nonetheless, the strain was apparent, and Landis has ample cause for concern. If convicted, he could be sentenced to six years in prison. Should he be acquitted of the criminal charges, Landis still faces three wrongful death lawsuits claiming millions in damages. The accident happened at 2:30 a.m., eight hours past the legal curfew for the two children who were killed, and Landis has been fined $5,000 for violating child labor laws. The case has already set back the 32-year-old wunderkind’s career as one of Hollywood’s hot young directors. The talented but capricious Landis recently withdrew from Dick Tracy, a $25 million movie he was set to direct for Paramount and Universal Studios. Sean Daniels, a close friend of Landis and a Universal vice-president, explains, “John had to withdraw. He couldn’t work on the movie while preparing his legal case.”
The criminal trial of Landis (plus Twilight Zone associate producer George Folsey Jr., production manager Dan Allingham, special effects coordinator Paul Stewart and pilot Dorcey Wingo) will probably not get under way for about three months. But Hollywood isn’t waiting. Fueled by rampant and frequently inaccurate rumors, movie industry insiders are assessing the blame and weighing the young filmmaker’s responsibility for the tragedy. On one point there is unanimous—and positive—agreement: Whatever the outcome of his trial, Landis will be able to resume directing. “Would I hire him again?” says producer Peter Guber, a former vice-president at Columbia Pictures. “You bet! It would not make any difference to me if he’s convicted, anymore than if John Dean or Richard Nixon walked in with a good project.”
Money talks, and no hot property walks in Hollywood. With Animal House, one of the top-grossing movies ever, and the current Trading Places, a box office smash, Landis is on a spectacular roll. “It won’t affect his career,” predicts a Landis confidant. “He’s too good and Hollywood is too greedy.”
Still, Landis is now stigmatized as the first director to be indicted for an on-set fatality. He was unquestionably in charge the night a routine stunt went terribly wrong. Vic Morrow had just gathered Myca Le, 7, and Renee Chen, 6, into his arms and was walking across a river in a simulated Vietnam War scene when debris from a special effects explosion destroyed a hovering helicopter’s rear rotor and brought the chopper crashing down. The prosecution’s case is likely to include allegations made by witnesses on the set that Landis ordered the helicopter to descend to just 30 feet above a hut he knew would be blown up—a charge the director denies. Explosives expert James Camomile, who detonated the fatal blast, has been awarded immunity for turning state’s evidence.
Some Hollywood executives hold that the director is “captain of his ship” and that Landis, therefore, was responsible for everything that transpired. But John Milius, director of Conan the Barbarian, says he would fault Landis only “if he saw the children and was aware of their being there illegally.” Says Milius, “You can’t condemn a director for telling a helicopter to fly lower. Directors have been telling stuntmen to ride their horses off cliffs since the beginning of film. It’s up to the person riding the horse to say no.”
Jim Gavin, a veteran Hollywood “air coordinator,” agrees that the onus ordinarily should not be on the director. But in this case, he says, Landis “went for the lowest dollar” in assembling his production. Indeed, says Gavin, Landis opted not only for a cost-cutting pilot with the least movie experience, but he purposely chose one who “wouldn’t talk back to the director.”
Gavin, who was called in to examine the scene of the accident for the National Transportation Safety Board, found another shortcoming: The crucial radio link between the director, the special effects expert and the pilot was “lousy.” A witness who was on the set says that Landis was irritated and impatient, and yelled obscenities at the pilot over the radio. The director was under pressure because the production was reportedly behind schedule. Under stress, Landis is, according to several sources, both volatile and inconsistent. He treats his actors with sensitivity, but alternates consideration with unreasoning arrogance in his dealings with the crew. This behavior has led to speculation that Landis himself or some of his crew members were in a personal “twilight zone” of cocaine or beer. Friends of Landis discount the suggestion out of hand, saying he never uses drugs. “He’s the straightest man I ever met,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, who worked with Landis during the filming of Trading Places. “He drinks Tab.”