Landis Says Sequence Looked Safe : ‘Twilight’ Prosecutor Accuses Him of Feigning Concern

Times Staff Writer

In a tense, emotional session of cross-examination, director John Landis staunchly maintained Thursday that he had no reason to believe that the 1982 “Twilight Zone” filming sequence in which actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed would prove dangerous.

Landis, his voice breaking while describing the tragedy, also stuck to his story that more than a dozen prosecution witnesses in the involuntary manslaughter trial gave untruthful testimony when they said he was forewarned of the danger of the proposed Vietnam battle scene.

“I think it’s very easy after an accident to make pronouncements about how things should or should not be done,” the 36-year-old film maker asserted at one point during the daylong court session. “I think it’s simple in hindsight to make vast and broad statements that ultimately are self-serving and puts yourself in good light.”

However, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D’Agostino, who led the blistering cross-examination, told reporters afterward that the one person whose truthfulness and motives she questions is Landis.

Citing a lengthy series of witnesses whose testimony Landis has contradicted--including camera operators, a casting director, a production secretary, a still photographer, fire safety officers and the children’s parents--D’Agostino declared: “I find it somewhat incredible. . . . Why would these people manufacture this evidence?”


The prosecutor also vigorously questioned whether Landis was putting on an act earlier in the day when he began sniffling and speaking haltingly during direct examination by his lawyer, James Neal.

“It was a perfectly orchestrated script, just the right amount of hesitancy, just the right amount of looking down, the right amount of looking at the jury. . . . I frankly wish I had an Oscar I could have given him . . . ,” she said. “If you’re not crying when the parents of the children were sobbing their heart out on the witness stand (last fall), then I don’t know what other time you would cry.”

D’Agostino attempted to pound the point home to the jury.

As she began her eagerly awaited cross-examination, D’Agostino acidly asked Landis if he needed a tissue. The witness declined, and D’Agostino asked him if directors can teach actors to cry.

“It depends on the scene,” replied Landis, who has directed such box-office hits as “Animal House” and “Trading Places.”

Landis, the first defense witness in the trial that began in September, will continue on the stand Monday.

He and four film crew associates are charged with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly acting with criminal negligence in the deaths of Morrow, 53, Myca Dinh Lee, 7, and Renee Chen, 6.

The actors were killed when struck by a helicopter that spun out of control and plummeted from the sky after being hit by the fireball of a special-effects explosion.

During cross-examination, Landis maintained his composure, tersely responding to the queries of D’Agostino, who at times sounded like an irate mother scolding her wayward son.

Landis reiterated that no one told him the proposed scene was dangerous.

“Did you, Mr. Landis, need anyone to tell you that?” D’Agostino asked.

“Yes, if my own common sense was allowing something to take place that I had no expertise in, I would expect someone to tell me, ‘No, that’s dangerous,’ ” Landis said.

“Do you feel you need expertise to decide that it is dangerous to place human beings that close to explosions going 150 feet in the air, 24 feet under a helicopter?” D’Agostino asked.

“Yes,” Landis responded.

“What type of expertise do you feel you need?” D’Agostino asked rhetorically.

“I do not think having those three things in combination is in itself dangerous,” Landis said.

Later, outside the court, the prosecutor said: “You don’t have to be a John Landis, I don’t think you have to be anyone other than a human being with an ounce of common sense to understand that that is dangerous, very dangerous. For Landis to sit up there with a perfectly straight face and say that thought never occurred to him is the most incredible thing of anything that he has said.”

In his testimony Thursday, Landis also reiterated that despite their tearful denials on the witness stand, he indeed told the children’s parents the story of the proposed filming sequence. But he admitted that he did not tell them the size of the explosion or how close they would be to the children.

Landis also denied making several statements attributed to him in prior testimony.

Among them:

- Telling a camera operator who allegedly warned him of danger, “We may lose the helicopter.”

- Jokingly commenting, “We’re all going to go to jail” for illegally hiring the children days before the tragedy.

- Gruffly telling a casting director “The hell with you . . . we’ll get the (child actors) off the streets ourselves.”

Landis also testified that he did not remember ordering the helicopter to move “lower, lower” at the start of the fatal scene. The statement was attributed to Landis by several of the 71 prosecution witnesses called to the witness stand by D’Agostino during 71 days of testimony.