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Those 'Omen' Memories Still Haunt

October 30, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While making "The Omen," the 1976 horror thriller, producer Harvey Bernhard wore a Coptic cross on the set for protection. Bob Munger, an advertising executive who'd brought him the concept of the arrival of the antichrist in the form of a cherubic-looking young boy named Damien, had warned Bernhard that "things were going to happen" of a distinct satanic bent on the set.

"He warned us that he thought the devil didn't want us to make the picture," recalls Bernhard. "And that we would have problems." In fact, the production had so many problems that they were described as the "Omen curse." And the curse seemed to continue during the production of the three "Omen" sequels.

American Movie Classics is celebrating "Devil's Night" on tonight by looking at "The Omen," one of the horror genre's scariest and most successful film franchises. As part of AMC's MonsterFest Halloween festival, the network will premiere the 90-minute documentary "The Omen Legacy," followed by the showing of the initial film, starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and Harvey Stephens as the antichrist; then "Damien: Omen II," with William Holden, Lee Grant and Jonathan Scott-Taylor as Damien; and finally "Omen III: The Final Conflict," starring Sam Neill as the adult Damien.

Besides clips from all three features plus the Fox TV movie "Omen IV: The Awakening," the documentary includes interviews with Bernhard; screenwriter David Seltzer; "Omen" director Richard Donner; actors Lee Grant, David Warner, Martin Benson, Lance Henriksen and Lisa Harrow; Loyola Marymount University theologian Dr. Felix Just; and Blanche Barton, the high priestess of the Church of Satan. Kevin Burns is executive producer for the special.

During a recent interview, Bernhard ticks offs several of the bizarre occurrences that beset the production, including the death of the trainer at the animal center where the baboon sequence was filmed for the first "Omen." "He was killed the day after we shot there," he recalls. "He was killed by a tiger. He grabbed him by the head and killed him instantly."

The special effects man on the first film was on location in Belgium doing "A Bridge Too Far" when tragedy struck. "He had a beautiful girlfriend," he recalls. "He was driving in Belgium with her and he hit a truck. The girl was beheaded."

And then several planes caught on fire, including those carrying Peck and screenwriter Seltzer. "When we flew black [from England] we had an emergency landing in Nova Scotia," says Bernhard. "We had the film on board....Dick [Donner] and I were very, very nervous."

During production of "Omen IV," he recalls looking at the address of a building where they were going to shoot that day. "The address was 666," he says. "I didn't shoot in that building."

Playing Damien affected all the actors in one way or another. Stephens, says Bernhard, seems to have disappeared. "I saw him nine years ago. He was handsome and a wonderful boy. He was tall and he was rather beautiful. It was the only picture he ever made." Executive producer Burns even went so far as to hire a private investigator in England to find Stephens for the special. "I am sure he is still around out there," says Burns. "Every once in a while he has surfaced to give an interview. We really tried to find him. Of course, right after this show comes out, out he'll pop!"

Scott-Taylor never made another film. He did toil for a while as a Shakespearean actor, says Bernhard, but then he quit acting. "He went into the trucking business in Australia. We communicate with his mother and father every Christmas."

"I think part of the curse is that the people who played Damien don't want to go there anymore--ever," says Burns. "Sam Neill will not discuss it. The boy who lives in [Australia] quit acting and probably changed his name. They are haunted in many ways by this role."

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"The Omen Legacy" can be seen today at 5 p.m. and Wednesday at 1 a.m. on AMC. "The Omen" will be shown at 7 p.m., followed by "Omen II: Damien" at 9 p.m. and "Omen III: The Final Conflict" at 11 p.m.

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