One of the worst movie set accidents ever occurred during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie. The film is now mainly remembered for its tragic behind the scenes story. Steven Spielberg decided to make the hit television show into a motion picture and he enlisted three other directors to create segments of the film. John Landis, who was a hot commodity after Animal House and The Blues Brothers, was given "Time Out." In this segment, a man tries to make up for past sins by becoming a hero.
No one could have predicted, though, the tragedy that would plague John Landis's direction. Three people were killed during filming; actor Vic Morrow was carrying two children across a river when a stunt went wrong and a helicopter fell on top of them. Landis became the first movie director to be charged with involuntary manslaughter on set and he went to trial several years later. While this film was not the first to have an actor die during filming, its unfortunate accidents did spur Hollywood to change their safety laws for the better.
The Twilight Zone scene that became the most deadly in movie history was supposed to depict veteran actor Vic Morrow saving two Vietnamese children from an attacker in a helicopter. Morrow carried Renee Shinn Chen, age six, and Myca Dinh Le, age seven, through the Santa Clara River as pyrotechnic explosions went off all around them. It's believed that the helicopter was just 25 feet above the actors when one explosion caught the tail-rotor, engulfed the aircraft in a fireball, and caused the pilot to lose control.
The helicopter fell on top of the actors, crushing Chen and decapitating both Morrow and Le. All of this happened in front of the 100-member crew and both children's parents.
To make the tragedy even worse, the line Morrow was about to deliver right before the accident occurred was, "I'll keep you safe, kids. I promise. Nothing will hurt you, I swear to God."
Director John Landis, a producer, the film's production manager, the helicopter pilot, and the explosives specialist all appeared in criminal court to face involuntary manslaughter charges during a trial that lasted almost 10 months and included 71 witnesses. The tragedy also gave Landis the negative distinction of becoming the first movie director to ever be charged with a death on set. Even in front of a grand jury, Landis refused to accept responsibility for the accident, insisting that he had planned everything carefully and had no part in the events that occurred.
Perhaps it was his attitude toward the deaths of his actors that led several of Landis's co-workers to testify against him, like one cameraman who testified that Landis kept ordering the helicopter to fly lower. Although Landis and his crew openly admitted that they'd illegally hired the child actors, they went to trial for the deaths and were never charged with breaking child labor laws.
Dorcey Wingo was hired to fly the helicopter in the scene and had sought out the job in hopes that he'd start his cinematic career. He was an actual veteran who had flown during the Vietnam War and the Twilight Zone production was his first time flying on camera. He was most likely a little freaked out by pyrotechnics exploding around him, as well as a stubborn director yelling and swearing at him over a radio system that was later found to be of inferior quality. The production was already behind schedule and John Landis was said to be very impatient.
Possibly motivated by his desire to succeed in Hollywood, Wingo said nothing about the dangerous situation Landis created. One Hollywood air coordinator believed that Landis was cutting corners by hiring an inexperienced movie pilot, especially one that "wouldn't talk back to the director."
According to child labor laws, underage actors must have a work permit and are only allowed to work during certain hours. The helicopter scene which killed both children was filmed at 2:30 AM, hours well past the window in which they were allowed to work. Neither child had a work permit, making their employment illegal as well. In addition to all those egregious slights, casting directors were allegedly never told the children would be working around explosives.
The families of the deceased children were paid under the table to sorely compensate for their losses. Despite the fact that John Landis openly admitted to employing the actors illegally, he was never charged with the crime. However, he did have to pay a $5,000 fine and several settlements for civil lawsuits brought against him.