Childhood & Early Life
Morrow was born on February 14, 1929, in the Bronx, New York, to Harry Morrow, an electrical engineer, and Jean (Kress) Morozoff. He grew up with a brother and a sister in a middle-class Jewish family.
At age 17, he quit high school and enrolled himself in the ‘American Navy,’ mainly to break out of the mediocrity of his life. However, he did not ignore his education and got a diploma from a night school after he was discharged form service.
Later, he joined the ‘Florida Southern College’ as a pre-law student under the ‘GI Bill.’ In college, he performed in a school play named ‘I Remember Mama,’ which made him give up law.
Morrow wanted to learn the craft of acting well before stepping into Hollywood. In 1950, he studied at the ‘Mexico City College’ and performed in bilingual stage productions of Shakespeare, Shaw, and Moliere.
To hone his skills further, upon his return to New York, he joined a 2-year course at the prestigious ‘Actors’ Workshop’ under Paul Mann. Mann forbade Morrow to take up any professional work until he had completed the course. Thus, he worked as a New York cab driver to support himself financially.
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After graduating from the ‘Actors’ Workshop,’ Morrow went touring as ‘Stanley Kowalski’ in Tennessee Williams’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ which ultimately earned him the Brando-style role of ‘Artie West’ in ‘MGM’s ‘Blackboard Jungle’ (1955). The latter sent ripples through the public-school system at the time.
Every new talent in the business at the time was compared to Marlon Brando the moment they came into the limelight. Actors such as James Dean and Paul Newman were already referred to as “the Brando-boys,” and Morrow was no exception. The October 1955 edition of ‘The National Film and Entertainment Weekly’ mentioned, “if Morrow is to become a star of the future, I believe he’ll have to throw off that Brando wrapping.”
Immediately after the success of ‘Blackboard Jungle,’ ‘MGM’ offered Morrow a 7-year contract. He appeared in the Western ‘Tribute to a Bad Man’ (1956), alongside veteran actor James Cagney. While the movie was being shot, he also became the dog’s voice in ‘MGM’s ‘It’s a Dog’s Life,’ which was the last ‘MGM’ project he worked on.
After leaving ‘MGM,’ he appeared opposite Elvis Presley in ‘King Creole’ (1958) and was also seen in Glenn Ford’s Western ‘Cimarron.’
Morrow took a break from his acting career at this point, to concentrate on his family life. He also wished to try his luck in direction. He enrolled into a directorial course at the ‘University of Southern California’ and started directing theater productions.
With a growing family, he soon had to get back to acting full-time. However, this time, he decided to do things differently. He hired Harry Bloom as his personal manager, a move that turned out to be a turning point in his career.
Bloom managed to cut through Morrow’s past image and re-fashioned him as a tough lead. It paid off, as Morrow soon bagged the biggest role of his career, in the World War II series ‘Combat!’ (1962–1967).
He was initially considered for the role of ‘Lt. Hanley,’ but he negotiated his way up to the lead character, ‘Sgt. Chip Saunders.’ ‘Combat!’ made him the highest-paid actor in a TV series, and ‘Sgt. Chip Saunders’ became one of the most iconic characters on TV.
The show was aired for 5 years, but success did not come easy. Morrow not only had to maintain his on-screen character but also had to handle a constant tussle with the directors and producers to preserve the sanctity of the show. In 1963, he received an ‘Emmy’ nomination for his role.
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After the show was canceled, he tried to revive his directorial career with the Western ‘A Man Called Sledge’ (1970). The movie did not do well at the box office. His career soon started suffering due to the turmoil in his personal life.
In the late 1970s, he made guest appearances in ‘The Bad News Bears’ (1976), ‘ABC’s ‘Roots’ (1977), ‘NBC’s ‘Captains and the Kings’ (1976), and ‘The Evictors’ (1979).
He had written the 1970 movie ‘A Man Called Sledge.’ He had also written and produced the 1966 movie ‘Deathwatch.’ He had directed the stunts for the 1975 movie ‘Scar Tissue.’
In 1982, he was cast in ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie.’ The horrific incident that claimed his life, along with those of two illegally hired Asian child actors, Renee Shin-Yi Chen and Myca Dinh Le, took place in the ‘Indian Dunes’ park when the pilot of a helicopter lost control and crashed into all three actors.
It was reported that Morrow had been decapitated by the rotor blade. Many questions were raised about the conditions in which the film was being shot. It was later found out that most of the crew members had consumed cocaine while shooting and that very little attention was paid to safety measures.
The production was bombarded with lawsuits, including individual suits against director Landis, Steven Spielberg, and ‘Warner Bros.’ To date, the main point of contention around the case remains that nobody got punished for the lives that were lost. The director and other individuals named in all related lawsuits were exonerated in 1987.
Personal & Family Life
Morrow got married to actor-writer Barbara Turner in 1957. They had two children, Carrie Ann Morrow, born in 1958, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, born in 1962. His relationship with his younger daughter turned sour after his divorce from Barbara in 1964.
He married Gale Lester in 1975, after dating her for a year, but the marriage fell apart and ended in a divorce in 1979.
After his sudden death in 1982, his estate went to his elder daughter, Carrie, and Jennifer got only $100. Jennifer and her father had remained estranged till the latter’s death.
At Morrow’s funeral, the director of ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ came uninvited with his wife and gave an unrequested eulogy. Morrow’s family and friends did not support this gesture and believed it was in bad taste.