BizParentz Foundation

Supporting families of children working in the entertainment industry

Twilight Zone Tragedy

TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE

In 1982, 3 actors died on the set of a major motion picture, directed by Jon Landis. Two of the dead were children.


As a showbiz parent, I had heard chatter about this incident for years, but I never really looked into the facts. Honestly, I just attributed it to “something that happened a long time ago…it wouldn’t happen now”.  I was wrong. There is nothing about this incident that would be different today. The same laws existed then, the same unions, the same “protections”.  Hollywood and the parents just ignored them. I would encourage every industry parent, anyone interested in doing a reality show, to spend a little time grasping this incident, and what Hollywood will do for "good tv". I'm crushed--those were real little children, and just babies! I am horrified that this was EVER allowed to happen.


The Accident


On July 23, 1982 at 2:30AM, actor Vic Morrow and 2 children were killed on set in a horrific accident. The movie was "Twilight Zone: The Movie". The director/producers were John Landis and Steven Spielberg. It was a SAG film, shooting in a dirt bike track near Magic Mountain, made to look like Vietnam.


We usually hear that the victims were Vic Morrow (of Combat fame, and father to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), and “a couple of kids”. The children have names. They were Renee Chen (a girl, age 6) and My-ca Dinh Le (a boy, age 7). Just babies! Decapitated. They aren’t even listed on the film as “cast”, so they aren’t even memorialized with a correct IMdb listing. Guess the producers didn’t feel the need to give them a credit.


This scene never made it into the film, but you can see a short clip here. The first part is the helicopter accident, the rest of the film is about other helicopter deaths in Hollywood: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iM7WqxTyg5s


Landis was yelling "Fly Lower! Lower! Closer!" as the accident happened. His quest for REALITY killed 3 people. But the story gets more interesting , and more applicable to showbiz parents...


Two of the biggest directors in Hollywood. A big SAG film. Who would think they do anything REALLY dangerous??


The day before the accident, Landis was shooting another shot of bullets pelting the thick green leaves of a banana plant. When he wasn’t getting the effect he wanted, he chose to use live ammunition—a rifle with real bullets, not blanks. And within a foot of principal actors, who had to jump out of the way for the shot. Using live ammo is unheard of on any movie set. But it was just a preview of things to come.


Despite repeated requests by the crew, Landis rejected using stunt doubles for the helicopter shot. Ditto for using little people, filming during the day and using "night lenses", or for filming the actors separately from the explosions. He wanted REAL. The explosives were to be VERY close, despite the objections of the pyro guy and the fire officials. There were lots of little production decisions that the parents were not privvy to.


Despite the professional status of the project, the children were not professional actors, they did not have work permits. There were multiple infractions of labor law: No studio teacher/welare worker was present. They were filming LONG after law allows in CA (2:30AM). They were allowed to work near explosives. They were paid with petty cash so that no record of their presence would exist. They were hidden in their trailers until the shot started. The fact that they were hired outside SAG and outside the law suggests that the film crew KNEW there was danger and proceeded despite it.


When the AD was asked what the penalty was for hiring kids illegally, he said, "“A slap on the wrist and a little fine – unless they find out about the explosives, then they’ll throw my butt in jail.” Landis said lightheartedly, “Arrgghhh, we’re all going to jail!”


Their parents were present at the set (Renee's mom and My-ca's dad, a doctor), and watched their children die. Here's a piece of the parent’s testimony about her day on set, from the court records: “Inevitably, the most heart-tugging testimony was that of the parents. My-ca’s mother, Hoa-Kim Le, was the first of the parents to testify. She was a social worker who aided abused and neglected children. Under D’Agostino’s questioning, she claimed not to know that permits were required for children working at night or that My-ca would be near a helicopter or explosives. She also remembered Folsey saying after the first night of shooting, “You don’t have to come back. I will treat your children as my own.”


D’Agostino asked about the next night when her husband went alone with My-ca to Indian Dunes. “Did you ever see My-ca again?” the prosecutor asked. “No,” the witness replied, her eyes brimming with tears. Then Renee’s father, Mark Chen, testified. He denied being told that his child should have had a permit to work legally at Indian Dunes or that the girl would be in close proximity to a helicopter and explosives. At one point, Mark Chen began crying.”


…Back in the courtroom, Shyan-Huei Chen took the stand. Uncomfortable in English, she testified through a Mandarin interpreter. She related how she believed her daughter appearing in a movie would be “a good experience, a very good memory.”


She told how she had been concerned after the 9:30 p.m. shot and George Folsey reassured her that it was “not dangerous. Just the sound, very loud sound.” Then she testified about Folsey visiting her in the trailer and saying, “If the fire department people come over and if they ask what you are doing here, just tell them you are friends helping us. Don’t mention anything about money.”


Next, neatly attired in a dark blue suit, Daniel Le took the stand. He claimed that no one told him his son would be working illegally or explained that the child would be around a helicopter and special-effects explosives. When he was asked about the fatal scene, he answered, “I fell to the ground because I was so horrified. The next thing, I saw people running, shouting, running for their lives. Then I saw the body of my son.”


That was after they were paid in CASH ($500/day), so that there would be no record of the illegal hirings. CD Marci Liroff was by-passed using the rationale that the kids would be hired as extras which doesn’t fall under her job description. But she apparently she expressed concern to Landis that the scene would be dangerous and she knew the kids would be hired illegally (according to her court testimony later).


But the kids were having so much fun, they were giggling constantly. So much so that they had to do several re-takes of the scene the day before. But by the beginning of the helicopter scene, they were scared and crying--the explosions were scaring them, and Renee got something in her eye.


Read here for how they were cast to begin with, and what the parents were told. Lots of assurances of safety, lots of "don't worry, it's just Hollywood". It's long, but please take the time for this one page: http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/not_guilty/twilight_zone/2.html


After the accident, the parents were taken to the hospital to be treated for shock, while the crew removed their children’s body parts from the water.


Landis attended the funerals of both children and Vic Morrow, despite the family's horror at this. His lawyer advised him to go(if you click "next chapter" in the above article you can see a small pic of Renee's funeral).


Legal Stuff


Landis and 4 others were charged with manslaughter in the deaths of the 3 actors. They endured a Grand Jury hearing, pre-trial hearings and a full blown jury trial. In addition, civil suits were brought against Warner Brothers and Landis by the families of the deceased. Later, Landis was cleared of the charges, but only because they could not decide WHO to blame, and Landis had the crack legal team (paid for by Warner Brothers).


Spielberg claims he was not on set that night, although some of the crew say he was. Pat Kenoe was the 1st AD whose job USUALLY includes safety. The helicopter pilot (who lived btw) had never flown with special effects and lost control of the copter. There were allegations of drug use by the crew. The “powder guy” (the one in charge of detonating explosives) admitted he wasn’t looking at the copter when he detonated the charges. The parents allowed their children to work illegally. The blame kept getting passed all around....in the end, no one took responsibility.


Landis did pay a fine (along with Spielberg) for hiring the kids illegally. The kids' families DID sue the production companies. But records from the suit blame the child, 6 yr old Renee: "the risk, if any risk there was, was knowingly assumed by the decedent, Renee Shin-Yi Chen.” As if a 6 year old could decide for herself! Eventually the children’s lawsuit was settled for approximately $2 million per family. Warner Brothers paid the bill, along with the legal fees of the Landis and the other crew (they were WB employees at the time of the accident).


When Landis was questioned in court about WHOSE responsibility it is, he said: “The final authority...is not mine! Because if I ask an actor – I said, ‘Would you please take your hand and stick it in this garbage disposal,’ the actor is going to say, ‘Of course not.’”

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When I see shows like Kid Nation, or the teen reality show, or the low-budget indies where edgy directors are always looking for one more REAL shot, I think we all need to remember this incident. The buck stops at mom.


Even the top people in the industry lie to get what they want. They push the envelope. MORE reality. MORE of everything. We can't allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking these people care about our kids or are even afraid of "getting in trouble".


Twilight Zone was a hit, although it wasn’t a great movie artistically. And Landis gets residuals checks to this day. It is estimated that he made approximately $1 million on the film.


Helpful Resources



Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case by Stephen Farber and Marc Green


Los Angeles Superior Court: The People v. John Landis et al, 8/3/86-5/29/87 Court TV Crime Library