John David Landis (b. 3 August 1950 Chicago, Illinois) is a Hollywood film director whose films have grossed over half a billion dollars at the box office. He directed such iconic films as National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers. The tragedy that occurred during the filming of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983), in which actor Vic Morrow and two children died in an accident on the set, led to Landis being charged with involuntary manslaughter, for which he was found not guilty after a highly publicized jury trial in Los Angeles in 1986-87.
Raised in Los Angeles, Landis didn’t get beyond the tenth grade, and he found work in the mail room at 20th Century Fox at age 17 or 18. He was a production assistant on the Clint Eastwood film Kelly’s Heroes in 1969. Landis wrote and directed a low-budget feature called Schlock (1973), a parody of monster movies, raising the $60,000 production cost from family and friends. Although the film was not a financial success at the box office, Landis received favorable publicity throughout Hollywood as being one of the youngest persons ever to direct a feature film. He then directed Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), shot from a script by Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker (the writers of the later successful Airplane!). Comprised of a series of unrelated comedy sketches, the film made a modest profit for the filmmakers. The tagline of one of its movie posters was: “This movie is totally out of control!”
The success of Kentucky Fried Movie led to Landis being hired by Universal Studios to direct what would be his breakout feature, National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). Modestly budgeted at $2.7 million, the film made over $200 million worldwide, becoming the highest grossing film comedy in Hollywood history up to that time. Landis, at 28, was now a millionaire.
His next film was The Blues Brothers (1980), which received unfavorable press as an anarchic production, as its production cost swelled $15 million over its original budget to eventually cost around $30 million. Starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, The Blues Brothers was based on their iconic characters Jake and Elwood Blues (first seen on the TV series Saturday Night Live), and was a box office success, grossing over $115 million worldwide.
An American Werewolf in London (1981), written and directed by Landis, was distinguished by groundbreaking visual effects by Rick Baker, and inspired the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a new Academy Award category, “Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up”, for which Werewolf was the first recipient. The film was a modest box office success, grossing $30,565,292 in America alone against a production cost of $10 million.
Twilight Zone tragedy
Next, Landis joined forces with Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful film directors of the time (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark), to co-produce Twilight Zone: the Movie, based on the famed CBS television program from 1959-64. It was an anthology film composed of four segments, and Landis and Spielberg would not only produce the film but each would direct a segment as well. Warner Brothers funded the production and would act as distributor.
Landis wrote and directed the first segment, which was also the first to be filmed. The story starred Vic Morrow as a loudmouthed bigot who gets his comeuppance when he suddenly, and successively, finds himself as a Jew chased by aggressive Nazis in WWII Europe, then as an African-American man persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan in the deep South, then as a Vietnamese soldier during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War sequence, Morrow’s character would suddenly discover his humanity and help save the lives of two Vietnamese children during an attack on their village by American forces. At the end, he finds himself back in Nazi-occupied Europe, being led away in a rail car towards a concentration camp.
Landis wanted to film the Vietnam sequence with the children at night. According to California labor laws, child actors were not allowed to work after 8:00 p.m. Landis's production office circumvented California's labor laws. Two children were hired, but not through the Screen Extras' Guild, and the children would work without state permits. The parents of the children were paid with petty cash from the production office.
The scene in question was shot at Indian Dunes, an undeveloped location forty miles north of Los Angeles, at about 2:20 a.m. on July 23, 1982. The two children hired were Renee Shin-Yi Chen, a six year old Chinese girl, and Myca Dinh Le, a seven year old Vietnamese boy. The scene involved Vic Morrow carrying the children, one under each arm, across a body of water while special effects explosions were detonated all around them and a real helicopter hovered less than thirty feet over their heads. The powerful explosions damaged the hovering helicopter, which fell out of the sky, crushing Renee, and decapitating Morrow and Myca.
On July 30, 1982, the California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, cited Landis, along with two other production employees and Warner Brothers as well, for violating state codes (including children working after hours), fining each $5,000. In its own report on the accident, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted 36 safety violations on the set on the night of the tragedy.
The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office filed criminal charges against Landis. He was indicted on five counts of involuntary manslaughter. (Two other production employees were indicted on three counts; and two further production employees were indicted on two counts.) Never before in the history of Hollywood had a film director been charged with a criminal act resulting from a death during production of a film. Twilight Zone co-producer Spielberg was never questioned by police nor did he give a deposition, and it was accepted by the authorities that he personally had nothing to do with any aspect of the Landis production.
After a highly publicized nine month jury trial, the five defendants were acquitted of all charges on May 29, 1987. However, Warner Brothers paid out civil settlements to the parents of the two children, and to the two daughters of Vic Morrow (one of whom is actress Jennifer Jason Leigh). American Lawyer magazine subsequently criticized the Los Angeles D.A.’s office for its “critical decision . . . not to charge the defendants with the one crime of which they were indisputably guilty: illegally hiring the children.” In January 1988, the Director’s Guild of America reprimanded Landis for conduct “unprofessional, inconsistent with their responsibilities, and extremely prejudicial to the welfare of the DGA.”
After the accident occurred, Warner Brothers had not cancelled the Twilight Zone film, but continued on with the filming. Spielberg didn’t want to continue, but was contractually obligated, and so filmed his segment in a brisk six days. (The other two segments were directed by Joe Dante and George Miller, respectively.) Twilight Zone: the Movie was released in the summer of 1982 and grossed $29,450,919 in America and $42 million worldwide. The reviews were generally hostile. Time magazine said: “Hardly looks worth shooting, let along dying for.”
After the Twilight Zone tragedy, Landis directed Trading Places (1983), a hit comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, which grossed $90,404,800 in America alone. He then filmed the Michael Jackson "Thriller" music video in 1983, which was widely celebrated as innovative (especially due to its extended running time of 14 minutes), and which received a great deal of airplay on MTV. Other films Landis directed in the later 1980s included Spies Like Us (1985), which grossed $60,088,980 in America; and Three Amigos (1986), which grossed $39,246,734 in America. His last notable film was Coming to America (1988), starring Eddie Murphy, which grossed $288,752,301 worldwide.
Landis has been the recipient of a number of international honors, including the Chevalier dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1985, and the Federico Fellini Prize by the Rimini Cinema Festival in Italy in 1997. He is married to Deborah Nadoolman, a costume designer.
Throughout the 1990s Landis directed a series of films but was unable to emulate his previous box office successes, and since 1999 has worked primarily in television, directing episodes of various TV series such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show and Masters of Horror.
In 2009, Landis sued Michael Jackson over "fraudulent, malicious and oppressive conduct" for failing to pay Landis his 50% share of the proceeds of 'Thriller'. Landis claimed a total of US$2.3 million was owed. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. In a 2013 interview, Landis when asked why he didn't work with Jackson that often, stated that he thought Jackson had become too 'grotesque' to film after years of multiple cosmetic surgeries.
- National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
- The Blues Brothers (1980) (also co-writer)
- An American Werewolf in London (1981) (also writer)
- Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) (also co-producer; co-writer)
- Trading Places (1983)
- Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (1983)
- Coming to America (1988)
- LaBrecque, Ron. Special Effects: Disaster at “Twilight Zone”: The Tragedy and the Trial (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), p. 67
- Farber, Stephen and Marc Green. Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case (New York: Arbor House, 1988), p. 165-66.
- McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), p. 349.
- LaBrecque, p. 291.
- Box office Mojo, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=twilightzone.htm; McBride, p. 352.
- LaBrecque, p. 105.
- Glaister, Dan. Thriller director sues Michael Jackson for failing to hand over video profits, The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 January 2009. Retrieved on 9 November 2013.
- Gardner, Eriq. Michael Jackson Estate Settles Dispute With 'Thriller' Director John Landis, The Hollywood Reporter, 31 August 2012. Retrieved on 9 November 2013.
- Howell, Peter. John Landis says Michael Jackson was too 'grotesque' to film: Howell, The Toronto Star, Toronto Star Newspapers, 13 June 2013. Retrieved on 9 November 2013.