Unfortunately, in many cases, it takes a tragedy to make change. In the case of the 1983 film The Twilight Zone, it took three accidental deaths to change the way films are made. The original TV series, The Twilight Zone, was so popular in the early 1960s that it still remains a part of pop culture today (the latest revival is as recent as 2019).
While The Twilight Zone is something that both audiences and producers keep coming back to, it also has a very dark shadow looming over it. For some people, when they hear those three words, they automatically think of the catchy theme music. For others, The Twilight Zone instantly makes them think of the three actors, a man and two children, who lost their lives because of it.
The Twilight Zone is the source of one of Hollywood’s most shocking tragedies – an accident that stemmed from poor planning and rule-breaking and ultimately led to the deaths of an industry legend and two child actors. It also changed the way films are made to this day.
Mere weeks after the whole Twilight Zone trial ended in 1987, one of the case’s five defendants, helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo, took a visitor on tour around the dusty parking lot of the Western Helicopter Company in Rialto. Wingo had piloted dozens of combat missions in Vietnam – flying was his life. But on this little tour, he was empty. Wingo pointed to a hangar: “That’s where Art Scholl was based,” he said with sorrow in his voice.
Scholl was killed in a crash during the making of Top Gun. Despite the fact that Scholl was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated stunt pilots, the accident that claimed his life got all but a little blurb on an inside page of Daily Variety. Wingo survived an air disaster that generated way more publicity than Scholl’s.
The tragedy that occurred on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which actor Vic Morrow and two children, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, got more coverage in the press. The film’s co-director John Landis (who directed comedies like Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and National Lampoon’s Animal House) and four other men from the film, including Wingo, were charged with involuntary manslaughter.
On the early morning of July 23, 1982, Wingo was flying his helicopter in the movie’s climactic sequence – John Landis’s segment of the four-part movie – above the Indian Dunes Park (north of L.A.). Wingo’s helicopter, which was in the middle of a Vietnam War scene, was suddenly disabled by a massive special-effects explosion.
The helicopter came crashing down, decapitating 53-year-old actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le, age seven, and Renee Chen, age six. Wingo was charged with criminal manslaughter, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) attempted to revoke his pilot’s license. For the “the most famous helicopter pilot in the country,” as noted by one of his attorneys, Wingo was utterly devastated by the turn of events.
Landis also wrote the story for his segment, called Time Out. When it came time to choosing his lead actor, he went with old school star Vic Morrow, who was known for playing tough guys (as he did in Portrait of a Mobster and Combat! from the ‘60s).
Morrow was perfect for the role of Bill Connor, who goes through a never-ending nightmare. Little did he or anyone know that the nightmare would be so real. Morrow’s character was supposed to be redeemed by a heroic act of rescue, where he would save two Vietnamese children caught in a raid.
The key sequence in the Vietnam War scene saw Morrow racing through a swamp in a (fake) Vietnamese village. Being chased by a helicopter, with a child under each arm, he was running for safety. Shooting the scene took place around 2:30 in the morning.
While there are conflicting accounts of what exactly went wrong and how, the consensus is that a series of special effects explosions set it off. The explosions went off in the vicinity of the helicopter’s tail end, damaging both of its main rotors and completely disconnecting the rear rotor.
The crew looked on, horrified, as the chopper began to spin and descend uncontrollably. Despite Wingo’s best efforts to rein it in, there was only so much he could do with no rear rotor. Morrow panicked and dropped the little girl into the water, and as he was reaching out for her, the helicopter landed on top of all three of them.
The girl, Renee, was crushed by one of its skids, while the boy Myca and Morrow were both decapitated by the rotor blades, which were still spinning. Of course, all three of them died instantly. Frantic, Landis called for the cameras to stop rolling, and the entire crew dropped everything and went home immediately.
After the accident, Wingo struggled to rebuild his life and career, while John Landis went on to reach even more Hollywood success. His 1988 comedy, Coming to America, enjoyed one of the most profitable opening weeks in cinema history, surpassing the $100-million mark.
The director’s box-office victory came a little more than a year after the costly criminal trial came to an end. In May 1987, Landis, Wingo and three co-defendants – associate producer George Folsey Jr., unit production manager Dan Allingham and special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart – were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.
Landis actually made history in more than one way. He didn’t just (involuntary) change the future of moviemaking as we know it; he also became the first-ever Hollywood director indicted on criminal charges involving a fatality during filming. He may have been on the rise in Hollywood, but his judgment was being seriously questioned.
The trial raised some critical, unanswered questions about Landis’s poor professional judgment. Why would he secretly recruit two inexperienced children to act in a dangerous scene? Renee Chen and Myca Le had never worked on a movie before, and their parents were immigrants and didn’t know the movie industry.
Their kids were essentially hired illegally under quite shady conditions: They didn’t have the necessary permits and weren’t being supervised by a licensed teacher-welfare worker.
The production of the movie was informed by the Fenton-Feinberg Casting agency that California child labor laws didn’t permit children to work past a certain hour. Since the scene had to be shot in the middle of the night, it meant that Landis had a problem. He had to either completely rearrange the shooting schedule or find another solution.
Then, the casting agency revised its stance. Since the children’s parts in the scene weren’t speaking roles, the children technically fell into the category of “extras” and couldn’t even be hired through the agency at all.
Landis pressed forward and asked producer George Folsey to find him two kids for the scene, to which Folsey reluctantly agreed. Landis was intentionally evading the normal casting process and even went so far as to make another crucial and essentially illegal decision. He chose to leave the kids’ names off the official call sheets.
This meant that Landis paid their parents, who were fully aware that their kids were being employed illegally, under the table. According to production assistant Cynthia Nigh, she heard producer Folsey crack a joke about the whole thing. He said, “We’ll probably all be thrown in jail for this!”
At one point during the trial, Landis and two of the other defendants offered to plead guilty to one of the felony charges – conspiring to violate the child labor laws. But on one condition: that they drop the more serious manslaughter charges. The district attorney’s office, however, declined the offer. Nonetheless, Landis was lucky.
The ease with which Landis resurfaced after the Twilight Zone fiasco proves just how powerful Hollywood personalities can be. Shortly before he started working on Coming to America, which took place five years after the tragedy on the set, Landis and his wife bought a small palace of their own.
Their massive mountaintop estate had once belonged to Rock Hudson, and it cost them a nice $3 million. Meanwhile, Wingo was struggling to make ends meet. It’s yet another example of how unfair life can sometimes be. Everyone involved in the tragic accident has been affected in some way or another, although differently.
Renee and Myca’s parents were some of the 71 witnesses that were called to the stand. Myca’s father, Daniel Lee, testified in court that he heard Landis instructing the helicopter to fly lower. In addition, all four parents testified that no one told them there would be helicopters or explosives on the set.
The parents also insisted that they had been reassured that there would be no danger, “only noise.” To make matters even more heartbreaking, Lee had survived the Vietnam War and immigrated to America with his wife. Lee was horrified when the explosions began on set, bringing back memories of the war.
Lee essentially ran away to America to escape his war-torn country, only to have his son killed on an American movie set. Although the children’s families received millions of dollars from several civil lawsuits, nothing could bring those young lives back.
Myca’s parents reportedly divorced two years after the accident. In a legal deposition filed in 1985, Renee’s mother, Shyan-Huei Chen, stated that she “will continue to suffer serious mental anguish, emotional distress and severe depression for so long as she lives in the future.”
As for Morrow’s family, they settled within a year of the trial’s end.
At Morrow’s memorial service, which took place a few days after the accident Landis delivered a bragging eulogy for the actor. “Tragedy can strike in an instant,” the director declared, “but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role.”
A second cameraman on the set was Roger Smith, who was filming Morrow and the kids from inside the helicopter. Smith was nearly killed when he plummeted into the shallow river, resulting in serious neck and back injuries.
He was at the memorial service and was shocked by Landis’s eulogy. “He was supposed to be in mourning,” Smith recalled, “and there he was, ranting about how great his picture was.” It was on his way home from the cemetery that Smith called Lydecker from a payphone.
The two cameramen decided that the whole mess should not and would not, in Lydecker’s words, “get swept under the carpet.” The defendants, witnesses, and families of the victims, lawyers and jurors – everyone involved continued to be touched by the tragedy.
But the major discrepancy between Landis’s future and that of the others, even just one year after the trial ended, really irked people. This was another example of how Hollywood’s ideas of justice are out of whack, to say the least.
One of the outraged voices belonged to Richard Brooks, the man who directed Vic Morrow in the actor’s first movie, 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle. He was one of the few filmmakers who didn’t keep quiet about his anger over the accident.
“It is ironic that Coming to America, a picture most critics didn’t like and directed by John Landis, is now the No. 1 hit,” Brooks said. “I had to laugh when I read that. Values are upside-down in this town,” he said, before referring to the book, The Bonfire of the Vanities, about the whole world being insane.
Then there’s David Puttnam, an English producer who served as chairman of Columbia Pictures for a year. “It’s not that there are no values in Hollywood,” Puttnam began, “It’s that there is a whimsical lack of consistency on ethical issues.” He asserted that people could be “incredibly loyal and forgiving” toward some people and “completely unforgiving” toward others.
The accident cast a cloud over the film. There were discussions about whether to remove the segment altogether, but in the end, they kept it. They did, however, delete the scene in the Vietnamese village as well as the on-screen appearances of the children.
The narrative was carefully edited, and Morrow’s performance was a highlight of the finished product when the film premiered on June 24, 1983. The reviews were mixed, but those were the least of Landis’s problems. Landis and the other four men were hauled before a grand jury on charges of involuntary manslaughter. The trial went on for nearly ten months and made national headlines.
Just down the road from Landis’s lavish Beverly Hills home, you could find Stephen Lydecker working in the garage of his modest North Hollywood house. The 26-year film business veteran has watched as his professional career slowly crumbled.
Despite his efforts, he was never hired again as a camera operator since the night he worked the main camera on the fatal scene of Twilight Zone. “The phone hasn’t rung with a job offer in six years,” Lydecker said years after the incident. Lydecker was one of the first crew members on that set to blow the whistle.
A week after the incident, Lydecker and two other cameramen arranged for a news conference at his home. The three crewmen criticized what they believed was a careless disregard for human safety back at the Indian Dunes set.
For months, Lydecker gave investigators incriminating information about the film they worked on. He told them about the use of live ammunition in a scene that had been shot two nights before the accident. He also divulged that Landis yelled out for the helicopter to go “Lower! Lower! Lower!” right before the fatal blast.
According to Lydecker, he warned Landis about the explosives in the mock Vietnamese village, which were of potential danger to the chopper. On the morning of the shoot, more than a few crew members, including Wingo, expressed their concerns over using pyrotechnics with a low-flying helicopter.
During a shot that took place right before the fateful scene, they rigged an explosion in the water, which went off too close to Renee, getting dust in her eyes and causing the girl to tear up. That’s when her father asked Folsey if the following action sequence would put his child in any danger. “No, not dangerous,” Folsey told the man. “Just a loud noise.”
The next shot was from inside the chopper’s cockpit, where unit production manager Dan Allingham sat next to Wingo in the co-pilot’s seat. Wingo told Allingham that the pyrotechnics were too close to the helicopter and told Allingham to take it up with Landis.
On the ground, fire safety officer Richard Ebentheuer was watching everything get set up and was worried. He expressed his fears to his superior, George Hull, who then said what Wingo said – to take it up with Landis. Ebentheuer grew enraged and cursed at his boss.
He then yelled out a dark and prophetic claim: “The helicopter will be on the ground!” After Wingo landed the chopper, he discussed the heat of the pyrotechnics with assistant camera operator Randy Robinson. Landis overheard their conversation and smiled mischievously, offering a chilling, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
At the trial, Lydecker was the prosecution’s key witness, but it was in his living room that the media first learned about Landis’s possible criminal misconduct. Lydecker was the one who blew the whistle on the famous director’s responsibility in the accident.
The cameraman knew very well that it was a crucial turning point in the investigation of the accident as well as in his life. In a 1988 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Lydecker recalled the events with “rueful pride.”
“Our interest was and is to create a safer place to work,” Lydecker stated. “We were not out to fry anybody. The studios were getting away with something that was just not right.” Since Hollywood wasn’t (isn’t?) really known for self-scrutiny, this was a bold move to make. Lydecker was a veteran in the film industry – his father and grandfather were respected Hollywood craftsmen.
Lydecker himself worked on and off in the business since 1949 when he played John Wayne’s double in Wake of the Red Witch. But now, he was suddenly unemployed and unable to find work in the industry.
A few months after the accident, he asked a friend in the business to “throw him a bone” and give him a few hours of work so he could maintain his union health and welfare benefits. The friend’s reply was: “Well, we put your name in the hat, and you’re (regarded as) a troublemaker. The producers and production managers just don’t want to deal with you.”
Lydecker figured he would be an outcast for a few years max; he didn’t think that it would be a career-long saga. But that’s Hollywood when it comes to the non-rich and famous. For Landis, on the other hand, he came out pretty much unscathed after a month’s-long blame game of a trial.
All five defendants had their own attorneys. Landis’s tactic of pleading ignorance wasn’t sitting well with the other attorneys for those parties. Landis claimed that his below-the-line employees (Stewart and Wingo) failed to give him accurate information. Wingo’s lawyer Eugene Trope turned on Landis at one point…
“The responsible party here is the director-producer, and I think Landis is trying to shift the blame off to anyone and everyone he can,” Trope said in court. The judge dismissed the manslaughter charges against Folsey and Allingham but kept the charges against Landis, Stewart, and Wingo.
Folsey and Allingham were still charged with criminal negligence. On top of the fact that Landis was blaming everyone else besides himself, journalists noted his lack of remorse throughout the whole thing. He actually considered the whole trial itself as one big hassle.
His behavior and demeanor in front of the grand jury was both impatient and arrogant. He insisted that the buck stopped with Stewart and Wingo, who were “experts” and should have worked out all the details without him.
When Kesselman started saying, “The final authority in terms of camera, actor positions, helicopter, or whatever on that set…” Landis suddenly interrupted him and yelled out, “…is not mine!” Landis also insisted that he only hired the child actors illegally because the shoot took place late at night, and he had believed the shoot to be completely safe.
At the end of the heated blame game in 1987, the jury returned verdicts of not guilty on all charges. All 12 jurors were satisfied with the conclusion that an “unnamed special effects technician” — whose superior was Stewart (and didn’t get charged) – caused the accident by setting off pyrotechnics without visually locating the helicopter first.
In other words, they placed the blame on some unknown crew member. A few days after the verdict, Landis appeared on Good Morning America to condemn his “thoroughly dishonest and political prosecution.”
Landis and Spielberg were connected to each other long before Twilight Zone: The Movie. They were part of the up-and-coming members of the “New Hollywood” era; they were buddies who publicly acknowledged their friendship through their films.
Landis did a small cameo in Spielberg’s 1979 film 1941 (which was a flop), and Spielberg had appeared in Landis’s 1980 film The Blues Brothers (which was a hit). But Landis’s behavior on the Twilight Zone set, which Spielberg produced, ended their friendship for good. The thing is, it might have been that way even if the fatal accident never occurred.
It’s been reported that Spielberg had a real problem with Landis’s use of live ammunition on the set, which was a clear safety hazard (and was confirmed during the trial). Spielberg said the crash “made me grow up a little more,” adding that everyone who worked on the movie left the set feeling “sick to the center of our souls.”
Spielberg made a very important statement: “No movie is worth dying for.” When Landis spoke about the accident in a 1996 interview, he said, “There was absolutely no good aspect about this whole story.”
“The tragedy, which I think about every day, had an enormous impact on my career, from which it may possibly never recover,” Landis remarked. While Landis may have been painted as a ruthless and irresponsible director, it’s safe to say that he agrees no one should lose their life for a movie.
If there’s a silver lining that can be found in this tragedy, it’s that it helped prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. There is now a new method to the movie madness. Warner Bros. executive John Silvia grew adamant about getting the industry safety standards into shape after the accident. He went forth and created a committee for it.
Silvia’s committee was tasked with creating new standards for aircraft, smoke effects, pyrotechnics, and any other potential hazard that would be used on film sets. These standards were then collected into a series of “Safety Bulletins” which eventually turned into the manual known as the Injury and Illness Prevention Program.
The program is revised constantly and revisited each time there’s an on-set mishap that happens to cause serious injury or death. Of course, there’s no way to completely eliminate every possible hazard, but this was a necessary step in the right direction.
The insurance industry got involved in making sure these new and improved safety provisions stuck. Before The Twilight Zone film, insurance companies didn’t consider the movie business as a source of profit. The rationale was that given how unsafe film sets were, the payout was simply too high.
Afterward, however, the insurance industry’s commitment to improving safety and thus increasing budgets, made Hollywood a much better risk. Eventually, getting affordable rates to endorse film shoots became a standard part of the movie-making business. It meant that studios now had to follow the insurance industry’s rules.
One of the biggest evolutions that resulted from the movie was in the field of risk management. “The Twilight Zone accident created my job,” says Chris Palmer, a risk-management consultant who was part of Silvia’s committee. Palmer has assessed the risk involved on shoots in Titanic, X-Men and Speed 2, to name a few.
“It was a sea change in the movie industry,” he stated. “No one in risk management was ever on set before then.” So, while the accident unfortunately ruined some careers, it also happened to create others. I guess that’s another silver lining.
So, how did the movie do at the box office? It grossed $6,614,366 in its opening weekend, and internationally, it grossed $42 million. Since it cost $10 million to make, it wasn’t the kind of hit the executives were looking for.
Nonetheless, it was enough of a success to stir interest for CBS to make the 1980s TV version of The Twilight Zone. Today, critical reception is still divided; for example, Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 57% “rotten” approval rating (based on only 40 reviews, though).