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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.

But many in Hollywood counter that it is unfair to dwell on Landis' past mistakes. "I don't think Landis should be punished for the rest of his life for this terrible accident," says Martin Bregman, producer of "Scarface" and "Dog Day Afternoon." "Was he careless? Possibly, but I've worked with many directors who were equally careless."

Beyond that, Bregman is one of several film makers who believe that Hollywood has learned a lesson from the "Twilight Zone" accident. He argues that overbearing directors no longer receive unquestioning deference. "There are 100 people on a set who have always believed the director is God," Bregman says. "Now they realize there's a higher god--a district attorney."

Director Robert Wise, a two-time Academy Award winner and president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1985 until this year, contends that the "Twilight Zone" catastrophe, coming on the heels of several less-publicized fatalities on movie sets, did make the industry more safety-conscious. "I think it made people more aware of the fact that what looks dangerous on the screen can be dangerous to the people doing it unless proper supervision and care are taken," Wise says.

Richard Ziker, a veteran stunt man who worked on John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" as well as the recent hair-raising action spectacle "Die Hard," has noticed an increased concern for safety on the set. "Now we have to have more pre-production meetings and run-throughs" Ziker reports. "If they tried to redo the final scene of 'Twilight Zone' now, it would never be done the same way."

Others remain more skeptical about the lasting effects of the case. Maverick film maker John Sayles recently directed "Eight Men Out," a movie about the notorious Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal of 1919. In Sayles' morality tale, the popular ballplayers who participated in a scheme to throw the World Series are found not guilty in a court of law but are nonetheless banished from professional baseball. Sayles contrasts the fate of the athletes portrayed in his film with the destiny of Hollywood titans.

"In the movie business," he says, "the more powerful you are, the higher up you are on the ladder, the less likely you are to truly pay a price for your actions or face the music. The Black Sox scandal happened at the end of a more innocent era, but we are living in a very cynical time now."

Steve Shagan, a screenwriter ("Save the Tiger") and novelist ("The Formula") who was a close friend of Vic Morrow, agrees that the idea of blackballing is offensive, but he is also disturbed by what he sees as the expediency of Hollywood. "If Adolf Eichmann arrived at a studio with a good script and Robert Redford committed to star," Shagan suggests astringently, "they'd park the Mercedes for him and say, 'What six million?' "

As for John Landis himself, his reluctance to speak publicly about his feelings does not necessarily mean that he has been emotionally unaffected by the accident. In a letter to each of the jurors, Landis thanked them for the encouraging remarks some of them made at a post-trial news conference: "Your comments after the verdict had a profound effect on all of us," he wrote. "We will never forget you." When it was later suggested to Landis that he must be relieved to have the ordeal behind him, he replied soberly, "Well, it's not all behind me." With the next breath, however, he returned to his customary ebullience: "I've been offered a lot of pictures, I'm happy to say. I got a very nice letter from John Huston. I've also gotten a lot of supportive letters from prisoners, including one who had been sent away by (prosecutor Lea) D'Agostino."

Whatever Landis' private thoughts about the accident, in the eyes of most Hollywood deal makers, the "Twilight Zone" debacle is probably a less relevant part of his resume than the box-office gross of "Coming to America." For others involved in the tragedy, finding a way out of the Twilight Zone has proved more difficult.

The parents of Myca Le were divorced two years after the accident. In a legal deposition filed in 1985, Renee Chen's mother, Shyan-Huei Chen, said she believes "that she will continue to suffer serious mental anguish, emotional distress and severe depression for so long as she lives in the future."

Like Shyan-Huei Chen, Steve Lydecker cannot purge the memory of that night at Indian Dunes. He still recalls the keening wail of Chen as she knelt over the crushed remains of her daughter, pleading with the child to wake up. "I don't think I'll ever get that sight or sound out of my head," he says with a shudder.

Yet Lydecker seems philosophical about his ruined career in the movie business. "I don't need the 16-hour days on a set anymore," he says. "My time with my family is more valuable than having a Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway." Then Lydecker goes on quietly, "Besides, I'm not sure I want to work in an industry where you have to kill three people to make a picture."

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