On a gray day last week on the Universal Studios back lot, film director John Landis pulled his black Volvo station wagon up to a busy construction site. Dressed in a natty blue suit, he eased through a work area of hard hats and flannel shirts.
Landis made his way to the place where his new film "Oscar" was shooting before a devastating blaze in November swept across the back lot, causing $25 million in damage and consuming the New York brownstones Landis was using. ("It was like Dresden," said Landis, who relocated and continued shooting "Oscar" at the Universal back lot in Orlando, Fla.)
Landis posed for photos in front of the remanufactured brownstones.
"Do we need permission to be here?" asked an accompanying Walt Disney publicity manager over the din of construction.
"No, not if you're with me," he said jovially. "In real life, yes. But if you're with me, don't worry about it."
If the line between reality and movie make-believe seems like a thin one for Landis, it is. For almost a decade, Landis has spent as much time in front of the camera, defending himself against charges of involuntary manslaughter during the filming of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," as he has behind it, directing a string of mostly successful films--"Trading Places," "Spies Like Us," "Into the Night," "Three Amigos" and "Coming to America."
When asked if the "Twilight Zone" tragedy is over during an interview at his cabana office on the Universal lot, Landis pulled back in disbelief. "No. When you experience something so horrific, no . I mean, the accident itself is so terrifying. I don't think you put that behind you. I live with the 'Twilight Zone' every day of my life. No, I don't think that's gone, or past."
Does he feel responsible for the accident? "Of course. It was my set."
"What people tend to forget in all this," Landis said later, "is the helicopter crashed less than a foot from where I stood. It's not like I was removed from this somehow."
Landis wasn't happy about these questions, but knew he would hear them. He received a small dose of them two weeks ago during a press junket for "Oscar" in Los Angeles. The director has done almost no movie publicity since the "Twilight Zone" tragedy occurred in 1982, but is so sold on "Oscar," his new Sylvester Stallone gangster farce, that he's ready to go out and sell it himself.
But first, there are those "Twilight Zone" questions, questions that have been hanging over the 40-year-old Landis for nine years, since the helicopter crash that killed actor Vic Morrow and two illegally hired Asian-American children. Landis and four associates were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in 1987, after a long trial that commanded worldwide attention and, from Landis' point of view, a horrendous media circus.
"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--" Landis stopped in mid-sentence, shaking his head. "I mean, the things I saw. During the funeral of (child actress) Myca (Dinh Le), I actually saw the press behave like 'The Day of the Locust.' They pushed the girl's aunt into an open grave to try and get a picture of the grieving mother.
"It was so shocking that you get to the point where the studio says, 'Will you do an interview?' and then you feel like saying, 'Well, let the press make it up. . . . It doesn't matter. They just make it up anyway.' "
Landis had equally harsh words for Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, who prosecuted the "Twilight Zone" case: "The trial was this horrible period for not just me, but for everyone involved. I mean, it was Ira Reiner trying to get attention. You saw the way he handled the McMartin case, everything he does. I don't think it was a criminal case. I think it was a case of politics and a pretty slimy D.A."
The problem Landis often faces is that he is so forthcoming and unbridled in interviews that when his words hit the printed page, they take on a rogue appearance. During his trial, every statement Landis uttered publicly seemed to come back to haunt him.
"I finally just retreated," he said. "I mean, I've had major publications, I don't know if I should say them--Rolling Stone, People magazine, L.A. Times, New York Times--print things, quotes, that I never said. You know, print lies, mis-truths, mis-facts. And you get to the point where, what are you going to do, sue them? You can't."
So, why has "Oscar" drawn Landis back from the "Twilight Zone" and into the public eye?
"I'm doing press on this movie because I really feel," he paused and laughed, "it needs all the help it can get. Because I'm proud of this picture, and I want people to see it. Of my movies, 'Oscar' is the closest one to being really, really good."