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TRAPPED IN THE TWILIGHT ZONE : A Year After the Trial, Six Years After the Tragedy, the Participants Have Been Touched in Surprisingly Different Ways. And the Hollywood Controversy Still Burns.

August 28, 1988|STEPHEN FARBER and MARC GREEN | Stephen Farber and Marc Green are the authors of "Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case," published this summer by Arbor House / William Morrow.

SEVERAL WEEKS after the "Twilight Zone" trial ended last year, one of the case's five defend ants, helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo, escorted a visitor through the dusty parking lot of the Western Helicopter Co. in Rialto. Wingo stopped to stare at the light planes circling the adjacent airport and at the row of enormous helicopters parked on a nearby landing ramp. He had piloted dozens of combat missions in Vietnam, and since that time, flying has been his life, as well as his livelihood.

Wingo pointed out a nearby hangar. "That's where Art Scholl was based," he said, an unmistakable note of melancholy in his voice. Scholl was killed in a crash while filming the spectacular aerial scenes in "Top Gun." Although he was one of Hollywood's most celebrated stunt pilots, the media all but overlooked the accident that claimed Scholl's life. It received less than a dozen lines on an inside page of Daily Variety.

Wingo survived an aviation disaster that generated far more publicity: the accident on the set of "Twilight Zone--The Movie" that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children. In the early morning hours of July 23, 1982, Wingo was flying in the climactic sequence of John Landis' segment of the four-part "Twilight Zone" movie at the Indian Dunes park north of Los Angeles. Wingo's helicopter, hovering in the midst of a Vietnam War scene, was disabled by huge special-effects explosions and came crashing down, decapitating Morrow and Myca Dinh Le, 7, and crushing Renee Chen, 6.

Shortly afterward, Wingo faced criminal manslaughter charges, and the Federal Aviation Administration moved to revoke his pilot's license. During the long period of FAA appeals, his professional future has been under a cloud. "For five years, Wingo was probably the most famous helicopter pilot in the country," noted one of his attorneys, William Gargaro, recently.

Wingo himself has a more sardonic view. "Fifteen minutes of fame would have been more than enough for me," he says.

WHILE DORCEY Wingo struggles to rebuild his career, John Landis, the man who directed him in "Twilight Zone," is flushed with success. Despite overwhelmingly poor reviews, Landis' new movie, "Coming to America," enjoyed one of the most lucrative opening weeks in film history; less than two months later, it had passed the $100-million mark.

Landis' box-office triumph comes a little more than a year after the conclusion of a costly, convoluted criminal trial. On May 29, 1987, Landis, Wingo and three co-defendants--associate producer George Folsey Jr., unit production manager Dan Allingham and special-effects coordinator Paul Stewart--were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. The case was unprecedented. Landis was the first Hollywood director ever indicted on criminal charges in connection with a fatality during filming.

The trial raised serious, still unanswered questions about his professional judgment in surreptitiously recruiting two inexperienced children to perform in a hazardous scene that led to their deaths. Renee Chen and Myca Le, who had never before worked in a motion picture and whose parents were Asian immigrants unfamiliar with usual practices in the movie industry, had been hired illegally. They were working without the necessary permits and without the supervision of a licensed teacher-welfare worker. At one point, Landis and two co-defendants offered to plead guilty to a felony charge of conspiring to violate the child labor laws if the more serious manslaughter charges were dropped; the district attorney's office declined the offer.

The swiftness with which Landis has emerged from the "Twilight Zone" imbroglio suggests just how much the destinies of some powerful Hollywood personalities have in common with the buoyant fables they conjure on-screen. In "Coming to America," Eddie Murphy plays a sheltered young prince who embarks on a comic odyssey through the lower depths of New York. In the end, protected by a loyal retinue and blessed with everything money can buy, the potentate and his bride retreat to his fairy-tale kingdom and live happily ever after.

Shortly before beginning work on that film, Landis and his wife purchased a small palace of their own, the lofty mountaintop estate of the late Rock Hudson, for which they paid close to $3 million.

As the contrasting fortunes of Landis and Wingo suggest, those who were mired in the "Twilight Zone" case have been affected in startlingly different ways. All of the participants--the defendants, the witnesses, the families of the victims, the lawyers and the jurors--continue to be touched by the tragedy. But the sharp discrepancy between the position of Landis and that of some of the other players one year after the trial ended continues to stir debate about Hollywood's ideas of justice.

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