Vital StatisticsBorn: February 14, 1929, Bronx NY
Died: July 23, 1982, Santa Clara river CA
Vic Morrow was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on February 14, 1929. He, along with a bother and sister, were raised in a typical, middle class, Jewish family. Vic's father was an electrical engineer.
At age 17, feeling "restless, rebellious, and stifled" (Dern 31), Vic Morrow quit high school and joined the Navy. After completing his hitch, he earned his diploma at night school. He then enrolled under the GI Bill, as a pre-law student at Florida Southern College a decision which he said, "had more to do with the drama of a great courtroom performance than any love of the law" (Dern 32). However, after taking part in a school play (I REMEMBER MAMA), he dropped law and began to pursue a career on the stage (Farber and Green 86).
Instead of heading directly to Hollywood, Morrow chose to learn his craft the hard way. He first studied at Mexico City College (1950) where he, "performed in bilingual productions of Shakespeare, Moliere and Shaw" (Farber and Green 86). He then returned to New York to do little-theatre work before committing himself to a 2-year stint at the Actors' Workshop under Paul Mann. Abiding by his instructors' wishes, Vic agreed not to act professionally until his training was over. In order to make ends meet, he drove a cab for a living.
His first role after graduation was as Stanley Kowalksi in a summer stock production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. His big break however, came when he turned up without either an agent, an appointment or lunch money, to audition for MGM's THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. After beating out the likes of Steve McQueen and John Cassavetes, he was immediately signed and was Hollywood bound. Critics raved about his portrayal of the tough-talking, knife-weilding, street-wise, New York kid Artie West but Morrow took it all in stride:
Almost right from the start, Vic Morrow was typecast either as the "bad guy" or a misunderstood, troubled young man. His early career was also marked by his most unusual project; supplying the voice of a canine character in IT'S A DOG'S LIFE. It was however, the last work he did for MGM and he drifted off in other directions; namely marriage, raising a family and directing.
Putting his acting career on hold, Morrow enrolled in a course at the University of Southern California and began directing community theatre. Occasionally, he appeared on television or in films but the typecasting was beginning to wear on him. With a growing family to support, he also found that the time had come to put his artistic scruples aside and opt for the big dollars that televison offered. Desperately wanting to challenge his "heavy" image, he hired Harry Bloom as his personal manager. This proved to be THE turning point in his career.
Pushing Vic's sex-appeal and leading man qualities, Bloom engineered a screen test for a proposed new television series about the exploits of American infantry soldiers in Europe during World War II: Combat! At first, he was considered for the officer role (Lt. Hanley) but both Morrow and his manager declined on the basis that, "no one sympathizes with an officer" (Dern 33). The result was a 5-year starring stint (1962-67) as the heroic and highly respected Sgt. Chip Saunders.
The early Combat! days were rocky ones. Morrow, not liking the direction the show was taking namely, his often limited appearances, actually threatened to quit (he did so again during contract negotiations two years later). He emerged from the ordeal with the majority of the scripts and a contract which put him among television's highest paid performers (a reported $5,000 per week) (Farber and Green 91). He also assumed the director's reins with the episode "The Pillbox" (Jan. 7, 1964)) and went on to direct many memorable episodes including the acclaimed two-part anti-war saga, "Hills Are For Heroes" (Jan. 3 and 8, 1966). The outstanding features of his directorial efforts included innovative camera angles and the ability to elicit strong, sensitive performances from the ensemble cast. He also wrote many segments of the show but those went uncredited (McGilligan 213). For Vic Morrow however, the high point of his "Combat!" career was to be an Emmy nomination for his superb portrayal of a horribly burned and abandoned Saunders in the first-season episode "Survival" (March 12, 1963).
In 1958, Vic Morrow finally married New York actress and writer, Barbara Turner (they had been together for seven years). Together they worked on several projects including the satirical musical WILLIE LOVED EVERYBODY, and the screen adaptation of Jean Genet's play, DEATHWATCH. Morrow had both appeared in the latter off-Broadway in 1958 as well as directing a little theatre production of it in Los Angeles. The couple had two children, Carrie Ann (b: 1959) and Jennifer Leigh (b: 1962). Only five years later and on Barbara's initiative (she had been involved in an affair with then Combat! director Robert Altman), the couple separated and were officially divorced in 1965. Morrow took it all very hard, especially the estrangement from his children. This, plus the cancellation of Combat! in 1967, sent him into a personal and professional decline from which he was never able to fully recover.
Morrow's post-Combat! career saw a return to the image of the "heavy". At first, he was much in demand to do guest shots on hit series and while a starring role in another series was proposed, what he really wanted was quality film offers, a chance to develop his own projects and most of all, to direct. With few opportunities at home, he took his talents to Japan but soon returned when it became apparent that things were no better there. By this time, he found himself relegated to supporting roles in mini-series and a string of made- for-t.v. movies. THE GLASS HOUSE and POLICE STORY pilot ("Countdown") were two of his most memorable performances but rarely, with the exception of the 1976 hit THE BAD NEW BEARS, did he appear in a major film. Ironically, despite the critical acclaim he received for his portrayal of the abusive baseball coach in THE BAD NEW BEARS, his t.v. roles got smaller.
By the late 70s, Vic was lonely and despondent. A failed second marriage (1975), the death of his beloved mother (1978), a reputation as a hard drinker, the failure of a pet project (A MAN CALLED SLEDGE) and annonymity as a actor, left him distraught. He also found it distressing to watch his own performances and reputation being quickly eclipsed by those of his daughter, Jennier. While she had changed her name to Jennifer Jason Leigh in an effort to escape the "Vic Morrow's kid" label, Vic saw this as the ultimate act of disloyalty. Driven by the need to keep busy, Vic found solace in a string of roles in low-budget films, building a new house and playing the commodities market (Farber and Green 98). When, in 1982, the chance came to appear in Steven Spielber's latest project, a film adaptation of the classic t.v. series THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Vic eagerly accepted. He saw it as a way to revive his career in mainstream films.
Vic Morrow died tragically in the early morning hours of July 23, 1982 while filming a scene for "Twilight Zone: The Movie". As he waded across the Santa Clara River carrying two Vietnamese children, a helicopter crashed beside them. All three actors were killed-- Morrow and one of the children were decapitated. In his will, written in purple felt-pen on yellow paper, just seven months before his death, he left the bulk of his million-dollar estate (house, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, personal effects and "Macho" the dog) to Carrie. Jennifer, who had remained estranged from her father, received the token sum of $100 while his SAG insurance and some cash went to a female friend (Weiss 72)
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Loraine, a dear Combat! fan and one of the first members of the online Combat! discussion list, passed away in 2000. She is fondly remembered and greatly missed.
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