Thirty years ago this week, a Hollywood star was decapitated while shooting a scene for a movie. The actor was Vic Morrow, the veteran star of the TV series Combat. He was killed, along with child actors Renee Chen and Myca Dinh Le, by a falling helicopter during filming of The Twilight Zone, a feature-length adaptation of Rod Serling’s television series.
Morrow played a bigot who skipped through time getting a taste of his own medicine. In the scene that would prove fatal, he was earning some Serling-style redemption by trying to rescue a pair of Vietnamese children from an American air raid. Mainly, the setup was an excuse for director John Landis to capture immense explosions on film.
At the controls of the helicopter that was “bombing” the village was Dorcey Wingo, an actual Vietnam veteran. Wingo was new to the movie business, so even when the rehearsal explosions that buffeted his chopper scared him witless, he swallowed his concerns, especially as Landis, who had a reputation for being dictatorial on set, screamed expletives into the California night. (The shooting was taking place at a disused motorcycle track at Indian Dunes Park, a few miles north of Los Angeles.)
When the cameras rolled, pyrotechnic fireballs engulfed Wingo’s helicopter, forcing him down into a river where the actors waded. As a hundred or so people looked on, the right skid of the aircraft crushed 6-year-old Renee, who was a few feet from Morrow (the aging star had dropped her). The helicopter then toppled over, and its main blade sliced through Morrow and 7-year-old Myca. According to Stephen Farber and Marc Green’s exhaustive book on the incident, Outrageous Conduct, there was shocked silence until Renee’s mother started shrieking as she kneeled over her daughter’s lifeless body. Morrow never got to deliver his scripted line: “I’ll keep you safe, kids. I promise. Nothing will hurt you, I swear to God.”
Civil suits against the studio and Landis were settled, but Warner Bros., Landis, Wingo, and three others couldn’t avoid criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the tragedy. The defendants freely admitted that the production broke child labor laws, but they maintained that the crash was an unavoidable accident. After three years of legal wrangling, the suit finally went to trial in L.A. in 1985. Despite an emotional bit of prosecution by Deputy District Attorney Lee D’Agostino—she theatrically offered Landis tissues after he teared up during his testimony, hissed “murderer” at him in full view of reporters when he happened to walk past outside the courtroom, and summed up her case by booming, “It isn’t that John Landis decided to violate the law, it’s that he thinks he’s above it!”—she failed to win a conviction. Landis and his co-defendants were acquitted of serious charges, and the director went on to make Coming to America, a hit that put the tragedy in his rearview mirror.
Terrible as the Twilight Zone accident was, some good did come of it. At Warner Bros., a behind-the-scenes revolution was set in motion, as a vice president named John Silvia was determined to tighten up the industry’s approach to safety. Silvia convened a committee that created standards for every aspect of filmmaking, from gunfire to fixed-wing aircraft to smoke and pyrotechnics. All the unions and guilds in the business were represented. “It was like lawmaking,” says Chris Palmer, a risk-management consultant who was part of the committee. “The committee had to parse words like ‘would, shall, and must’ because of the possibility of negligence lawsuits overtaking Hollywood if they were too strict in the wording.” The committee’s codicils were collected into a group of standards called Safety Bulletins. The studios then issued a manual to their employees based on the bulletins, known as the Injury and Illness Prevention Program. (The guidelines have been updated over the years and are now digitized—the current versions can be found here.)
It wasn’t an overnight process, and the standards needed continual updates—despite increased efforts to improve safely, accidents kept happening. Veteran pilot Art Scholl was killed when his camera plane crashed during the filming of Top Gun; stuntman Reid Rendell was killed in a helicopter crash on the set of Airwolf; actors Brandon Lee (Bruce’s son) and Jon-Erik Hexum (star of the NBC series Voyagers!) were killed by guns loaded with blanks.