On the evening of July 23, 1982, “Animal House” director John Landis was filming a tricky nighttime helicopter scene for “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The wide-open spaces of Indian Dunes, now part of Santa Clarita, Calif., were standing in for Vietnam, and the scene called for soldiers in a helicopter to pursue actor Vic Morrow, who was carrying two children. When the copter made a turn just above a large mortar round, the special effect explosive detonated, bringing down the helicopter and killing Morrow along with 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen.
The devastating accident shook Hollywood, and several months later, Variety announced that “Landis, pilot, others face ‘Twilight’ accident charges.” Landis and other “Twilight Zone” movie crew members were charged with involuntary manslaughter — the same charges “Rust” actor and producer Alec Baldwin and “Midnight Rider” director Randall Miller faced for their roles in on-set deaths.
Five years later, Landis and the other crew members were found innocent after a contentious nine-month trial, and Warner Bros. later settled with the families of the accident victims, including Morrow’s daughter, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The accident did lead to a number of new safety standards around the use of helicopters on set, from the FAA, DGA, Warners and the office of the state fire marshal.
The notoriety of the crash didn’t hurt the film’s performance with audiences though. “Twilight Zone: The Movie” opened in June 1983 and though it received mixed reviews, it performed solidly at the box office and helped renew interest in the franchise. Landis went on to direct “Three Amigos” and “Coming to America.”
Fast forward four decades, and the response to negligence on sets had changed when the film business was rocked by the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones in a 2014 train accident on the Georgia set of Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider.” Director Miller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, marking the first time a director was sent to prison for an on-set accident. Jones’ death resulted in a massive outcry, fueled by social media and online journalism, and led to vigils across the country and the Safety for Sarah effort to advocate for better working conditions on sets.
Miller served just over a year in jail and was forbidden to direct during his probation, which runs until 2025. But that didn’t stop him from coming on to helm the feature “Higher Ground” overseas. In a hearing about the apparent probation violation, he was found to have not “knowingly” violated the probation requirements. “Midnight Rider” was never completed.
Ten years after “Twilight Zone,” Brandon Lee was killed on the North Carolina set of “The Crow” by a supposedly “blank” bullet fired by actor Michael Massee. In “The Crow” shooting, perhaps the closest corollary to the “Rust” accident, nobody from the crew was held responsible for a bullet fragment being lodged in the gun, and no criminal charges were filed.
As the Associated Press reported at the time, “No charges will be brought against crew members in the shooting death of actor Brandon Lee on a movie set, a prosecutor says.” The district attorney said that crew members were “apparently careless, but not enough to warrant charges. He said no one intended to harm Lee.”
Attorney James Brosnahan, who represented “The Crow’s” producer, told Variety, “The argument was that if you’re going to indict a corporation, you have to have one person at least in the corporation that has all the elements that make up the charge. So for example, if they were going to go after the corporation because the corporation was negligent, they would have to have at least one person that knew that it was reckless.” As a result of that argument, the District Attorney did not file charges, and Brosnahan then settled the civil case brought by Lee’s mother.
“He’s got a good argument I think,” Brosnahan said of Baldwin. “We’ll see how it goes.”
After the accident, “The Crow” production took a break before returning for reshoots and CGI scenes of Lee. It grossed $94 million worldwide for distributor Miramax, and a remake recently wrapped production.
As for “Rust,” the Western was originally set to resume production sometime in January. That schedule has been pushed back by about four weeks, according to a source, but pre-production is underway. It remains unclear where the shooting will take place, though it will not be in New Mexico.
Each of these on-set accidents resulted in very different consequences, due to the era, the mood of the authorities and the localities they occurred in. Each led to safety reforms, which will likely be the case with “Rust” as well. But as budgets and timelines become more and more constrained, it’s worth making sure that Hollywood’s memory is not too short.
(Pictured: John Landis at the “Twilight Zone” trial.)