Several days before two child actors were killed in a helicopter accident on the "Twilight Zone" set, film director John Landis threw his arms in the air and said, "We're all going to go to jail" for illegally hiring the children, the first witness in the manslaughter trial testified Thursday.
However, production secretary Donna Schuman acknowledged during intensive cross-examination that she had not mentioned Landis' alleged remark or similar ones by co-defendant George Folsey Jr. when testifying previously before a grand jury and at the defendants' preliminary hearing.
"I wasn't asked the questions by any of the attorneys," Schuman loudly replied, when asked to explain the apparent discrepancy. "My job is to shut up and answer your questions, and if you don't ask it, I can't answer it."
But defense attorneys later questioned whether Schuman was lying on the witness stand, with one counsel outside the courtroom terming the new testimony "bizarre" and Landis himself calling it "sad."
The credibility of Schuman, whom Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino calls a key witness, could play a major factor in the anticipated four-month trial, because she also testified that Landis, Folsey and unit production manager Dan Allingham repeatedly sought to hide the fact that the two children would work on the film without required state permits.
Landis, Folsey and Allingham are charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Renee Chen, 6, and Myca Dinh Lee, 7, for having allegedly endangered the children's lives. Landis, helicopter pilot Dorcey A. Wingo and special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart are also charged with involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of the children and actor Vic Morrow, 53.
The actors were killed in July, 1982, when Wingo's helicopter crashed into them as they acted out a Vietnam battle scene that involved several special-effects explosions.
Schuman testified that in a hallway conversation at his office, Landis "went through the place saying he was going to blow it (a Vietnam village) off the face of the Earth. . . ."
"I want it big. I want it big," she testified he said.
Schuman, who has worked in the entertainment industry for 23 years, emotionally testified about several telephone conversations that Folsey conducted with parents of prospective child actors. She had been hired for the film by Folsey.
"The last thing he always said," she recalled, "was we're going to have explosives on the set but they are not going to have anything to do with the children."
Schuman testified for the first time that Folsey told her that if state officials learned of the illegal hiring of the children, he would receive "a slap on the wrist and a little fine--unless they find out about the explosives--then they would put my butt in jail."
Schuman's husband, Harold, a doctor at a mental health facility with many Asian clients, introduced Folsey to Renee and Myca, several days before the fatal filming.
Fighting back tears, Schuman testified that she did not learn the children were actually to be filmed in the vicinity of an airborne helicopter and special-effects explosives until several hours after their deaths.
At that point, she said, Folsey called her and said: "Donna . . . the worst possible thing has happened--Vic and the kids have been killed."