No Clamor for Tighter Regulation : 'Twilight' Aftermath: It's Caution on the Movie Set

Times Staff Writers

Even as a jury deliberates a verdict in the "Twilight Zone" manslaughter case, Hollywood film makers, union representatives and government safety officials have rendered a judgment on safety within the industry. With few exceptions, they say making movies is relatively safe and there is little need for tighter regulations.

In a high-profile trial that began last September, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury is deciding whether the 1982 deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children on the "Twilight Zone" set resulted from criminal acts by director John Landis and four associates.

The ultimate effect of the case on Landis' career remains to be seen: The Directors Guild of America plans hearings of its own after his trial is concluded, and Landis faces more than $200 million worth of civil suits filed by the victims' families.

These days, executives and film makers at several major studios agree, the mood on sets involved in making action films is one of extreme caution.

"You don't hear anyone making stray comments on the sets anymore," said a producer who declined to be named. "You don't hear people saying, 'You ain't seen nothing yet,' " he added, referring to a comment a witness alleged that Landis made before the fatal blast.

"What you hear now when special effects are being used," a studio production executive said, "is, 'I don't want to end up in the cell next to Landis.' "

Director Richard Brooks, a leading safety advocate among film makers, noted that the Directors Guild set up a safety hot line and began issuing safety bulletins after the accident. But Brooks said the pronouncements were intended to "codify" what experienced industry people "already knew" about handling fire or live ammunition, rather than to change basic procedures.

Brooks maintains that closer regulation would be pointless. "If you put somebody from Sacramento on every set, what's he going to know that the director doesn't know already?" asked Brooks, who directed such films as "Elmer Gantry" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar."

A number of government officials--including the "Twilight Zone" prosecutor--agree that there is little need for further regulation.

Indeed, according to the Screen Actors Guild, accidents involving actors and stunt men have actually dropped sharply in the last five years--a fact that Stephen Waddell, assistant executive secretary of the guild, attributes to a "heightened awareness" of safety issues.

Last year, the guild recorded 66 accidents involving actors or stunt performers, compared to 214 in 1982. There have been six deaths in the last two years, according to the guild.

Yet some movie and TV veterans claim that such accident statistics are seriously misleading, because stunt men observe a "code of silence" that prevents many from reporting injuries. In addition, they point out that aside from a different atmosphere, little has actually changed in the way movies are made.

The accident itself had no immediate impact on Landis' career. Since the 1982 tragedy, Landis has directed four films, and industry sources speculate that the Landis trial--whatever the verdict--will do little to harm the director's chances of being hired for future films.

Landis' latest movie is "Amazon Women on the Moon," a comedy anthology of which he is executive producer and one of several directors. Universal Pictures originally planned to release the film this month but recently moved it back until late August or early September.

"Landis is a good film maker," another top studio executive maintained. "Even if he's convicted and has to go to jail for a couple minutes, CAA (Creative Artists Agency, Landis' agents) will be booking him pending availability. Whether he is convicted or not, he has certainly learned his lesson."

Hollywood Air

At times the trial took on a Hollywood air, with a slew of celebrities stopping by to show their support for Landis. Among them: directors Costa-Gavras, Michael Ritchie, David Cronenberg and Frank Oz; singer-songwriter Randy Newman; actresses Carrie Fisher and Jenny Agutter and actors Don Ameche, Dan Aykroyd, Jeff Goldblum and Ralph Bellamy.

Two civil suits seeking damages in excess of $200 million have been filed by the parents of Renee Shinn Chen and Myca Dinh Lee against Landis, "Twilight Zone" co-producer Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros. and others. Morrow's children agreed to an undisclosed settlement.

In the end, what may harm Landis' future in film making is his own guild. The Directors Guild of America has remained tight-lipped since the trial began, maintaining that it did not want to have an impact on the proceedings. Many guild members speculate that Landis faces a tough time before the guild's disciplinary and safety committees.

The guild's disciplinary actions range from a reprimand or fine to suspension or expulsion. Expulsion from the guild--an unprecedented action--would mean that Landis could not work on any film for a guild company, which include all major studios and production companies.

In the heat of the publicity generated by the "Twilight Zone" deaths, Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), chairman of the Committee on Labor and Employment, advocated the creation of a state-mandated safety marshal during Hollywood safety hearings.

But lawmakers did not enact the legislation after many directors, actors and producers argued that further regulation of the industry would do more harm than good.

Officials from the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Film Permit Office and the state Labor Commission also report that no changes have been made in the way they grant permits to film makers and studios.

"If you follow the rules that have already been laid down, they cover every possible precaution," said Ed Reed, a city fire inspector.

State Deputy Labor Commissioner Colleen Logan, who is solely responsible for granting special permits for unusual work involving children, agrees.

Regulations Became Law

"After the accident, they turned a book of regulations that we used--called the 'Blue Book'--into law, which made it a little stronger; but we've always enforced our regulations stringently," she said in an interview.

"Twilight Zone" prosecutor Lea Purwin D'Agostino--so tough on Landis and the others during the trial--even concurred that Hollywood is essentially a safe place to work.

"I mean, you do have the car chases and the stunts and the special effects," she said in an interview. "But (the 'Twilight Zone' accident) is the first time any child has been killed on a motion picture set. They've had scraped knees and bruises, but nothing approaching this magnitude, so that ought to tell you something."

Others disagree.

"If anything, it's more dangerous for actors and stunt people today," said Gerald Kroll, an attorney whose Century City law firm has represented half a dozen actors and stunt people who have been injured since the "Twilight Zone" tragedy. Kroll said, "The emphasis on guidelines might make you feel safer. But it really just draws attention away" from unresolved problems.

In a troubling accident last November, a motorcycle driven by 39-year-old Dar Robinson went out of control during what should have been a routine shot for "Million Dollar Mystery," a movie partially financed, and scheduled for distribution, by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group. There was no ambulance or medical helicopter on the scene, although the producer said his company met guild safety guidelines. Robinson, one of Hollywood's premier stunt men, died in the two hours it took to get him to a hospital from the film's remote Arizona location.

Brooks said a director should "pay for an ambulance out of his own pocket" if a studio refuses to pick up the tab. "Then come to (the guild). We'll protect you."

'Exceeded the Guidelines'

A De Laurentiis spokesman declined to comment on the accident. But the movie's producer, Stephen Kesten, said, "We exceeded the safety guidelines." Kesten said the production unit had first-aid equipment, a registered emergency room nurse and a station wagon capable of carrying a stretcher at the shooting site. He added that no charges or suits have been filed in connection with Robinson's death.

But the guild is tightening its guidelines covering the availability of medical aid and evacuation equipment on remote sets.

Even though statistics suggest that Hollywood is safer today than it used to be, some movie and TV veterans suggest that "a code of silence" makes those statistics suspect.

"I've seen it happen," said Desiree Kerns, a former stunt woman who suffered second- and third-degree burns from an incendiary device while performing on the "Airwolf" set during 1985. "People who speak out (about accidents) get persecuted."

Studio Charged With Negligence

Kerns, 30, charged Universal Studios with negligence in a $10-million lawsuit that has not yet come to trial. An attorney for MCA Inc., Universal's parent, said the studio has vigorously contested the negligence claim.

"If you say you got hurt, you get blackballed," said Max Maxwell, a 33-year-old stunt man who sued Cannon Group Inc. and others in 1985 after he suffered a fractured arm and multiple cuts in a special-effects explosion while filming "Invasion USA." A state court suit filed by Maxwell was dismissed, and Cannon is contesting a second suit filed by the stunt man in federal court, an attorney for the film company said.

Maxwell claims that he could "feel the chill" when he called stunt coordinators seeking work after the accident--and did not get work until a sympathetic coordinator reviewed film of the explosion and last year hired him to perform stunts on a movie yet to be released by Walt Disney Co.

According to Maxwell, Cannon used the footage of his accident in the finished movie. Kroll, who represents Maxwell and Kerns, said he plans to campaign for a state law forbidding such use of accident footage. The attorney said he might also renew an earlier push for closer state regulation of the stunt business once the "Twilight Zone" verdict is returned.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World