Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Twilight Zone Tragedy

Director on the Stand

The first witness for the defense was John Landis. With black hair and beard neatly trimmed, wire rimmed glasses, and a tweed coat, the high school dropout looked like a stereotypical college professor.

"You are John Landis," his attorney began, "and you were the director of the Landis segment of the Twilight Zone?"

"Yes," the witness replied.

"How old are you, Mr. Landis?"

"I am 36."

The lawyer led his client through his background, present family life with wife Deborah and two preschool-aged children, and involvement with movies. Landis told the jury of the writing of his Twilight Zone segment and the decision to "soften" the character of Bill Connor.

Landis said "absolutely not" when asked if Marci Liroff told him she thought the proposed scene sounded dangerous.

He testified that he believed he would be unable to get a waiver to have children work after 8:30 p.m. when it was "still light" so "we decided to break the law. We decided wrongly to violate the labor code. . . . we would find children to whose parents we would explain that we were doing a technical violation."

Neal asked about suggestions for using dummies instead of youngsters in the scene.

"It was suggested," he recalled, "to get around the lateness of the hour, if we could use dummies or puppets to replace the children . . . and I decided no, that even in the Twilight Zone, I didn't think that would work."

"Was there any suggestion of danger in this conversation?" Neal asked.


"Did anybody at any time suggest to you that those scenes as planned were dangerous?"


Neal was trying to establish that his client had a blameless state of mind. Landis had never believed the scene would endanger anyone, Neal would argue, and could not be held criminally responsible because it had.

The lawyer also drew forth responses indicating that Landis had informed both sets of parents that their children would be in the vicinity of a helicopter and special effects explosives. He said he had not told them that the kids would be working illegally but believed Folsey had done so.

Landis denied that he had ever joked with a camera operator about losing the helicopter. The director testified that the fatal scene was meticulously planned.

While testifying, Landis frequently got teary eyed when speaking of the dead children. On cross-examination, D'Agostino attempted to show that he was acting when he wept. A twist in the questions and answers along this line made the prosecutor look foolish and it was recounted in both LaBrecque's and Farber and Green's books.

"Do you consider yourself a good storyteller," D'Agostino asked, "a good writer?"

"Better storyteller than writer," Landis replied.

"And when you write a story, Mr. Landis," the prosecutor continued, "and when you write a script, there are certain techniques, are there not, to engender sympathy from the people reading the script or that audience watching the film?"

"Yes," was Landis' unsurprising answer.

"And one of the those techniques, I would assume, would be to possibly have the character cry. That's a technique to get sympathy for the character, correct?"

"Depends on the scene," the witness replied.

After some other questions about acting techniques, D'Agostino inquired, "Well, you don't put an onion there and get the tears that way?"

"They've done that," Landis said.

"Do you also tell them to think of something sad and maybe that will evoke sad images?"

"I haven't. You could."

"Do you know of any other ways that you could get actors to cry?" the determined prosecutor asked.

"Well, the easiest way is with glycerin," the defendant explained. "You put a tear there."

"They are some actors that are accomplished and don't need the glycerin, is that correct," she pursued, "and/or the onion? They can cry on cue?"

"I have never met one," Landis claimed. "I am told; I assume . . . "

"Comes easier to some people than to others, true?" she prodded.

"I don't know. I suppose."

"Does it come easily to you, Mr. Landis?" D'Agostino demanded.

"Crying?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

"No," he claimed.

She continued questioning him about ways he used to get actors to weep. This director who specialized in raunchy comedies and action films did not often have crying characters in his movies, he said. "I can't recall a scene where an actor was crying," Landis elaborated, "except for Schlock. At the end of Schlock the monster is shot and he cries."

"And he cried?" D'Agostino repeated.

"Yes," Landis agreed. "That was me. That was glycerin."

"You had to have the glycerin?" D'Agostino asked, her voice thick with mock wonder.

"I was in ape make-up," Landis replied.

Laughter rippled throughout the courtroom.

The prosecutor had better luck when she asked about contradictions between his testimony and that of other witnesses. Landis claimed he never discussed hiring the children with Marci Liroff. D'Agostino showed him a casting sheet from the Fenton & Feinberg agency that was dated June 16, 1982. He saw a handwritten notation saying "Two Vietnamese kids, boy, girl." Landis said he had "no explanation" for the note that Liroff had apparently written.

D'Agostino zeroed in on Landis' reason for not seeking a waiver to have the children work after 8:30 p.m.

"Mr. Landis," she began, "did it ever remotely occur to you that the labor board would let you have children work with the special-effects explosions and a helicopter?"

"Yes," he replied.

"You thought that they would?" D'Agostino asked incredulously.

"I did not specifically think of the special effects and a helicopter as the problem," Landis said. "The problem was the lateness of the hour."

"Mr. Landis, are you telling this court and this jury," the prosecutor asked, "that you believed and you believe as you sit here now that the labor board would grant you a waiver to film children next to special-effects explosions of the size of a hundred fifty, two hundred feet in the air and twenty-four feet under a hovering helicopter? . . . Was that your state of mind, sir, back in 1982?"

"Yes," the director replied firmly.

"That they would allow that?"

"Yes," Landis repeated.

Perhaps Landis' most extraordinary claim was that the apparently painful stumbling of Vic Morrow in the river right before the accident had been planned and rehearsed.

"Was it also planned, Mr. Landis," D'Agostino asked skeptically, "that when Vic Morrow stumbled, or tripped, or whatever you want to call it, that he should almost drop Renee?"

"It was planned that Vic should stumble," Landis replied, "I think you are having a problem with the fact that makes this so especially terrible, which is, that they are acting, and it looks horrendous, because it's supposed to look horrendous, and the tragedy makes it that much harder to watch."

"Mr. Landis, my question was, when you told Vic Morrow to trip, when you had this planned that he would trip, was it also planned that he should drop Renee, or almost drop Renee, or lose his grip on Renee?"

"We did not discuss dropping Renee," Landis asserted, "and I don't believe he did."

"Well, you have seen the footage on how many occasions, sir?" the prosecutor pressed.

"As often as the jury and twice before that."

"You only saw it twice before this jury saw it?"

"It's very hard for me to watch," the witness replied, as he dabbed at his eyes with a tissue. "I'm sorry."

"Do you want a Kleenex?" D'Agostino asked, making no attempt to cleanse her voice of sarcasm.


"Was it planned that he would almost drop Renee, sir?"

"No," Landis said.

"Well, were you concerned that if he stumbled, the children might fall?"

"No, that's why we rehearsed it," the director explained. However, he soon admitted that Morrow had never rehearsed the scene {with} little Renee and My-ca in his arms.

Later in the cross-examination, D'Agostino again queried Landis about the risk he took.

"I believed it was safe," Landis said resolutely.

"And of course," D'Agostino said, "if you believe that that was a perfectly safe scene to film at the time you filmed it, sir, you, of course, would have no hesitation in filming it again, would you?"

"I would not film it again!" Landis answered. "I'm sorry, three people died closer to me than you are, and I'm not emotionally prepared, regardless of who told me it was safe, no. I haven't shot with a helicopter since then."

"Because of the danger?"

"I haven't said that!" a flustered Landis shouted.