Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 3 August 1950. Family: Married Deborah Nadoolman, 1980; children: Rachel. Career: Writer and director of motion pictures. Crew member of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film Kelly's Heroes in Yugoslavia and stuntman for "spaghetti westerns" in Europe, 1971; executive producer for television series, including Weird Science (1994), Campus Cops (1995), and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show (1997); consultant, Sliders TV series, 1995. Awards: Special Jury Prize, Cognac Festival du Film Policier, for Into the Night, 1985. Office: Universal Studios, Universal City, CA 91608. Agent: Creative Artists, 1888 Century Park E., Suite 1400, Los Angeles, CA 90067, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
Schlock (The Banana Monster) (+ sc, ro as Schlock)
The Kentucky Fried Movie (+ ro as TV technician fighting with a gorilla)
Animal House (National Lampoon's Animal House)
The Blues Brothers (+ sc, ro as Trooper La Fong)
An American Werewolf in London (+ sc, ro as man being smashed into a window)
Coming Soon (+ sc)
Twilight Zone: The Movie (prologue and segment 1) (+ sc, pr); Trading Places; Thriller (+ sc, pr); Michael Jackson:Making Michael Jackson's "Thriller"
Spies like Us; Into the Night (+ ro as Savak)
Amazon Women on the Moon (segments "Mondo Condo," "Hospital," "Blacks without Souls," "Don 'No Soul' Simmons," and "Video Date") (+ exec pr)
Coming to America
Dream On (TV Series)
Innocent Blood (A French Vampire in America)
Beverly Hills Cop III
Blues Brothers 2000 (+ sc, pr, music exec pr); Susan's Plan (+ sc, pr)
Films as Actor:
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson) (as Jake's friend)
Death Race 2000 (Bartel) (as Mechanic)
1941 (Spielberg) (as Corporal Mizerany)
Eating Raoul (Bartel) (uncredited)
The Muppets Take Manhattan (Oz) (as Surprise Cameo)
Spontaneous Combustion (Hooper) (as Radio Technician)
Darkman (Raimi) (as Physician)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (Garris—for TV) (as Mike)
Body Chemistry II: The Voice of a Stranger (Simon) (as Dr. Edwards/Voice of a Stranger); Sleepwalkers (Garris) (as Lab Technician); Venice/Venice (Jaglom) (as John Landis)
The Stand (Garris—mini, for TV) (as Russ Dorr); Il Silenziodei prosciutti (The Silence of the Hams) (Greggio) (as FBI Agent)
Who Is Henry Jaglom? (Rubin and Workman) (as himself); Vampirella (Wynorski) (as Astronaut νm1/Beard)
Quicksilver Highway (Garris—for TV) (as Surgical Assistant); Mad City (Costa-Gavras) (as Doctor)
Diamonds (Asher) (as Gambler); Freeway II: Confessions ofa Trickbaby (Bright) (as Judge);
Clue (Lynn) (exec pr, sc)
Here Come the Munsters (Ginty—for TV) (pr)
The Munsters Scary Little Christmas (Emes—for TV) (exec pr)
Hollywood Rated "R" (doc) (narrator)
The Lost World (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World) (Keen) (exec pr)
By LANDIS: articles—
Interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 319, January 1981.
Interview in Time Out (London), no. 1098, 4 September 1991.
On LANDIS: books—
Farber, Stephen, and Marc Green, Outrageous Conduct, New York, 1988.
LaBrecque, Ron, Special Effects—Disaster at Twilight Zone: TheTragedy and the Trial, New York, 1988.
On LANDIS: articles—
Ansen, David, "Gross Out," in Newsweek, 7 August 1978.
Maslin, Janet, "Movie: 'Blues Brothers'—Belushi and Aykroyd," in The New York Times, 20 June 1980.
Corliss, Richard, "Bad Dreams," in Time, 20 June 1983.
Sullivan, Randall, "Death in the Twilight Zone," in Rolling Stone, 21 June 1984.
"John Landis," in Film Dope (Nottingham), no. 32, March 1985.
Farina, Alberto, "John Landis" (special issue), in Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 167, September-October 1994.
* * *
Through his work on National Lampoon's Animal House and Twilight Zone: The Movie, John Landis has the dual distinction of being co-creator of one of Hollywood's most successful genres, and being associated with one of Hollywood's most embarrassing catastrophes. His credits include such successes as Trading Places, The Blues Brothers, and Coming to America, but he will probably be best remembered for directing the first real gross-out comedy and for his association with the deaths of Vic Morrow and two Asian children for which he was charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Landis has always been known for his love of movies. He grew up in Westwood, a section of Los Angeles housing 17 movie screens within a five-block radius. After raising financing for and directing Schlock (1971) and Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Landis's true breakthrough film was the enormously popular, enormously entertaining National Lampoon's Animal House. David Ansen in Newsweek called the film "low humor of a high order." The film made John Belushi a major film star, established the toga party as the epitome of college decadence, and began the genre of "slob comedies," a term which later evolved into "gross-out comedies," with There's Something about Mary (1998) being a direct descendant.
Landis' next film, The Blues Brothers (1980), starred Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood Blues, characters they originally created for Saturday Night Live. This movie was a financial success, though not nearly as successful as its predecessor, and the reviewers were less than kind. Janet Maslin in The New York Times said, "There isn't a moment of The Blues Brothers that wouldn't have been more enjoyable if it had been mounted on a simpler scale." For Landis, it wasn't enough to stage a car crash; he had to stage the most car-filled, most expensive pileup in cinema history. Landis responded to his critics by saying, "I will never apologize for spending money to entertain."
But this propensity for "bigger/louder/more" may be exactly the mindset that doomed him—or more precisely, doomed three of his actors—when he agreed to direct a segment of Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983). The film contained four segments, and the Landis segment, which he also wrote and produced, told the story of a bigot who spouts off against Jews, blacks, and Vietnamese before finding himself "in a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind," as the oppressed in Nazi-occupied France, at a Klan lynching, and in Vietnam. Because of his recent successes, Landis was given final cut, on condition that he finish shooting on schedule. But he was behind schedule during the filming of a scene where Morrow was to dive into a swampy bog while the banana plants behind him were ripped apart by gunfire. When Landis didn't like the effect produced by a marble gun and was told that rigging the plants with squibs would put them even further behind schedule, he opted to reshoot the scene using three Remington shotguns and live ammunition, an extremely dangerous decision.
Then, in the early morning hours of 23 July 1982, Landis began filming a scene where Morrow's character rescues two Vietnamese children from a hut just before it explodes. Landis refused to substitute dummies for children in the shot. As Landis told the helicopter pilot to fly lower and signaled for the explosions to begin, Morrow scooped up six-year-old Renee Chen and seven-year-old My-Ca Le from a hut and began running across a river. The children had been hired without the requisite permits and on-location social worker. Suddenly a tremendous fireball engulfed the helicopter, melting off the tail rotor, and the helicopter came crashing down, crushing Chen under its right skid and decapitating Morrow and Le. Morrow never got to deliver his final line: "I'll keep you safe, kids. I swear to God."
Landis appeared at Morrow's funeral and, inappropriately, said, "Tragedy strikes in an instant, but film is immortal." After years of taking credit for his films, he refused to take responsibility for the accident, calling it everything from an act of God to the fault of his special effects crew. OSHA cited 36 violations on the set and levied fines, the three wrongful-death lawsuits filed by the actors' families were settled out of court, and the criminal case dragged on for months, receiving much media attention. Finally Landis and his co-defendants were able to lay the blame on a special effects technician who had already been granted immunity, and all were found not guilty. The film failed financially, and Richard Corliss in Time said Landis's segment "hardly looks worth shooting, let alone dying for."
Though some would never forgive Landis for the black eye he gave the film community, his 'not guilty' verdict, and especially his next film, went a long way towards restoring his reputation. For Trading Places (1983), Landis reined in his tendency toward excess in the service of a film reminiscent of the socially aware comedies of the 1930s. To settle a nature-nurture argument, the wealthy Duke brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) make a bet about what will happen if they cause the wealthy Louis Winthrope III (Dan Aykroyd) and street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) to, in effect, trade places. The laugh-filled movie was a financial and commercial success, despite any negative publicity about the director that may have lingered in the minds of moviegoers. After several flops, Landis would strike gold again with Coming to America (1988), the story of an African prince who goes to America to sow his wild oats before accepting his responsibilities back in Africa. The film's tone is uneven, but it contains many humorous bits and was generally well received.
Unfortunately for Landis, his films in the 1990s weren't nearly as successful. These include Oscar (1991), Innocent Blood (1992), Beverly Hills Cop III (1994), The Stupids (1996), and Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). Barring future successes, his reputation will continue to rest on his work from the 1980s—in all its innovation and human tragedy.