SEVERAL WEEKS after the “Twilight Zone” trial ended last year, one of the case’s five defend ants, helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo, escorted a visitor through the dusty parking lot of the Western Helicopter Co. in Rialto. Wingo stopped to stare at the light planes circling the adjacent airport and at the row of enormous helicopters parked on a nearby landing ramp. He had piloted dozens of combat missions in Vietnam, and since that time, flying has been his life, as well as his livelihood.
Wingo pointed out a nearby hangar. “That’s where Art Scholl was based,” he said, an unmistakable note of melancholy in his voice. Scholl was killed in a crash while filming the spectacular aerial scenes in “Top Gun.” Although he was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated stunt pilots, the media all but overlooked the accident that claimed Scholl’s life. It received less than a dozen lines on an inside page of Daily Variety.
Wingo survived an aviation disaster that generated far more publicity: the accident on the set of “Twilight Zone--The Movie” that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children. In the early morning hours of July 23, 1982, Wingo was flying in the climactic sequence of John Landis’ segment of the four-part “Twilight Zone” movie at the Indian Dunes park north of Los Angeles. Wingo’s helicopter, hovering in the midst of a Vietnam War scene, was disabled by huge special-effects explosions and came crashing down, decapitating Morrow and Myca Dinh Le, 7, and crushing Renee Chen, 6.
Shortly afterward, Wingo faced criminal manslaughter charges, and the Federal Aviation Administration moved to revoke his pilot’s license. During the long period of FAA appeals, his professional future has been under a cloud. “For five years, Wingo was probably the most famous helicopter pilot in the country,” noted one of his attorneys, William Gargaro, recently.
Wingo himself has a more sardonic view. “Fifteen minutes of fame would have been more than enough for me,” he says.
WHILE DORCEY Wingo struggles to rebuild his career, John Landis, the man who directed him in “Twilight Zone,” is flushed with success. Despite overwhelmingly poor reviews, Landis’ new movie, “Coming to America,” enjoyed one of the most lucrative opening weeks in film history; less than two months later, it had passed the $100-million mark.
Landis’ box-office triumph comes a little more than a year after the conclusion of a costly, convoluted criminal trial. On May 29, 1987, Landis, Wingo and three co-defendants--associate producer George Folsey Jr., unit production manager Dan Allingham and special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart--were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. The case was unprecedented. Landis was the first Hollywood director ever indicted on criminal charges in connection with a fatality during filming.
The trial raised serious, still unanswered questions about his professional judgment in surreptitiously recruiting two inexperienced children to perform in a hazardous scene that led to their deaths. Renee Chen and Myca Le, who had never before worked in a motion picture and whose parents were Asian immigrants unfamiliar with usual practices in the movie industry, had been hired illegally. They were working without the necessary permits and without the supervision of a licensed teacher-welfare worker. At one point, Landis and two co-defendants offered to plead guilty to a felony charge of conspiring to violate the child labor laws if the more serious manslaughter charges were dropped; the district attorney’s office declined the offer.
The swiftness with which Landis has emerged from the “Twilight Zone” imbroglio suggests just how much the destinies of some powerful Hollywood personalities have in common with the buoyant fables they conjure on-screen. In “Coming to America,” Eddie Murphy plays a sheltered young prince who embarks on a comic odyssey through the lower depths of New York. In the end, protected by a loyal retinue and blessed with everything money can buy, the potentate and his bride retreat to his fairy-tale kingdom and live happily ever after.
Shortly before beginning work on that film, Landis and his wife purchased a small palace of their own, the lofty mountaintop estate of the late Rock Hudson, for which they paid close to $3 million.
As the contrasting fortunes of Landis and Wingo suggest, those who were mired in the “Twilight Zone” case have been affected in startlingly different ways. All of the participants--the defendants, the witnesses, the families of the victims, the lawyers and the jurors--continue to be touched by the tragedy. But the sharp discrepancy between the position of Landis and that of some of the other players one year after the trial ended continues to stir debate about Hollywood’s ideas of justice.
Richard Brooks, who directed Vic Morrow in the actor’s first movie, “The Blackboard Jungle,” in 1955, and who served on the Directors Guild safety committee formed after the “Twilight Zone” crash, was one of the few film makers who made no secret of his outrage over the accident. “It is ironic that ‘Coming to America,’ a picture most critics didn’t like and directed by John Landis, is now the No. 1 hit,” Brooks said recently. “I had to laugh when I read that. Values are upside-down in this town. I can’t help thinking of Tom Wolfe’s book, ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ where the whole world is insane.”
David Puttnam, the controversial English producer who had a brief tenure as chairman of Columbia Pictures, remains equally bemused by the capricious standards of the community in which he spent a turbulent year. “It’s not that there are no values in Hollywood,” Puttnam says. “It’s that there is a whimsical lack of consistency on ethical issues. People can be incredibly loyal and forgiving toward some individuals, and completely unforgiving toward others.”
DOWN THE mountain from Landis’ lavish new Beverly Hills abode, Stephen Lydecker is tinkering in the garage of the modest North Hollywood house in which he and his wife have lived for 17
years. Lydecker spends a lot of time at home these days, toiling in his workshop, tending to his coon hound and beagle and pet tortoises, and looking after the real estate investments he made during better days. Although those investments have afforded him a certain financial security, Lydecker, a 26-year veteran of the film business, has seen his professional career evaporate. Despite his efforts, he has not been hired as a camera operator since the night he ran the master camera on the fatal scene of “Twilight Zone.” “The phone hasn’t rung with a job offer in six years,” Lydecker says matter-of-factly.
Lydecker was among the first members of the “Twilight Zone” crew to blow the whistle. A week after the accident, he and two fellow cameramen called a news conference at his home and proceeded to decry what they considered to be a cavalier disregard for human safety at Indian Dunes.
In the ensuing months, Lydecker provided investigators with incriminating information about the use of live ammunition in a scene shot two nights before the accident and also about Landis’ infamous call for the helicopter to descend “Lower! Lower! Lower!” just before the fatal blast. He also recounted how he had warned the director that explosives in the mock Vietnamese village could endanger the chopper. At the criminal trial, Lydecker was one of the prosecution’s most adamant witnesses.
But it was the early news conference in Lydecker’s living room that first alerted the media to the possibility that Landis may have been guilty of criminal misconduct. And Lydecker, a big, burly man who does not show emotion easily, knows it was a crucial turning point--not just in the investigation of the accident, but in his life as well. Recalling that afternoon today, Lydecker’s voice is tinged with rueful pride.
“Our interest was and is to create a safer place to work,” Lydecker says. “We were not out to fry anybody. The studios were getting away with something that was just not right.”
In a town not known for self-scrutiny, Lydecker’s bold public stance was bound to stir controversy. Although Lydecker was no newcomer to the film industry--his grandfather and father were respected Hollywood craftsmen, and Lydecker had worked on and off in the movie business since 1949, when he doubled for a child actor in a John Wayne adventure movie, “Wake of the Red Witch"--he suddenly found himself unemployed. Several months after the accident, he asked a friend to help him get hired for a minimal number of hours, just so he could maintain his union health and welfare benefits. “I said, ‘Throw me a bone,’ ” Lydecker recalls. “The reply came back, ‘Well, we put your name in the hat and you’re (regarded as) a troublemaker. The producers and production managers just don’t want to deal with you.’
“I knew it was very possible I’d be an outcast for two or three years,” Lydecker reflects. “I didn’t think it would be the rest of my life, but it looks like that’s the way it’s going to be.”
A second cameraman instrumental in convening that news conference was Roger Smith, who had been filming Morrow and the two children from aboard the helicopter. Smith had nearly been killed when the aircraft plummeted into a shallow river; he suffered serious neck and back injuries. Attending Morrow’s memorial service a few days after the accident, Smith seethed as he listened to Landis deliver a vaunting eulogy for the actor. “Tragedy can strike in an instant,” Landis declared, “but film is immortal. Vic lives forever. Just before the last take, Vic took me aside to thank me for the opportunity to play this role.”
“He was supposed to be in mourning,” Smith recalls, “and there he was, ranting about how great his picture was.” On his way home from the cemetery, Smith stopped to call Lydecker from a pay phone. The two cameramen decided then that the whole mess should not, in Lydecker’s words, “get swept under the carpet.”
Like Lydecker, Smith believes his employment fell off drastically because he went public. “I’ve had real trouble getting work in the studios,” he says. A member of the cameramen’s union since 1958, Smith now has to settle for less remunerative commercials and non-union jobs. “It’s the same old story,” he observes. “They all say they want you to be safety-conscious, but if they think you’re too safety-conscious, they’re afraid of you. There’s definitely a double standard in the industry.”
Smith’s camera assistant aboard the helicopter, Randall Robinson, also participated in the news conference at Lydecker’s house, and he, too, believes he paid dearly for his outspokenness. “The industry saw us as three big lugs shooting our mouths off,” Robinson says. “For nine months afterward, I couldn’t get a job. Even today, some people may say I’m a hero for doing what I believed was right, but there are plenty of others who think I stink.”
As time passed, Robinson did manage to find occasional employment as a camera operator. He notes with some irony that two of his most recent assignments have been on TV’s “L.A. Law” and the action movie thriller “Above the Law.” But scars remain. He has been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and continues to have nightmares about the “Twilight Zone” accident.
THE CAMERAMEN were not the only ones who saw their Hollywood careers damaged by the disaster at Indian Dunes. When unit production manager Dan Allingham approached Dor cey Wingo to work on “Twilight Zone,” his first Hollywood studio feature, Wingo hoped that it would mark his initiation into the elite fraternity of highly paid stunt pilots. “I guess it’s like Clark Gable,” Wingo says. “He was just a small-time actor. Then he got his foot in the door, and bang, he was off. It’s the same with a pilot.”
After a stint transporting troops in and out of combat in Vietnam, Wingo had become a gypsy pilot. “I lived in a cabin on 10 acres in the woods of Oregon,” Wingo recalls. “I’d go wherever a job called me--South America, Alaska, firefighting in Wyoming, seismic work in Utah. I was living it up, getting to see some of the most beautiful parts of the world, living a life that very few other people could enjoy. That to me was perfect.”
But that footloose existence changed when he married Lourdes Medina in 1977. In addition to supporting his wife and baby son, Wingo took upon himself the task of providing for his wife’s 12 brothers and sisters in Culiacan, Mexico. Their father had died at the age of 40, leaving the family destitute. Suddenly Wingo needed a new source of income, and he had heard about the big money earned by a few top helicopter pilots who worked for the movie studios.
“One incentive for trying to become more active in the motion-picture business was the pay,” Wingo acknowledges. “I wanted to be able to say to my family in Mexico, ‘Here, have some nice clothes for a change.’ Or, ‘Here, don’t worry about the fact you’ve needed an operation for five years. We can get it for you.’ ”
But with the “Twilight Zone” disaster, Wingo’s problems multiplied immeasurably. Arguing that the pilot had participated in the hazardous filming despite an earlier warning of danger, prosecutors included him as a criminal defendant. For the next five years, he battled both the manslaughter charges and a move by the Federal Aviation Administration to revoke his license. He still awaits the FAA’s disposition on that matter. Although he is permitted to fly, the questions about his license limit his job prospects.
Wingo is weary of rehashing the “Twilight Zone” case today, saying he just wants to get on with his life. Last year, he gave a clue to the emotional effect the events of the past six years have had on his life. “It’s been very difficult, and I don’t know if there’ll ever be an end to it,” he said, shaking his head. “You just have to live it a day at a time.”
Wingo is understandably bitter when he talks about the infraction that prompted authorities to pursue the criminal case as vigorously as they did: the illegal hiring of the children. It was, after all, an act in which he did not participate and of which he said he had no knowledge at the time.
“Why didn’t (Landis and the others) just come out and tell me that?” he asks pointedly. “Why did they keep it from me? They kept it to themselves because they knew it could cause real problems if anything happened, because those children shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” Contending that the illegal hiring of the children is what exposed him to criminal prosecution, Wingo sued the financing studio, Warner Bros., also naming Landis and others, for civil damages.
In July, Warner Bros. and Wingo reached a “mutually satisfactory” out-of-court settlement, disposing of the suit. (Under the terms of the settlement, Wingo is not permitted to disclose the dollar amount.) “We have buried the hatchet,” Wingo says. “The only way to go on with life was to bury the thing.”
Today, Wingo has a new job, for a Corona-based company that performs heavy-lift helicopter work. He says he would like to fly in the movies again, although he concedes that no offers have been forthcoming. “I’m available,” he says. “I’ve shown interest in working in the movies again, but my name came to the attention of too many people for the wrong reasons.”
For special-effects foreman Paul Stewart, the second “below-the-line” defendant, better times have been equally slow in coming. (Crew members and technicians are known as “below-the-line” employees in contrast with actors, writers and high-level “creative” personnel. In the hierarchy of Hollywood, no “line” is more rigidly drawn.) Shortly after the trial, Stewart reported that he was having trouble finding work with the movie studios. “Warner Bros. and Columbia will not hire me,” he stated flatly at the time. “It is really a coldhearted business.”
More recently, however, the job offers have begun to pick up. “I’ve done some features lately,” Stewart says, including “License to Drive” and “Road House.”
“Things have gotten better,” he adds. “I think it was the liability in hiring me, because I was under indictment; the studios wanted to wait until after the trial was over.
“The trial cost me a lot of money because I lost so much work,” he says. “My attorney’s bill was $400,000, and I had to sign away all my rights to sue Warner Bros. to get them to pay.”
The studio’s reluctance to foot his lawyer’s bills stood in contrast to the treatment accorded Landis, George Folsey and Dan Allingham, the three “above-the-line” defendants who, like Stewart, technically qualified as Warner Bros. employees. “You work all your life in the motion-picture business and then you screw up, and they just throw you out in the wilderness,” Stewart says. “But if you’re a big person who generates a lot of work or money, they protect you.”
ASSOCIATE Producer George Folsey Jr. has fared better than his below-the-line co-defend ants. Folsey, the son of a legendary cinematographer, continues to serve as Landis’ partner. The credit “A Landis / Folsey Film” on “Coming to America” assures Folsey a hefty financial return, and his association with Landis augurs well for his future.
Unit production manager Dan Allingham’s fortunes are less assured, however. His association with Landis has become more tenuous than Folsey’s.
Although Allingham continued to be a loyal member of the Landis team after the “Twilight Zone” accident--he worked in various production capacities on the four features Landis directed between the accident and the start of the trial--his name is not among the credits for “Coming to America.”
Asked whether he was offered a job on that film, Allingham hesitates for a moment, then responds quietly, “I really don’t want to comment on that.” He tries to deflect speculation on a rift with Landis. “Breaking out on my own was always my intention,” Allingham insists. “I want to produce movies, and John has his immediate producer, which is George.”
Allingham is currently producing an adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s best-selling book “Communion,” which recounts the author’s putative encounter with extraterrestrials.
Trying to unwind after a long night of filming at Lake Arrowhead, Allingham projects great enthusiasm for his new project. Yet his surroundings suggest the distance he has traveled since leaving the Landis inner circle. His plain production office on Santa Monica Boulevard pales in comparison to the luxurious suites occupied by favored producers on a studio lot. As yet, “Communion” has no American distributor; the $6-million budget came from a consortium of independent investors he and his partners have hustled to put together. Looking back on his “Twilight Zone” ordeal, Allingham tries to avoid sounding bitter. “Is it something I’ll ever forget?” he reflects. “Of course not. Being a sensitive individual, which I think I am, I doubt that I’ll ever put it totally behind me. But you have to go on to another plateau in your life. I’m a pretty religious person, and there must have been a reason why I experienced this. I think one can make something good out of something difficult or tragic. It’s too easy to revert back to being a bum on the street.”
WHEN HE MADE his first movie, “Schlock,” at the age of 21, Landis unabashedly courted publicity whenever possible. He ingratiated himself with Variety columnist Army Archerd and even managed to swing an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
Several years later, in 1980, when Landis’ $30-million production “The Blues Brothers” was ready for release, he turned up uninvited at the NBC studio where Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were waiting to appear on “The Today Show,” urging the producer to allow him to appear with the stars. At a news conference for the movie, Landis was so voluble that one reporter finally called out to him, “Would you let the other two guys do a little more of the talking!”
Landis’ “Twilight Zone” troubles established a very different relationship between him and the media. Even after his acquittal, he kept an uncharacteristically low profile. He gave no interviews during the filming of “Coming to America” and did not participate in the media junket for the movie. Neither he nor George Folsey Jr. would comment for this story. Said Landis’ longtime personal attorney Joel Behr: “John is not going to say anything. The case has been over for a year, and he’s just not going to talk about it anymore.”
Despite the recent silence, reports that Landis hosted a one-year “anniversary party” for friends to celebrate the not-guilty verdict, and stories that he had also invited the jurors who acquitted him to a private screening of “Coming to America,” thrust the ever-controversial director back into the news.
Landis’ criminal defense attorney, one-time Watergate prosecutor James Neal, dismisses the flap over the anniversary party held at the posh Beverly Hills restaurant Prego. “It was not any great big celebration,” Neal says. “John was simply saying he appreciated people standing by him in his ordeal.” Allingham’s attorney, Leonard Levine, echoes that assessment and alludes to the strained relationship that developed between Landis and his “Twilight Zone” co-producer, Steven Spielberg.
“You must understand something,” Levine explained recently. “They were good friends, Landis and Spielberg. After this incident, Spielberg never spoke to him, would not return his calls. Friends that (Landis) had for years distanced themselves, did not want to be seen in his company, would not come down to the court. Very few people stood by this man during the six years of this hell. . . . And when the case was over and the right verdict reached and a year had passed and he wanted to have an indication, a celebration to thank the people who had stood by him, it’s now called some kind of victory party.”
Not only did Neal and Levine attend the anniversary party, they also were cast in cameo roles in “Coming to America.”
Although his marriage broke up during the long criminal trial, Nashville attorney Neal is one of the only participants who claims to have positive memories of the “Twilight Zone” case. (The $1.8-million fee he and his partner, James Sanders, reportedly collected for representing Landis was, no doubt, a sweetener.) “My attitude toward Hollywood has changed,” Neal comments. “As the old saying goes, I came to scoff and stayed to pray. I came to realize that there are a lot of good people in Hollywood. I made many good friends. I will never forget the afternoon I spent with John Huston. I will never forget meeting Billy Wilder. My friendship with John Landis I will never put behind me.”
Neal refuses to comment on Landis’ decision to invite the jurors to the private screening.
But attorney Harland Braun, the man Neal replaced as Landis’ counsel shortly before the start of the trial, and who became known for his pithy daily comments on the case, did have something to say. Braun, who has been one of Landis’ most virulent critics since the conclusion of the criminal proceedings, told Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Feldman that he believes the invitation to the jurors was objectionable because “the case from a moral point of view has never been resolved.” Braun, who represented Folsey during the trial, went on: “Even though he was not guilty of manslaughter, John Landis never got up and said, ‘Look, I feel morally responsible for the people dying even if I’m not criminally responsible.’ ” Then the lawyer acerbically added, “I wonder if he invited the parents of the children because they were part of the case, too.”
According to Braun, that last remark provoked such ire from both Landis and Folsey that Folsey called Braun and castigated him. “We hung up on each other,” Braun reports.
For the 12 jurors and four alternates who attended the screening of “Coming to America,” the media attention briefly revived the celebrity status they had attained during the trial. Like many of his fellow jurors, Crispin Bernardo, a native of the Philippines who had become an American citizen just one year before he was selected for the jury, looks back on the trial as one of the most memorable experiences of his life. He has compiled a voluminous scrapbook about the case, which includes newspaper clippings and a copy of the personal thank-you note Landis sent to each of the jurors shortly after the trial, as well as photographs taken at a number of reunions the jurors have celebrated.
Like Bernardo, jury forewoman Lois Rogers, a San Fernando Valley homemaker, looks back fondly on her months in the courtroom: “It was a tremendous experience that I will never forget,” she says. “It taught me an awful lot about the legal field. It also taught most of us human nature. There were 16 people in a jury room for 10 months, and we learned an awful lot about one another. We have truly become an extended family.” Asked about Landis’ private screening, Rogers says, “My only reason for going was that it gave me an opportunity to see the other jurors.”
Juror Wilbert Fisher, a retired bank executive and army officer, calls the screening controversy “ridiculous.” Others concur. “The letter we received stated quite clearly that (Landis) simply wanted to express his appreciation for the time and effort we had spent,” Bernardo says.
Most of the jurors admit that they have had to field hostile questions about the verdict they rendered. “I’ve gotten mixed reactions,” says juror James Ross. “Some people say, ‘How can you exonerate a person involved in the death of an actor and two kids?’ But I feel justice was done. I don’t think anybody can understand the whole thing who wasn’t there to hear the arguments.”
“Some people were very adamant,” Fisher adds. “I thought they were going to tar and feather me. But there were others who said, ‘Based on what you did hear, you came to the right decision.’ ”
IN THE FOUR YEARS between the accident and the commencement of the criminal trial--most of which time he was under indictment for manslaughter--John Landis directed four movies, pro duced another, and also directed a television special and the “Thriller” video. On “Coming to America,” Landis commanded not just his usual million-dollar salary and his percentage of the gross earnings, but he had the right of final cut. (When Paramount executives urged him to trim 15 minutes from the lengthy movie, the director refused, according to one studio source.) Landis has never been a darling of the critics. Speaking for the majority, New York magazine film critic David Denby wrote of the director’s most recent effort: “Is there a worse-directed movie before the public this summer than John Landis’ ‘Coming to America’?” Still, Landis enjoys a thriving career based largely on the huge box-office success of several of his earlier movies--"National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers” and “Trading Places"--and his close ties to hot actors such as Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy. (The tie to Murphy, however, was severed after “Coming to America”; the two men had a falling-out while making the picture, and Murphy has said he will not work with Landis again.)
While Landis was acquitted of manslaughter, the verdict could not absolve him of all responsibility for the accident. Early this year, the board of directors of the Directors Guild of America took the unusual step of reprimanding him for “unprofessional” conduct on the “Twilight Zone” set. At the time of the accident, the California Labor Commission levied against Landis the maximum possible fine, $5,000, for his violation of the child labor laws--an infraction that he admitted and that then-labor commissioner Patrick Henning described as an “obscenity” and “a flagrant violation of all our rules.” In addition, Cal / OSHA issued 36 citations and levied $62,375 in fines, an exceptionally high amount for Cal / OSHA penalties. Seven months after the criminal trial, as Cal / OSHA was rapidly being dismantled, the moribund agency withdrew all but $1,350 of the fines rather than pursue the matter. As a result of civil suits brought by the families of the three victims, Warner Bros., the studio that financed “Twilight Zone,” ended up paying millions of dollars in settlements plus several additional millions in legal fees to the defendants’ attorneys.
Desmond Ryan, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently wrote of the “Twilight Zone” disaster: “In most walks of life, it would have led to (Landis’) swift and irretrievable fall from grace. . . . Landis’ career has suffered no setback in Hollywood--a town that is historically lenient toward the sins of people whose pictures make money.”
But many in Hollywood counter that it is unfair to dwell on Landis’ past mistakes. “I don’t think Landis should be punished for the rest of his life for this terrible accident,” says Martin Bregman, producer of “Scarface” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” “Was he careless? Possibly, but I’ve worked with many directors who were equally careless.”
Beyond that, Bregman is one of several film makers who believe that Hollywood has learned a lesson from the “Twilight Zone” accident. He argues that overbearing directors no longer receive unquestioning deference. “There are 100 people on a set who have always believed the director is God,” Bregman says. “Now they realize there’s a higher god--a district attorney.”
Director Robert Wise, a two-time Academy Award winner and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1985 until this year, contends that the “Twilight Zone” catastrophe, coming on the heels of several less-publicized fatalities on movie sets, did make the industry more safety-conscious. “I think it made people more aware of the fact that what looks dangerous on the screen can be dangerous to the people doing it unless proper supervision and care are taken,” Wise says.
Richard Ziker, a veteran stunt man who worked on John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers” as well as the recent hair-raising action spectacle “Die Hard,” has noticed an increased concern for safety on the set. “Now we have to have more pre-production meetings and run-throughs” Ziker reports. “If they tried to redo the final scene of ‘Twilight Zone’ now, it would never be done the same way.”
Others remain more skeptical about the lasting effects of the case. Maverick film maker John Sayles recently directed “Eight Men Out,” a movie about the notorious Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal of 1919. In Sayles’ morality tale, the popular ballplayers who participated in a scheme to throw the World Series are found not guilty in a court of law but are nonetheless banished from professional baseball. Sayles contrasts the fate of the athletes portrayed in his film with the destiny of Hollywood titans.
“In the movie business,” he says, “the more powerful you are, the higher up you are on the ladder, the less likely you are to truly pay a price for your actions or face the music. The Black Sox scandal happened at the end of a more innocent era, but we are living in a very cynical time now.”
Steve Shagan, a screenwriter (“Save the Tiger”) and novelist (“The Formula”) who was a close friend of Vic Morrow, agrees that the idea of blackballing is offensive, but he is also disturbed by what he sees as the expediency of Hollywood. “If Adolf Eichmann arrived at a studio with a good script and Robert Redford committed to star,” Shagan suggests astringently, “they’d park the Mercedes for him and say, ‘What six million?’ ”
As for John Landis himself, his reluctance to speak publicly about his feelings does not necessarily mean that he has been emotionally unaffected by the accident. In a letter to each of the jurors, Landis thanked them for the encouraging remarks some of them made at a post-trial news conference: “Your comments after the verdict had a profound effect on all of us,” he wrote. “We will never forget you.” When it was later suggested to Landis that he must be relieved to have the ordeal behind him, he replied soberly, “Well, it’s not all behind me.” With the next breath, however, he returned to his customary ebullience: “I’ve been offered a lot of pictures, I’m happy to say. I got a very nice letter from John Huston. I’ve also gotten a lot of supportive letters from prisoners, including one who had been sent away by (prosecutor Lea) D’Agostino.”
Whatever Landis’ private thoughts about the accident, in the eyes of most Hollywood deal makers, the “Twilight Zone” debacle is probably a less relevant part of his resume than the box-office gross of “Coming to America.” For others involved in the tragedy, finding a way out of the Twilight Zone has proved more difficult.
The parents of Myca Le were divorced two years after the accident. In a legal deposition filed in 1985, Renee Chen’s mother, Shyan-Huei Chen, said she believes “that she will continue to suffer serious mental anguish, emotional distress and severe depression for so long as she lives in the future.”
Like Shyan-Huei Chen, Steve Lydecker cannot purge the memory of that night at Indian Dunes. He still recalls the keening wail of Chen as she knelt over the crushed remains of her daughter, pleading with the child to wake up. “I don’t think I’ll ever get that sight or sound out of my head,” he says with a shudder.
Yet Lydecker seems philosophical about his ruined career in the movie business. “I don’t need the 16-hour days on a set anymore,” he says. “My time with my family is more valuable than having a Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway.” Then Lydecker goes on quietly, “Besides, I’m not sure I want to work in an industry where you have to kill three people to make a picture.”