In a roundabout way, I might owe my life to Stephen Spielberg! I still find it kinda spooky whenever I think about how it could’ve been me who was killed in a freak accident on a movie set back in 1982. Even more unsettling, this tragedy occurred on my birthday. I’m only talking about this because I lost out on the movie role.
My agent called and told me that John Landis wanted to meet with me. This was not a typical casting call. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and there were no other actors there… only me. He wanted to discuss a role in a new movie he was directing and co-producing with Steven Spielberg. I was a big admirer of both, so I was excited by the prospect of getting to work with them.
Landis and I hit it off immediately. (I’m struck more and more how casting decisions often come down to the personal chemistry between the people involved) At the meeting, he enthusiastically told me about the big budget movie version they were planning to make of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
During the meeting, since there wasn’t a script available yet, Landis told me about the segment that he was going to direct, which was going to be the first short story in the movie. It was about a racist character who ends up going back in time and redeems himself by rescuing two Vietnamese children.
It sounded like a wonderful part, and I was excited to be considered for it. At the end of the meeting he said, “Ronny, you’re the person I want for this .. The role is yours… It’s a done deal.” I went home with a bounce in my step and told Mary and the boys the good news.
But on the following Monday morning, I got a call from Landis.
“Ronny, I’m so embarrassed,” He told me. “I know that I said the role was yours but, over the weekend, Steven Spielberg met with Vic Morrow and offered him the role and Vic had accepted it. “Ronny, I don’t know what to say to you.”
Obviously, I was disappointed… but what are you gonna do? After all, Stephen Spielberg WAS the Executive Producer and he had final approval on all casting decisions. I wished them well… no use cryin’ over spilt milk.
I bounced back fairly quickly as I was deep into co-writing with Mary my first screenplay and making preparations for our next project – a film called Raw Courage. I ended up co-producing the film as well as starring in it. We shot the film in my home state of New Mexico, and we were there shooting in July of 1982. Raw Courage is an outdoor adventure film, reminiscent in some ways of Deliverance, which required us to run in scorching heat through the desert for hours on end. It was really grueling physically and required more stamina than I had ever imagined. On my forty-fourth birthday, after running all day…I had just collapsed on the bed in our hotel room in Las Cruces when Mary told me about the tragic accident on the set of The Twilight Zone: Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed when a helicopter crashed on top of them.
It freaked me out… but it bothered Mary in a way I’d never seen before or since. She was always the most calm, level-headed person anytime things went South, but it affected her in a really traumatic way. She couldn’t get it out of her mind of how instead of celebrating my birthday that she could be mourning my death. For years after that, the image of the tragic accident bothered her a lot. So much so that she avoided the details of the accident like the plague. If, at any time, anyone mentioned that movie… Mary would leave the room. So, my forty-fourth birthday is one that I’ll never forget.
This is what’s kinda sick about my reaction to the terrible tragedy. I’m such an egotist, (or maybe this is a defense mechanism), I believe that if I had been on that film set the tragedy might not have occurred. As I understand it, there were some safety issues with the helicopter hovering so closely over them – after several close calls and near tragedies we had during the filming of Deliverance …. I have never been shy about making sure that all safety protocols were being observed. I like to think I would’ve refused to let them shoot that scene under those conditions…