Time Out: The Twilight Zone movie and the death of Vic Morrow

When Steven Spielberg assembled his gang of hot directors to make a Twilight Zone movie in 1981, he had no idea that one of them would make the film live in infamy for years to come – and not in a good way.

Spielberg wanted to make The Twilight Zone movie a love letter to the classic TV show and have it be an anthology of four different tales all handled by four different directors. Spielberg himself took on a remake of a classic episode entitled “Kick the Can” in which some old folks in a home were given the chance to be young again. Joe Dante (Gremlins) took on the episode “It’s a Good Life” about a boy with manipulative powers. George Miller (Mad Max trilogy) directed a new take of the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode in which a creature creates havoc on the wing of a plane.

The only original segment presented for the film was brought by John Landis, who at the time was riding high on a massive wave of acclaim. Landis was behind some of the biggest and best films of the late 70s and early 80s such as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London. While The Blues Brothers was considered to be a flop at the time, there was no doubting that Landis’s anarchic way of film making was certainly something to behold.

Landis’s story segment for The Twilight Zone was entitled “Time Out” and told the story of an outspoken, racist bigot (Vic Morrow) who after getting drunk at a bar one night and speaking his mind, finds himself getting a taste of his own medicine. He makes prejudiced remarks and racial slurs towards Jews, blacks and Asians, attracting the attention of a group of black men sitting near him who strongly resent his racist comments. He then leaves the bar very angry, but when he walks outside, the story begins.

He inexplicably proceeds to assume the racial ethnicities of people against whom he was always prejudiced. First, he finds himself in occupied France during World War II as a Jewish man hunted by Nazis, then in the deep South of the US in the 1940s as an African American being lynched by Ku Klux Klan members, then in Vietnam as a Vietnamese man, finally returning to World War II France, where he is captured by Nazi soldiers and placed on a railroad freight car, along with other Jewish Holocaust prisoners.

Initially when Landis submitted the script, studio executives balked at the idea of an overly negative protagonist that the audience would never relate to. Landis then came up with an idea  of having the main character redeem himself. While running away from the American soldiers firing at him and an attack from a U.S. helicopter in Vietnam, he would come upon two Vietnamese orphans. He would rescue them from an air attack, bravely carrying them across a river to save their lives. At the end, as an entire village is dramatically blown up in the background, the former racist would reassure the youngsters, “I’ll keep you safe, kids! I swear to God!

These script changes were approved.

However, Landis ran into an obstacle in the form of California’s child labor laws. Twilight Zone casting agents Michael Fenton and Marci Liroff of Fenton-Feinberg Casting told Landis and associate producer George Folsey Jr. that those regulations forbade children to work an hour past curfew and that a teacher-welfare worker had to be present when kids worked. Liroff remembered herself telling the director that the scene struck her as “kind of dangerous.” Fenton told Landis that, since the children were not going to have speaking parts, they were extras and could not be hired through Fenton-Feinberg Casting. Ron LaBrecque wrote in Special Effects (a book about the Twilight Zone accident) that Liroff claimed, “Fenton’s response was a diplomatic way to avoid involvement in a questionable venture.”

According to the Crime Library, “Employers could get waivers to work kids later than that but Landis did not seek one. Either he thought he would not get the waiver because the hour was too late or he knew he could not get approval to have kids around a helicopter and explosives”.

“Landis decided to break the law. He would employ the kids illegally and pay them out of petty cash to avoid putting their names on payroll”, a decision he would live to regret for a long, long time and a decision that both young children and Vic Morrow would not live to regret.

At 2.20am on July 23rd 1982 Vic Morrow, My-Ca Dinh Le (age 7), and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (age 6) were ready to shoot the infamous scene of the bigot rescuing the two Vietnamese orphans and redeeming himself. A ‘Vietnamese Village’ had been assembled out of bamboo poles, palm thatch and cardboard in Indian Dunes Park. Morrow was knee deep in water with a child under each arm. There had been concerns by the helicopter pilot on the quantity and speed of the pyrotechnics being used, however these concerns were also ignored in favour of getting the shoot done.

Landis shouted action and the cameras rolled. Morrow began to walk at a fast pace while all hell was unleashed by the special effects crew. Landis shouted over the bullhorn for the helicopter to descend and get lower. Landis then shouted for the pyrotechnics and machine gunners to fire at the water. Some of the crew on set began to run up a near by slope to attempt to escape the amount of heat coming from the inferno on set.

The helicopter pilot began to feel that the craft was in danger of crashing down on the set. Visibility was becoming a problem. His co-pilot told him to get out of there. Before they could act however, a final two explosions were detonated and the helicopter was immediately downed.

Back on the ground, Morrow was struggling to carry the children and stopped for a moment to get a better grip. Sadly at this exact moment the helicopter fell on top of all three of them. The helicopter’s right skid slammed into Renee Chen, killing her. Then its whirling main rotor ripped off Vic Morrow’s head and the head, shoulder, and an arm of 7-year old My-ca.

The footage is unfortunately on You Tube and I suggest you do not watch it if you are of a nervous disposition.

Landis immediately sent the crew home and the parents of the child actors were taken to hospital with shock. According to Wikipedia:

“Landis and several crew members were subsequently charged with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The prosecutors attempted to show that Landis was reckless and had violated laws relating to child actors by not telling parents and others of the children’s proximity to explosives and helicopters and of limitations on their working hours. Numerous members of the film crew testified that the director was warned, but ignored these dangers. After an extended jury trial, Landis, and other crew members were acquitted of the charges.

“Landis was later reprimanded for circumventing the State of California’s child labor laws in hiring the two children killed in the accident. This tragedy resulted in stricter safety measures and enforcement of child labor laws, in the State of California.The parents of the children sued, and would later settle out of court with the studio for $2 million per family. Morrow’s children, one of them being actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was 20 at the time, also settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

“Despite these settlements, Landis has never publicly accepted responsibility for the accident. During an interview with Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, Landis said:

“‘When you read about the accident, they say we were blowing up huts—which we weren’t—and that debris hit the tail rotor of the helicopter—which it didn’t. The FBI Crime Lab, who was working for the prosecution, finally figured out that tail rotor delaminated, which is why the pilot lost control. The Special FX man who made the mistake, by setting off a fireball at the wrong time, was never charged’

As for the finished film itself, it was met with mixed reviews and while good in places, is hardly memorable.  It was certainly not the massive hit the studio hoped it would be. Aside from the classic Dan Aykroyd/Albert Brooks intro and the aforementioned “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” story, it’s quite a slog to get through. There is no doubt that the accident has tainted the film forever and watching the “Time Out” segment will always leave the viewer with the horrible sense that an actor is playing towards his own death. A genuine tragedy unfortunately captured from many angles.

Read and post comments on this article