Angry Stuntmen Charge Hollywood Is Risking Lives to Make Movies

UPDATED 11/01/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/01/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

"The movie industry," says veteran camera operator Roger Smith, "is built on illusions, not actualities." Yet the scene that Smith witnessed last July, while strapped to the outside of a helicopter filming a combat sequence for Warner Films' The Twilight Zone, was gruesomely, fatally real. As three actors sprinted toward the chopper, hovering 20 feet above a shallow man-made swamp, special-effects explosives burst fiery red in the darkness. Flying debris sheared off the helicopter's tail rotor blade, throwing the craft out of control. "The pilot tried to get it out of there and it started spinning," Smith recalls. The cameraman was able to scramble back inside the chopper, but actor Vic Morrow, in the swamp below, was decapitated by the main rotor blades, and two Vietnamese child actors, Renee Shinn Chen, 6, and My-ca Dinh Lee, 7, were crushed by the falling aircraft.

Smith survived, with back injuries, but was shaken and infuriated by the experience. "If the chopper had landed in the trees, if the prop blade had flown off, we could have had dozens dead, not three," he says. "Explosives should never have been involved with that chopper. It proved one thing. No one on the set is safe."

The tragedy has forced Hollywood into a belated re-examination of the hazards of moviemaking in an era of increasingly treacherous stunts and special effects. "The Morrow tragedy has opened up new doors," observes Smith. "Producers are taking a new look at this industry." John (Blues Brothers) Landis, who was directing the Twilight Zone segment, the film company and others involved in the fatal stunt have been hit with fines which could total $100,000 and have come under intense investigation by federal and state agencies. Though no criminal charges have been filed, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the filmmakers for poor planning and carelessness, and a federal judge has subpoenaed the movie's script and other documents for an ongoing probe by the National Transportation Safety Board. Last week Vic Morrow's daughters, Carrie Ann Morrow and actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, filed a wrongful death suit against Landis and others, claiming alcohol and drugs were used on the set and may have contributed to the fatal crash.

Though director Landis has announced through his attorney that he will contest the allegations, no one doubts that Hollywood has a serious safety problem. Stunts are inherently dangerous, even when all possible precautions are taken. Topflight stunt driver Ted Barba, who makes $100,000 a year, was injured in just such an unforeseen accident last August. Barba broke his back during one of the many car "gags" required for each episode of the CBS series The Dukes of Hazzard.

Though there have been at least eight deaths on television and movie sets in the last two years, and experts agree that the casualty rate is mounting, figures concerning injuries cannot be obtained. Accidents on Hollywood sets have always gone under-reported because many stuntmen are low-paid free-lancers who depend on the industry's goodwill for their jobs. A witness to the Twilight Zone crash doubts whether everyone involved can afford to tell the truth: "Some people could stand to lose a lot—their futures—if they told what went on," he said.

Recent movies that have been marred by serious production accidents include Comes a Horseman, during which a man was dragged and killed by a horse; The Cannonball Run, in which a young stuntwoman was left paralyzed after being hit by a car; and The Sword and the Sorcerer, during which a stuntman missed an airbag and was killed.

On TV, The Fall Guy and Magnum, P.I. require numerous stunts, but both are less dangerous than The Dukes of Hazzard. Two years ago, on his final day on the show, Dukes cameraman Rodney Mitchell was killed when his camera car overturned, crushing him and injuring several other crewmen. Recalls his close friend, camerawoman Brianne Murphy: "He had told me that day, 'I have to get off this show before it kills me.' " Each season, in the course of filming chases and smash-ups, the Dukes production company destroys 150 police cars and 100 General Lee hot rods. "There is no excuse for the accidents that happen on a show like that," charges veteran stuntman Gary Davis. "They happen because there aren't adequate precautions." But Dukes stunt coordinator Paul Baxley defends the show: "We never jeopardize our actors and haven't hurt any of them. Success breeds jealousy. We do a terribly high-risk show but we've cut that element down to absolutely nil."

When accidents do occur on film sets, one reason may be the pressure of time and money that tempts producers to take shortcuts in setting up stunts. Another factor, clearly, is the one-upmanship which leads directors to ask for bigger bangs and more spectacular falls. The stunt coordinator for NBC's CHiPs, Paul Nuckles, has lost two friends in stunts he calls "needless." In the stunts, unrelated to CHiPs, one man was killed taking a 200-foot drop into an airbag that burst; the other drowned while driving a car on a jump into water. Yet Nuckles says that groups interested in promoting safer "gags," including one formed by stunt-men themselves, could legislate stunts out of existence. "They don't know when to stop," he complains.

Where to start was the concern of cameraman Bob Marta after he broke his neck in 1975. He was pinned between cars during the filming of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. "We have to get rid of that macho image first," he says. After his friend and colleague, Jack Tanberg, was killed by a runaway car during the filming of the TV movie The Five of Me in the spring of 1981, Marta and other cameramen and stuntmen formed an ad hoc safety committee that urged movie studios to adopt more stringent measures. Until recently, the organization had met with little success. "Nobody paid any attention until a well-known actor and a couple of kids were killed this summer," says Marta. "Had somebody listened to us two years ago, Vic Morrow and those kids might still be alive."

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