By Bob Vosseller and Jason Allentoff
NEW JERSEY – When you think of Garden State celebrities both living and dead, the names Frank Sinatra, Abbott & Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi come to mind but a Jersey actor who grew up locally is often forgotten. The cause of his death, however, remains a subject of controversy to this day.
Actor Vic Morrow was well known for his role in the 1960s TV series “Combat” which was a World War II military drama. Ironically, it was on July 23, 1982, that Morrow died while filming a recreation of a battle scene from the Vietnam War for “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”
Local radio personality Big Jay Sorenson told Jersey Shore Online.com “starting in 1965, I delivered the Lakewood Daily Times and the Asbury Park Press to his parents’ home. I mentioned that my dad and I watched ‘Combat’ on TV.
“His mom asked me in to see pictures of Vic one day. His parents lived on Central Avenue in Lakewood. I got an autograph; but I never met Vic as he was usually in Hollywood. I don’t think they lived there that long,” Sorenson added.
Sorenson said, “I do remember finding out about Vic’s death while watching TV news when we lived in Pine Lake Park in Manchester.”
A July 25, 1982 edition of the Asbury Park Press featured an interview with Eddie Bodeep, who opened the doors of his cab to many famous figures in the 1950s like Bob Hope. He said in the article that before Morrow’s career took off, he would ride his cab but couldn’t always pay the 50-cent fare.
“I will never forget him. He didn’t always have the money to pay me but he always would. His father was a carpenter and if Vic couldn’t pay me his dad always would. Vic always said he wanted to make it in acting,” Bodeep said.
“He didn’t talk too much. He was a great guy and I used to watch all his TV shows and movies when he did become famous,” the retired cabbie was quoted saying.
Tom Chesek of the Asbury Park Historical Society, told Jersey Shore Online that while Morrow wasn’t originally from Asbury Park, that it was important for people to know that he was part of the rich heritage of celebrities and interesting people who lived in the community.
“His time here was during his high school days. After that he was elsewhere. I once worked on an exhibit that featured Vic for a boardwalk storefront,” Chesek added.
While locals wanted to see their hometown hero’s star continue to rise, his career was cut short in an instance of Hollywood greed.
A Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter crashed at Indian Dunes in Valencia, Santa Clarita, California, during the making of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Morrow was decapitated and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were also killed. Six helicopter passengers were also injured.
What followed was years of civil and criminal legal action against the personnel overseeing the shoot, including well known director John Landis.
The film featured four individual story segments designed to recreate the tone and style of the original Twilight Zone TV series created and hosted by Rod Serling. Morrow’s segment was the first story, called “Time Out” and his character Bill Connor was transported back in time to the Vietnam War, where he has become a Vietnamese man protecting two children from American troops.
It was widely reported that Landis, who directed this segment, violated California’s child labor laws by hiring seven-year-old Myca Dinh Le and six-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen without the required permits. Landis and several other members of the film staff were also responsible for a number of labor violations connected with others involved in the accident, which came to light later.
The children were hired after Peter Wei-Teh Chen, Renee’s uncle, was approached by a colleague whose wife was a production secretary for the film. Chen first thought of his brother’s daughter Renee, whose parents agreed to let her participate.
Chen then contacted Daniel Le, a Vietnamese colleague, whose son Myca was very outgoing and loved posing for photographs. The boy’s parents believed he would be interested. Chen later testified that he was never informed that either of the children would be in proximity to a helicopter or explosives
Both children were paid off the books to circumvent state law, which did not permit children to work in the evening. Landis didn’t seek a special waiver because he did not think that he would get permission for such a late hour filming session nor approval to have young children in a scene with a large number of explosives.
Casting agents were also said to be unaware that the children would be involved in the scene. Associate producer George Folsey Jr. told the children’s parents not to tell any firefighters on the set that the children were part of the scene, and hid them from a fire safety officer who also worked as a welfare worker.
It was also reported that a fire safety officer was concerned that the blasts would cause a crash but he failed to discuss this with Landis.
New safety protocols were put into place by the film industry following this incident but occurrences like the October 2021 shooting on the set of the film “Rust” have renewed focus on enforcement of safety procedures in film productions.
That incident involved actor Alec Baldwin, the film’s lead, who fired a prop gun that contained live ammunition that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. The film’s director Joel Souza was also injured by the same projectile during the preparation of that scene.
Carrie Morrow was Vic Morrow’s daughter. Her wife, Kathy Lopez, spoke with Jersey Shore Online. Carrie Morrow passed away in 2016.
“I never got to meet him. I met Carrie when we were both seeking some mental health help and that is where I first learned her story about her dad.” She said during a session with psychic John Edwards, “It was really fascinating. I think he came through because he said things about my life that no one could have ever known. I felt like I knew Vic. I felt like I had a connection though it was not through Carrie.
“Most of what I knew about Vic was what she told me and her experiences. She encouraged him to keep going on with his career. He wanted to take a different direction and get more into to it. She really encouraged him to go ahead and do ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Lopez said.
“She felt a lot of regret over doing that when everything turned out as it did. They had her go out to the site and his bracelet that he had been wearing – they found it at the bottom of the pond and were able to give it back to her.
“She felt responsible for encouraging him. Survivor’s guilt. They were best friends. They were really, really close,” Lopez added.
Morrow had a different relationship with his other daughter, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. According to Lopez, he was in the process of reconciling differences he had with her just prior to his death.
Both daughters attended the funeral. “There were differences between their parents. Jenny sided with her mom, Barbara Turner, Carrie sided with her dad. Jenny always held that against Carrie because Carrie openly loved her father no matter what. Jenny couldn’t stand him because of drugs and the constant fighting back and forth. I think they would have reconciled completely. I think they could have worked through all that,” Lopez added.
Morrow’s daughters never received any apology from John Landis about the death of her father. “He has such power in Hollywood that the sense I got was that Jennifer was afraid for her career and she was grieving terribly,” Lopez said.
“She did agree to take the settlement from the lawsuit. It wasn’t anywhere near compensation for what had happened,” Lopez added.
Lopez said the daughters felt if they did not allow Landis to give the eulogy, “and act like they supported everything, then she would feel the backlash and get blacklisted. A lot of these things just had a life of their own.”
“He didn’t suggest anything, he just put himself in places he wasn’t supposed to be but with everybody looking, careers on the line, people’s reputations, all that money, that is what Carrie didn’t like,” Lopez said. “She could see how manipulative that whole system was.”
Lopez said Carrie “was like her dad. She loved everybody and he would love you for what you were. I don’t believe Jenny got any kind of closure. I think it is a thing that is still a thorn in her side.
Lopez said that Carrie would want her father remembered not only for his acting but “I think she would want them to know that he loved people and his fans, not in a way of what they gave him but in what they were sharing together, taking them back to a time, giving them comfort. He was able to create that for people.”