40 years ago, one of the most horrific accidents to ever happen on a movie set took the lives of three actors. One was Vic Morrow, the longtime character actor best known for his early 1960s role on the American show Combat. The other two were children, Renee Shin-Yi Chen and Myca Dinh Le, who were hired illegally by the production. When news of the tragic accident came to light, so too did the violations that director Jon Landis engaged in while filming.
The film in question was Twilight Zone: The Movie, the 1983 anthology movie spun off from the legendary American television series created by Rod Sterling. A number of directors were involved in four distinct stories, including Steven Speilberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller. Landis was the fourth, and his segment involved a prejudiced man played by Morrow going back in time to live through atrocities committed against the very people he is prejudiced against.
At one point, Morrow’s character lands in the middle of the Vietnam War. One scene, not originally in the script but added by Landis, originally called for Morrow to rescue two Vietnamese orphans as a sign of redemption. Landis assembled an explosives unit and rented a helicopter in order to shoot the scene, and when the production ran well into the early hours of the morning, Landis continued to film even though he didn’t have the proper permits to allow the children to continue working.
Chen and Le shouldn’t have been on the set in the first place – on top of the illegality of allowing children to work that late, Landis was also required to have a permit that signed off on the children working near explosions. Having never sought out the permits in the first place, Landis opted to pay the children’s parents under the table in order to compensate them following California’s child labour laws.
At around 2:30 am, a series of explosions during filming were detonated too close to the low-flying helicopter, compromising the rotor and causing the pilot of the aircraft to lose control. The helicopter fell on the three actors, decapitating Morrow and Le while crushing Chen.
After the accident, investigations into the crash revealed Landis’ allegedly careless attitude towards the safety of the actors. Landis, producer George Folsey Jr., pilot Dorcey Wingo, production manager Dan Allingham, and explosives specialist Paul Stewart were all tried on criminal charges of manslaughter, but all were acquitted by 1987.
Civil lawsuits from the children’s families allowed them to collect compensation, but the accident caused a number of figures involved in the film’s creation to express disgust or leave the project entirely. “No movie is worth dying for,” Spielberg said in his 2010 biography. “I think people are standing up much more now than ever before to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn’t safe, it’s the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell ‘Cut!'”
Indeed, the landscape of Hollywood productions was permanently changed following the accident. The Director’s Guild of America began stricter enforcements for safety violations, while the Screen Actors Guild included new clauses in their contracts that allowed actors to step away from films should they not feel safe on set. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection also created its Motion Picture & Entertainment Safety Program, the likes of which are still being used on Hollywood film sets today.
Still, tragic accidents on film sets continue to happen. Just last year, a fatal shooting killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the film Rust. Safety concerns still plague the film industry, but major attention hadn’t been paid to these concerns until the horrific Twilight Zone killings forced Hollywood to acknowledge its own shortcomings.