On a gray day last week on the Universal Studios back lot, film director John Landis pulled his black Volvo station wagon up to a busy construction site. Dressed in a natty blue suit, he eased through a work area of hard hats and flannel shirts.
Landis made his way to the place where his new film "Oscar" was shooting before a devastating blaze in November swept across the back lot, causing $25 million in damage and consuming the New York brownstones Landis was using. ("It was like Dresden," said Landis, who relocated and continued shooting "Oscar" at the Universal back lot in Orlando, Fla.)
Landis posed for photos in front of the remanufactured brownstones.
"Do we need permission to be here?" asked an accompanying Walt Disney publicity manager over the din of construction.
"No, not if you're with me," he said jovially. "In real life, yes. But if you're with me, don't worry about it."
If the line between reality and movie make-believe seems like a thin one for Landis, it is. For almost a decade, Landis has spent as much time in front of the camera, defending himself against charges of involuntary manslaughter during the filming of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," as he has behind it, directing a string of mostly successful films--"Trading Places," "Spies Like Us," "Into the Night," "Three Amigos" and "Coming to America."
When asked if the "Twilight Zone" tragedy is over during an interview at his cabana office on the Universal lot, Landis pulled back in disbelief. "No. When you experience something so horrific, no . I mean, the accident itself is so terrifying. I don't think you put that behind you. I live with the 'Twilight Zone' every day of my life. No, I don't think that's gone, or past."
Does he feel responsible for the accident? "Of course. It was my set."
"What people tend to forget in all this," Landis said later, "is the helicopter crashed less than a foot from where I stood. It's not like I was removed from this somehow."
Landis wasn't happy about these questions, but knew he would hear them. He received a small dose of them two weeks ago during a press junket for "Oscar" in Los Angeles. The director has done almost no movie publicity since the "Twilight Zone" tragedy occurred in 1982, but is so sold on "Oscar," his new Sylvester Stallone gangster farce, that he's ready to go out and sell it himself.
But first, there are those "Twilight Zone" questions, questions that have been hanging over the 40-year-old Landis for nine years, since the helicopter crash that killed actor Vic Morrow and two illegally hired Asian-American children. Landis and four associates were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in 1987, after a long trial that commanded worldwide attention and, from Landis' point of view, a horrendous media circus.
"I haven't done any publicity in many, many years because I felt, with complete justification, that the circus and the exploitation of the tragedy--" Landis stopped in mid-sentence, shaking his head. "I mean, the things I saw. During the funeral of (child actress) Myca (Dinh Le), I actually saw the press behave like 'The Day of the Locust.' They pushed the girl's aunt into an open grave to try and get a picture of the grieving mother.
"It was so shocking that you get to the point where the studio says, 'Will you do an interview?' and then you feel like saying, 'Well, let the press make it up. . . . It doesn't matter. They just make it up anyway.' "
Landis had equally harsh words for Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who prosecuted the "Twilight Zone" case: "The trial was this horrible period for not just me, but for everyone involved. I mean, it was Ira Reiner trying to get attention. You saw the way he handled the McMartin case, everything he does. I don't think it was a criminal case. I think it was a case of politics and a pretty slimy D.A."
The problem Landis often faces is that he is so forthcoming and unbridled in interviews that when his words hit the printed page, they take on a rogue appearance. During his trial, every statement Landis uttered publicly seemed to come back to haunt him.
"I finally just retreated," he said. "I mean, I've had major publications, I don't know if I should say them--Rolling Stone, People magazine, L.A. Times, New York Times--print things, quotes, that I never said. You know, print lies, mis-truths, mis-facts. And you get to the point where, what are you going to do, sue them? You can't."
So, why has "Oscar" drawn Landis back from the "Twilight Zone" and into the public eye?
"I'm doing press on this movie because I really feel," he paused and laughed, "it needs all the help it can get. Because I'm proud of this picture, and I want people to see it. Of my movies, 'Oscar' is the closest one to being really, really good."
Landis became bankable as a director in 1978 with the raunchy success of Universal's "Animal House," a $2-million project that several other directors had turned down. He followed with "The Blues Brothers" and "An American Werewolf in London," from a screenplay he wrote as an 18-year-old.
But Landis, who started out as a mail boy at 20th Century Fox, said the only films of his that ever received favorable reviews in this country were his first two--the 1971 horror spoof "Schlock," which he directed at 21 on a $60,000 budget, and the 1977 skit movie "Kentucky Fried Movie," with "Airplane!" creators Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abrahams.
"What is true," Landis said, "and what you have to admit, when a picture becomes hugely successful, there's a lot of revisionist thinking. 'Animal House,' which got individual good reviews, was generally trashed. I mean, it was trashed. But because it was hugely successful, within the same year it became referred to as a classic."
Shortly after he returned from an extended vacation around the world with his wife (costume designer Deborah Nadoolman) and two children last year, Landis was given the script for "Oscar" by Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. Danny DeVito was attached to the project, which at the time was about a nouveau riche auto-parts dealer in New Jersey.
While reading the screenplay, Landis spotted a minor subplot of pure farce, and he was surprised to learn that "Oscar" was an Americanized adaptation of play by Claude Magnier that became a movie vehicle for the great French character comedian Louis des Funes.
Because Landis, an armchair movie historian, enjoyed the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, he decided to expand the script into a full-blown farce, which he described as Damon Runyon meets French playwright Georges Feydeau.
"Farce is the single most difficult thing to do in film," Landis said. "You lay bricks, you lay foundations, that occur 30 minutes before the gag. It's like a huge house of cards."
The director is aware that he will probably become plump game to critics once again for casting Stallone, who has been trying to refashion his muscle-head image for some time, in the $24-million film's pivotal role. Landis surrounded the tough-guy actor with a cast of characters ranging from Kirk Douglas to Eddie Bracken to Don Ameche.
"If you look at the gangster comedies of the '30s, you had Edward G. Robinson or Jimmy Cagney as the anchor," Landis said. "I needed a big star, a big star persona, to anchor the film. And there are very few big stars. There are lots of star personalities, but I needed someone who was that large. . . . Stallone has become this cultural icon. You have Saddam Hussein talking about 'Rambo.' I mean, the baggage that poor Sylvester carries around with him is kind of astonishing."
Landis has been impressed with Stallone's ability to ad-lib comedy ever since they met on the set of the 1975 Roger Corman car-chase bash "Death Race 2000." After Landis mutters two lines in the film, Stallone, who plays "Machine Gun" Joe Bravado, runs down Landis in his supercharged car.
Stallone said he was shocked when Landis approached him to star in "Oscar."
"I was major taken aback," Stallone said. "There are no car crashes in the film; not one person is thrown through a window. It was bold, especially for (Landis) to put me in such a conservative, stationary vehicle, which takes place in one or two locations.
"I asked him, 'What does it involve?' He said, 'Its thrust is vocal repartee, back and forth, back and forth.' That's something I do a lot in my private life, but not on the screen. I said, 'You're actually going to let me talk?' I felt like I was coming out of ether. I felt like Robert De Niro in 'Awakenings.' "
When asked how "Oscar" will be received, Landis said, "I don't know. I don't know. I think the critics will be nasty, but they always are. I think they are prejudiced toward Sylvester, and they've always been nasty about me. I would just like people to acknowledge that his performance happens to be really good, and he's surrounded by some very fast company."
Landis is safe with such glib comments today, as memories of "Twilight Zone" court battles fade. It was the first time criminal charges were levied against a movie director for events that occurred during the shooting of a film. The industry responded by adapting a host of new safety standards.
Landis never really lost work as a director, except when legal proceedings curtailed his time. Hollywood doesn't seem to remember the incident; Disney's Katzenberg declined to comment on the subject. It has been mostly the press that has kept it alive.
"The industry has forgotten, because what happened to John, I think, was a real tour de force in finding a scapegoat," Stallone said. "They maneuvered against him with a little too much zeal. I think most people have forgotten. He may have his enemies, but it never comes up around me. Never."
One reason why the director's status in Hollywood remains solid, Landis said, is because his films make money. His cable-TV series "Dream On" for MCA Television is a hit on HBO. Because he's so valuable to the studio, Universal has allowed Landis to make films for Disney, Orion, Warner Bros., Paramount and Polygram, all from his office on the Universal lot.
"I've been extremely lucky, extremely lucky, that my pictures have done well," said Landis, now in preproduction on an untitled horror movie about "sex, show business and death."
"You know, it's always been called 'the film business.' It's always been called 'the industry.' It hasn't even been called 'the craft.' So the fact that my pictures have done well gives me a little more power to make a deal. And when you hire me, I make the movie."