Hollywood usually celebrates anniversaries with great fanfare, but there's one anniversary most would just as soon forget--the 10th anniversary of the "Twilight Zone: The Movie" accident.
At 2:30 a.m. on July 23, 1982, actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Le, 7, were killed when a scene involving a special-effects explosion and the use of a helicopter went horribly awry. Morrow and Lee were decapitated by the main rotor blade and Chen was crushed by the chopper.
Eleven months later, director John Landis and four members of the film production team were indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter--on the day the film was released to theaters. Landis was the only Hollywood director to ever be criminally charged for deaths on a set, authorities said.
On May 27, 1987, after 93 days of testimony involving 71 witnesses--including some very recognizable Hollywood figures like child star-turned-director Jackie Cooper--four days of prosecution rebuttal and 13 days of final arguments, the verdicts came in: Not guilty.
Key participants did not welcome the incident being brought up again. Landis did not agree to a reporter's requests for an interview. Co-defendants George Folsey Jr., the film's associate producer, declined to comment; Dan Allingham, the movie's unit production manager, did not return phone calls and special effects coordinator Paul Stewart could not be located.
Despite the circumstances that brought these men together, they do talk to each other--two or three times a year, in fact. Co-defendant Dorcey Wingo, who was piloting the helicopter that night, is now director of operations for Hiser Aircraft in Corona. He said that usually he, Landis, Folsey and their attorneys get on the phone on the verdict anniversary day each year and chat. They also have an annual Christmas party.
"We're just like old friends . . . I'm always asking John what his latest film is and he wants to know what I'm up to," he said. He successfully fought the Federal Aviation Administration, which sought to permanently strip him of his pilot's license, among other things. He rarely works on feature films, but he has developed a specialty: He drops oversized sculpture into stars' gardens from the air.
"We all became pretty close during the whole thing. It's not like any of us wants to forget any of the friends we all made."
Since the trial, Wingo said he's never talked to the victims' families. The Les were originally from Vietnam, the Chens from Taiwan. Their children were hired illegally.
One who was in communication with them for several years afterward--although she no longer is--is Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino, the prosecuting attorney who lost the case.
"It just became too painful for them and for me," she said from her office in Van Nuys, where she has been reassigned from downtown. "God. Those kids would have been teen-agers by now. It's such a waste."
While there was no bitterness in Wingo's voice over the incidents that re-directed his life, there certainly is in D'Agostino's.
"Certainly, if the verdict had come back guilty, my life would have been vastly different," she said. "People would have been falling all over themselves saying how brilliant I was."
Instead, she recounts, she was "sent out to the Valley" by adversary (and boss) Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, whom she ran unsuccessfully against after the trial, in a less-challenging job involving "mostly paperwork for the first three years."
Book publishers, who sought her story while the case was being played out, disappeared when she lost. She was widely viewed as one of the trial's more theatrical participants.
As for her feelings about Landis?
She said she makes a point to never watch any of his movies.
"I don't want to be a party to his wealth. I even check the names in the TV listings very carefully," she said.
Echoing many peoples' sentiments--in the industry and outside of it--she says: "There are many talented people in Hollywood who could do the same job. To reward someone for having engaged in this conduct is very disappointing." Landis' current project is "Innocent Blood," a comedy.