Twilight Zone accident
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The film featured four sequences, one of which was based on a 1961 Twilight Zone episode, "A Quality of Mercy." In the script, the character Bill Connor (Morrow) is a bigot who travels back in time to suffer through various eras of persecution, such as Nazi-occupied Europe and the racial segregation of the American South during the mid-20th century. He then finds himself in the midst of the Vietnam War, where he decides to protect some Vietnamese children from American troops.
Director John Landis violated California's child labor laws by hiring 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen (Chinese: 陳欣怡; pinyin: Chén Xīnyí) without the required permits. Landis and several other staff members were also responsible for a number of labor violations connected with other people involved in the accident, all of which came to light after the incident had occurred.
Le and Chen were being paid under the table to circumvent California's child labor laws, which did not permit children to work at night. Landis opted not to seek a special waiver, either because he did not think he would get permission for such a late hour or because he knew he would never get approval to have young children as part of a scene with a large number of explosives. The casting agents were unaware that the children would be involved in the scene. Associate producer George Folsey, Jr. told the children's parents not to tell any firefighters onset that the children were part of the scene, and also hid them from a fire safety officer who also worked as a welfare worker. A fire safety officer was concerned the blasts would cause a crash, but did not tell Landis of his concerns. Morrow's friend and former Combat! co-star Dick Peabody wrote that Morrow's last words before the shot took place were: "I've got to be crazy to do this shot. I should've asked for a double."
The filming location was a ranch known as Indian Dunes that was used through the 1980s in films and television shows, including The Color Purple, Escape From New York, MacGyver and China Beach. The location was extremely popular; it was within the 30-mile zone, its wide-open area allowed for more pyrotechnic effects, and it was possible to shoot night scenes without city lights visible in the background. Additionally, Indian Dunes' 600 acres (2.4 km2) featured a wide topography—green hills, dry desert, dense woods, and jungle-like riverbeds along the Santa Clara River—that made it suitable to double for locations around the world, including Afghanistan, Myanmar, Brazil, and in particular, Vietnam.
The night scene called for Morrow's character to carry the two children across the river while being pursued by US soldiers in a helicopter. The helicopter was piloted by Vietnam War veteran Dorcey Wingo. During the filming of the scene, Wingo stationed his helicopter 25 feet (7.6 m) from the ground and, while hovering near a large mortar effect, he turned the aircraft 180 degrees to the left for the next camera shot. The effect was detonated while the helicopter's tail-rotor was still above it, causing the rotor to fail and detach from the tail. The low-flying helicopter spun out of control. Morrow dropped Chen into the water. As Morrow was reaching out to grab Chen, the helicopter fell on top of Morrow and the two children. Morrow and Le were decapitated and mutilated by the helicopter's main rotor blades while Chen was crushed to death by the helicopter's landing skid.
At the subsequent trial, the defense claimed that the explosions were detonated at the wrong time. Randall Robinson, an assistant cameraman on board the helicopter, testified that production manager Dan Allingham told Wingo, "That's too much. Let's get out of here," when the explosions were detonated, but Landis shouted over the radio: "Get lower... lower! Get over!" Robinson said that Wingo tried to leave the area, but that "we lost our control and regained it and then I could feel something let go and we began spinning around in circles." Stephen Lydecker, also a camera operator on board, testified that Landis had earlier "shrugged off" warnings about the stunt with the comment "We may lose the helicopter." While Lydecker acknowledged that Landis may have been joking when he made the remark, he said: "I learned not to take anything the man said as a joke. It was his attitude. He didn't have time for suggestions from anybody."
Steven Spielberg broke his friendship with John Landis after the accident, and it resulted in a court trial that lasted a decade.
Because of this accident, stunt helicopters were rarely used in movies until the advent of CGI in the late 1990s. The proposed ending for the "Time Out" segment was never finished and instead cuts the Vietnam part short. The originally scripted ending, with the character going to a concentration camp was kept in.
The accident would haunt John Landis' career for the rest of his life. While he was initially able to shrug it off as he directed the acclaimed Thriller music video and several hits like "Trading Places afterwards, it was only during the court trial that his career begun to decline, leading to flops like Blues Brothers 2000. Eddie Murphy, while filming Coming to America with him, hated him so much that he went as far as to say, "Vic Morrow would have a better chance of working with you."
During his attendance of the early Comic Cons, people would pull a cruel prank on him and snap dollar bills behind his ear to mimic the sound of helicopter blades. He also attended a screening of Grindhouse and when the scene in Planet Terror came on where a helicopter is driven through zombies, most of the crowd gathered around and stared at John Landis.