John Landis: Reconciling the Personal with the Professional

It’s awfully easy to canonize our heroes. Athletes are certainly held beyond reproach by their fans. The same can be said for actors and actresses. When we find out something bad about our heroes, the natural inclination is to deny it. In the very least, we delay judgement until more facts come to light. It’s no different for movie directors. And directors have certainly had their share of transgressions in the public eye. Mention Woody Allen in a crowded room and several people will get the chills over his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. Roman Polanski’s name will elicit a reaction on the basis of his guilty plea on the charge of unlawful sex with a minor. And then, there’s John Landis.

Few movies make me as happy as Animal House does.

At some point in the last year, I’ve come to fully appreciate the impressiveness and the depth of the work of John Landis. From 1977 to 1988, not many filmmakers experienced the financial and, to a lesser degree, critical success that Landis did. He directed some of the most lovable, humorous, and quotable movies of the last three decades. It started with National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), continued with The Blues Brothers (1980), and rolled right on through to An American Werewolf in London (1981), Trading Places (1983), and Coming to America (1988). Each achieved both commercial and critical success. Three of those films were nominated for the American Film Insitute’s 100 Years, 100 Laughs list, with one–Animal House–making the final cut. The French government honored him in 1985 by awarding him the Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which recognizes “significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields”. He was just 35 when he was honored. What gets lost in all of that is what happened in July 1982 on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

When writing about Landis a few weeks back, I stumbled upon the Twilight Zone incident. I had previously known that there had been an accident during the filming of a movie in the 1980s, and that it had led to the death of an actor. I didn’t know which film or which actor. As it turns out, it was Vic Morrow–star of the TV series Combat!–and two children. They had died during the making of Twilight Zone. From this point forward, I’m going to tread very lightly, stating only known facts, or at least sourcing other information if it’s unclear. What we know for sure is that a helicopter being used on the set had trouble navigating through the various pyrotechnics during a scene. In the scene, Morrow was supposed to carry the two children (Myca Dinh Le, age 7, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, age 6) across a small pond as pyrotechnics simulated the Vietnam War. Most likely, debris hit the helicopter, causing it to spin out of control. The helicopter landed on Morrow, Le, and Chen, killing all three. The rotor actually decapitated Morrow and one of the children.

Vic Morrow, star of Combat. RIP, sir.

The result of all of this was several years of trials, including a manslaughter charge for Landis and several other members of his crew. They were ultimately acquitted  in 1987, but an awful lot of ugly details began to emerge. For instance, Landis and crew had willingly ignored child labor laws, which dictated that children could not be on set after a certain time of day without a waiver. Landis attended the funerals of both Morrow and Le, even delivering a eulogy for Morrow that some alleged witnesses describe as “rambling”. TruTV’s depiction of the event describes the eulogy as “self-serving”. TruTV also recounts that just before the accident, Landis had urged the helicopter to go lower, closer to the action. It paints a very messy picture that left Landis’ reputation battered and bruised, regardless of the acquittal.

All of this begs, as a fan of Landis, what to do with the information. In the very least, it’s impossible not to wince at some of the details that emerged. It evokes a visceral, sickening reaction at the senseless death, regardless of Landis’ culpability or lack thereof. But after you hear about the incident, and get past the visceral, Landis’ films are the remains. It’s simply not fair to judge his work through the prism of his actions. The films deserve to stand alone, judged without preconception about the man who made them. And for the record, I wasn’t there on set when any of this happened. Landis knows his actions. People on set know what happened. I do not. All I’m left with is what the courts have said–that he is free of all charges of manslaughter. Whatever happened in July 1982, I can sleep free and easy, while Landis and others on set have to live with the burden. I do not envy them. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think completely differently about Landis. If nothing else, it casts some serious doubts about his character. But again–I don’t know John Landis personally. It’s impossible for me to draw concrete conclusions about his character.

At this point, I should mention the obvious. I’m not paid to write. I am not a “professional”. I am not a journalist. All the same, I’d prefer not to besmirch the reputation of others like me. While I’m not a journalist, I still have a staunch belief in journalistic ethics. And I don’t believe that professional film writers would hold Landis’ actions–whatever they were–against  the quality of his work. It’d be unethical to hold a grudge against someone’s work based upon their actions at other times, when they weren’t creating the work you’re gauging. Call it cognitive dissonance if you must, but there it is. Even if my opinion of Landis has changed, it doesn’t mean that I have to–nor am I going to–sacrifice my appreciation of his films. They shall remain beloved.

Editor’s Note: It probably goes without saying, but I don’t presume to tell anyone else how to feel. If you’re someone who still can’t get past the visceral, that’s a very justified position, one that you’re entitled to have free of my judging eye. In other words, none of my comments above should be viewed as preaching to anyone about how they should feel about Landis or his works.


Filed under Movies

5 responses to “John Landis: Reconciling the Personal with the Professional

  1. Interesting piece John. I knew nothing of what happened back then until just now. I really do not know how to compute it, if I am honest.

    Landis’ work is always going to be be one special to me, as it from my very formative years.


  2. I’m swearing off animal house for good! Kidding… Kidding… Lots of bad shit happens, doesn’t mean I don’t like to be entertained. Plenty of people I don’t want to hang out with make good stuff.

  3. I decided long ago to separate artists from their work. After all, there wouldn’t be many movies, albums or books left for me to enjoy if let personal feelings about their creators get in the way.

    I heard about the Twilight Zone incident for the first time when I was a kid. It has always sickened me. That being said, An American Werewolf, Blues Brothers, and Animal House are still some of my favorite movies.

    • It’s one thing when you’re a fan or enjoy the work of someone who’s merely annoying. Once you get into manslaughter charges, it gets dicey. That said, I’m with you. I’ll always enjoy those movies, regardless of what happened.

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