Saturday, July 23, 2011

Vic Morrow (1929-1982)

Vic Morrow became a household name thanks to his lead role as Sgt. Chip Saunders in the ABC World War II drama Combat!, which spent longer on television than the US spent in World War II. His film career was relatively undistinguished, however. There were a few choice roles here and there, like the antagonists in The Blackboard Jungle (his debut role) and The Bad News Bears, but there were a lot more clunkers like the Japanese Star Wars rip-off Message from Space. His penultimate role was in the dystopian biker gang flick 1990: The Bronx Warriors, so he jumped at the chance to star in Stephen Spielberg-produced Twilight Zone: The Movie.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time: four noted directors taking the classic television series to the big screen. What actually happened was they produced four inferior versions of far superior television episodes. The first segment, "Time Out", was based on a tense World War II episode starring Leonard Nimoy and Dean Stockwell, "A Quality of Mercy". In the hands of director John Landis, it became a heavy handed tale of a bigot played by Vic Morrow who is forced to become a series of various historical victims of racial oppression.

There are strict rules concerning child actors limiting the number of hours and the times of day they can work, but Landis had two child actors in Twilight Zone, seven year old Myca Dinh Le and six year old Renee Shin-Yi Chen, filming a scene with Morrow at 2:30 am. It turns out they were being paid under the table to avoid these rules. In this scene set during the Vietnam War, Morrow has to carry the two children across a pond away from a village engulfed in flames while a helicopter flew overhead. However, on this early morning shoot the pyrotechnics went off too close to the helicopter, sending it spinning out of control. It crashed into the pond right on top of the actors, decapitating Vic Morrow and Myca Dinh Le and impaling Renee Shin-Yi Chen.

Landis and a number of the crew were hit by manslaughter charges as well as civil lawsuits from the families of the actors, including Morrow's daughter actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Landis avoided a criminal conviction, the other directors rushed through their segments, and Twilight Zone: The Movie was released to lukewarm reviews.

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