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No Clamor for Tighter Regulation : 'Twilight' Aftermath: It's Caution on the Movie Set

May 20, 1987|DEBORAH CAULFIELD and MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writers

Even as a jury deliberates a verdict in the "Twilight Zone" manslaughter case, Hollywood film makers, union representatives and government safety officials have rendered a judgment on safety within the industry. With few exceptions, they say making movies is relatively safe and there is little need for tighter regulations.

In a high-profile trial that began last September, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury is deciding whether the 1982 deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children on the "Twilight Zone" set resulted from criminal acts by director John Landis and four associates.

The ultimate effect of the case on Landis' career remains to be seen: The Directors Guild of America plans hearings of its own after his trial is concluded, and Landis faces more than $200 million worth of civil suits filed by the victims' families.

These days, executives and film makers at several major studios agree, the mood on sets involved in making action films is one of extreme caution.

"You don't hear anyone making stray comments on the sets anymore," said a producer who declined to be named. "You don't hear people saying, 'You ain't seen nothing yet,' " he added, referring to a comment a witness alleged that Landis made before the fatal blast.

"What you hear now when special effects are being used," a studio production executive said, "is, 'I don't want to end up in the cell next to Landis.' "

Director Richard Brooks, a leading safety advocate among film makers, noted that the Directors Guild set up a safety hot line and began issuing safety bulletins after the accident. But Brooks said the pronouncements were intended to "codify" what experienced industry people "already knew" about handling fire or live ammunition, rather than to change basic procedures.

Brooks maintains that closer regulation would be pointless. "If you put somebody from Sacramento on every set, what's he going to know that the director doesn't know already?" asked Brooks, who directed such films as "Elmer Gantry" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar."

A number of government officials--including the "Twilight Zone" prosecutor--agree that there is little need for further regulation.

Indeed, according to the Screen Actors Guild, accidents involving actors and stunt men have actually dropped sharply in the last five years--a fact that Stephen Waddell, assistant executive secretary of the guild, attributes to a "heightened awareness" of safety issues.

Last year, the guild recorded 66 accidents involving actors or stunt performers, compared to 214 in 1982. There have been six deaths in the last two years, according to the guild.

Yet some movie and TV veterans claim that such accident statistics are seriously misleading, because stunt men observe a "code of silence" that prevents many from reporting injuries. In addition, they point out that aside from a different atmosphere, little has actually changed in the way movies are made.

The accident itself had no immediate impact on Landis' career. Since the 1982 tragedy, Landis has directed four films, and industry sources speculate that the Landis trial--whatever the verdict--will do little to harm the director's chances of being hired for future films.

Landis' latest movie is "Amazon Women on the Moon," a comedy anthology of which he is executive producer and one of several directors. Universal Pictures originally planned to release the film this month but recently moved it back until late August or early September.

"Landis is a good film maker," another top studio executive maintained. "Even if he's convicted and has to go to jail for a couple minutes, CAA (Creative Artists Agency, Landis' agents) will be booking him pending availability. Whether he is convicted or not, he has certainly learned his lesson."

Hollywood Air

At times the trial took on a Hollywood air, with a slew of celebrities stopping by to show their support for Landis. Among them: directors Costa-Gavras, Michael Ritchie, David Cronenberg and Frank Oz; singer-songwriter Randy Newman; actresses Carrie Fisher and Jenny Agutter and actors Don Ameche, Dan Aykroyd, Jeff Goldblum and Ralph Bellamy.

Two civil suits seeking damages in excess of $200 million have been filed by the parents of Renee Shinn Chen and Myca Dinh Lee against Landis, "Twilight Zone" co-producer Steven Spielberg, Warner Bros. and others. Morrow's children agreed to an undisclosed settlement.

In the end, what may harm Landis' future in film making is his own guild. The Directors Guild of America has remained tight-lipped since the trial began, maintaining that it did not want to have an impact on the proceedings. Many guild members speculate that Landis faces a tough time before the guild's disciplinary and safety committees.

The guild's disciplinary actions range from a reprimand or fine to suspension or expulsion. Expulsion from the guild--an unprecedented action--would mean that Landis could not work on any film for a guild company, which include all major studios and production companies.

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