Veteran actor-director Jackie Cooper testified Monday that dangerous conditions prevailed on the "Twilight Zone" film set the night that actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed in a helicopter accident during the filming of a Vietnam battle sequence.
"The proximity of the aircraft to the size of the (special effects) explosions I saw, in my opinion, looked very unsafe," Cooper, chairman of the Directors Guild of America safety committee, told the Los Angeles Superior Court jury. "I don't think the children or the actor were safe."
Cooper, 64, who did not see the 1982 tragedy, was called by the prosecution as an expert witness on the customs and practices of the film industry.
He said he based his opinions on repeated viewings of videotape shot by six cameras. The scenes were seen last fall by jurors, who were scheduled to visit the crash site at Indian Dunes Park near Saugus today.
Director John Landis, helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo and three film making associates have been on trial since last September on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Morrow, 53; Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Lee, 7, who were struck by a helicopter that spun out of control after its tail rotor was engulfed by the fireball of a special effects explosion.
The fatal accident occurred about three hours after problems arose in a similar filming sequence, when explosives ignited too close to the aircraft, resulting in Wingo's face being singed.
"Almost any director that I know and respect, and I myself, after (that) incident . . . would have sent the company home," Cooper said in a raised voice. "There was a lack of communication here, and somebody was going to get hurt and somebody was already slightly injured. I had a warning and I would have shut down the company."
Later, outside the courtroom, Cooper raised questions about Landis' judgment, Wingo's qualifications as a pilot and qualifications of the special effects employees.
"The choices of the director, I think, were unfortunate," said Cooper, who has directed more than 300 television episodes and movies and has run a film studio in the years since he was a child star in the Little Rascals comedies.
Cooper, the 71st and final prosecution witness in 69 days of trial testimony, added that the "Twilight Zone" tragedy has resulted in "a greater awareness of safety" on Hollywood film sets. The safety committee he heads, for example, was established after the accident.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino, who has indicated that she will rest her case after today's field trip, said outside court that Cooper provided "powerful testimony by a person uniquely qualified to give it . . . that that set was a crash waiting to happen."
"I defy the defense to bring in any director who would say that they would film those children at 2:20 a.m., 24 feet under a hovering helicopter with those size explosions going off," the prosecutor added. "If they can bring me such a director, I'll eat my hat. And I have plenty of hats at home."
Defense attorneys countered that Cooper was passing judgment without considering all the facts. For example, they said, the special effects explosions that struck the helicopter were mistakenly set off by a film crew member, who was not charged with manslaughter, before the aircraft was safely out of the way.
"His (Cooper's) opinions, viewed in a vacuum, sound damaging," said James Sanders, Landis' co-counsel. "But once you consider what his experience is and what he actually knew . . . it is not damaging."
Cooper "was giving a very personal opinion," added James Neal, Landis' other attorney. "Directors are like lawyers: If you get 10 of them together, you'd have 10 different opinions on how to do things. If we could all live life backwards, we might avoid some mistakes."
Neal indicated that he may call directors to the stand when the defense begins presenting its case, probably next week.
Since the trial began last September, several prominent Hollywood directors who are friendly with Landis have appeared in the courtroom as spectators in a show of support.
Cooper, who testified that he has never directed films that included multiple special effects explosions, said he would have used dummies or stunt men, rather than the children, during the fatal "Twilight Zone" sequence. He also cited as dangerous another scene in which an explosive was ignited a few feet from where the children had been standing several seconds earlier.