It's easy to view Hollywood in a bubble of riches, immortality and glamour. When munching popcorn and settling in to watch the latest blockbuster, little thought goes in to what it takes to bring such grandiose, action packed stories to life.
More people get injured or killed in the making of movies than we'd like to imagine - from 1980 to 1990 alone, there were 37 deaths related to stunts. Understandably, death defying acts on screen pose a real-life risk.
Although every accident behind the scenes carries with it a sombre narrative, one accident in particular is so chilling it wouldn't be out of place as a fictional story we expect to see on the screen, not hear about off it.
A real life tragedy
Friday 23rd July 1982 is a date that is etched into Hollywood's history for the wrong reasons. It's the date where arguably the most tragic real-life story unfolded. On Friday 23rd July 1982, while filming the Twilight Zone Movie, actor Vic Morrow was decapitated and killed, along with two children.
What followed was a dark period in Hollywood history, involving a criminal trial and a massive crackdown on the safety behind the scenes. But what happened on that evening, and could it have been prevented?
"Nothing will hurt you. I swear to God."
The Twilight Zone was a cult American TV program that originally aired from 1959 to 1964. The premise of the show always involved twisted, dark stories, often involving psychological twists.
Such was its popularity, Twilight Zone: The Movie had a strong backing - Steven Spielberg produced, Dan Akroyd starred, and John Landis, fresh from mainstream successes such as Blues Brothers and Trading Places, was on board to direct.
Vic Morrow, 53, was playing the role of a racist bigot who entered the Twilight Zone to learn a lesson - he travelled back in time to situations where he'd be a victimized minority, such as Nazi Europe and Vietnam. The clip below shows us a glimpse of the vulgarity of his character, but also the brilliance of Vic's acting.
The plot for the fatal scene involved a Vietnamese man about to be killed by U.S soldiers. Director John Landis was keen to get the scene shot and completed, so the crew worked in to the early hours. Vic was joined by two child actors - Myca Dinh Le, who was 7-years-old, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, who was six.
Landis knowingly violated California's child labor laws by filming with the children in the middle of the night, without a valid permit.
Vic's character was to rescue the children an American Helicopter. His scripted line is a chilling and morbid irony considering the events that were about to unfold:
"I’ll keep you safe, kids. I promise. Nothing will hurt you, I swear to God.”
Morrow never got to deliver that line. Instead, mortar from explosives caused the helicopter to veer out of control. Morrow and Le were decapitated. Chen was crushed to death. The children's parents witnessed the events.
Surprisingly, the film was still released. You'd think after such a tragedy the film would be scrapped, but this wasn't the case - instead, Morrow's scenes were removed and the release went ahead as planned and made almost $30 million at the box office. Money talks.
"Get Lower! Get Lower!"
Director John Landis, producer George Folsey Jnr, pilot Dorcey Wingo, production manager Dan Allingham, and explosives specialist Paul Stewart were all charged with manslaughter.
During the trial Randall Robinson, a cameraman who was on the fallen helicopter, claimed production manager Dan Allingham wanted the pilot to stop but Landis contradicted these claims, shouting over the radio:
"Get lower, lower! Get over!"
Before it crashed, the helicopter was flying just 25 feet over the three unfortunate victims. When the explosive was set off, it damaged the helicopters tail-rotor, causing the helicopter to spin out of control.
The movie that changed everything
It would be inconceivable to image a tragic accident of such magnitude wouldn't shake up the industry. And certainly, some good has emerged from the depths of the horror of that July evening in '82.
Much more stringent regulations and rules were passed, and the health and safety of actors and those behind the scenes on set has taken precedent. While in production, films now even have risk consultants who assess the environment before filming begins.
Chris Palmer works as one of these consultants. When talking to Slate, he said:
“It was a sea change in the movie industry. No one in risk management was ever on set before then. If you want to shoot in the Caribbean during hurricane season, you’ve got a problem.
“I can’t be terminated by the director or producer. ... That takes the pressure off the crew because it can be intimidating to be the one to stand up and say ‘hold on."
There was a ripple of change after the trial and consequential clampdown. Between 1982 and 1986, accidents on set dropped by 69.6%. The cruel irony is that perhaps is there was someone on set of the Twilight Movie with the sole responsibility of concern for people's safety, the accident may not have happened, yet without the accident, tougher regulations may not have taken hold.
Hollywood producer Saul David, who worked with Columbia Studios and Warner Brothers spoke of his lack of faith in 1987. He said:
"I think ostensibly there will be more caution for a time. But, in effect, if they had the same shot to do again they would find a way to do it. If the audience says it wants more death-defying and terrible stunts, [the filmmakers] are going to give them more death-defying and terrifying stunts."
What happened to Landis?
The first movie director to ever be charged for a fatality on set rarely spoke about the incident, and mainly stayed out of the limelight, shunning public appearances.
However, with his release of Oscar in 1991, starring Sylvester Stallone, he made a rare appearance speaking out on the subject to the LA Times. He said:
"What people tend to forget in all this, is the helicopter crashed less than a foot from where I stood. It's not like I was removed from this somehow."
"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".
At the time of the trial, a confidant of Landis commented that it wouldn't affect his career as Hollywood is "too greedy". Their prediction was correct - since the incident, Landis has directed a range of highly successful movies, as well as Michael Jackson's iconic 'Thriller' video.
Producer Steven Spielberg, who was a friend of Landis, cut of contact with the director after the incident. Talking of the tragedy, he said:
"No movie is worth dying for. I think people are standing up much more now than ever before to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn't safe, it's the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, 'Cut!'"
What about now?
Since the turn of the millennium, there have been numerous deaths on set, with perhaps the most high profile being the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones while filming Midnight Rider, which resulted in director Randall Miller receiving a 10 year sentence.
Although film sets are a lot safer than they used to be, with new regulations and more structured risk management, accidents do still happen. Audiences want thrills, action and stories that are larger than life.
Unfortunately, sometimes, that comes at a cost.