Michael Jackson’s 1983 “Thriller” remains the most popular music video of all time: a 14-minute horror spoof that changed the business. Behind the scenes it gave its star a temporary home with director John Landis, sparked a near romance with actress Ola Ray, and revealed how damaged the young pop idol already was. Plus: Read more about the King of Pop in our Michael Jackson archive, and see more music coverage.
Michael Jackson in zombie mode. Photo excerpted from Michael Jackson: The Making of “Thriller”/Four Days/1983, by Douglas Kirkland, to be published in November by Filipacchi; © 2010 by Douglas Kirkland.
OCTOBER 13, 1983; EIGHT p.m
Downtown Los Angeles.
On a chilly autumn night, gaffers rig motion-picture lights around the entrance to the Palace Theatre, which bears the title “Thriller” on its marquee. A cascade of shrieks—“Michael! Michael!”—drifts on the breeze from a few blocks away, where hundreds of fans strain against police barricades for a glimpse of their idol. Although everyone involved in the production has been sworn to secrecy, word of tonight’s shoot has leaked and been broadcast on local radio. Security guards patrol the set.
Michael Jackson, a shy pixie in a red leather jacket and jeans, stands in shadow in the theater’s entryway, talking with actress Ola Ray and director John Landis. The camera crew is making final preparations for a crane shot that will pan down from the marquee as Jackson and Ray, playing a couple on a date, emerge from the theater. Judging from the saucy looks she is sending his way, Ray is clearly besotted by her leading man, who responds by casually throwing an arm around her shoulders.
I am on set covering the shoot for Life magazine. Landis says that he needs a “ticket girl” in the background and orders me to sit in the booth—a prime spot from which to watch the performances.
Just before calling “Action,” Landis fortifies his actors with boisterous encouragement.
“How are you going to be in this shot?” he shouts.
“Wonderful,” Jackson chirps, barely audibly.
Seconds later Jackson steps into his nimbus of light, and it is as if he flips on an internal switch: he smiles, he glows, he mesmerizes. Landis executes the long crane shot, then moves in for close-ups and dialogue. “It’s only a movie,” Jackson reassures his date. “You were scared, weren’t you?”
Landis calls for another take and coaxes: “Make it sexy this time.”
“How?” asks Jackson.
“You know, as if you want to fuck her.”
The star flinches and licks his lips uncomfortably, then gazes earnestly into Ray’s eyes. Landis gets the shot he wants and calls for the next setup, satisfied. He whispers to me, “I bet it will be sexy.”
The world certainly thought so, and apparently still does. The campy horror-fest with dancing zombies that is “Michael Jackson’s Thriller,” originally conceived as a 14-minute short film, is the most popular and influential music video of all time. In January of this year it was designated a national treasure by the Library of Congress, the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry.
Unlike forgotten favorites from MTV’s heyday (Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” anyone?), “Thriller” is thriving on YouTube, where one can view, along with the original, scores of “Thriller” dance tutorials and re-enactments by Bollywood actors and Bar Mitzvah celebrants. The dance has become an annual tribal ritual in major cities around the world, with initiates in ghoul makeup aping Michael’s moves en masse; the current record for largest dance of the undead is 12,937, held by Mexico City. A YouTube 41-million-hit sensation features more than 1,500 inmates in a Philippines prison yard executing the funky footwork as part of a rehab program designed to “turn dregs into human beings”; the prison, in the city of Cebu, has become a T-shirt-selling tourist attraction.
None of this was imaginable back at the Palace Theatre 27 years ago. Jackson then was a naïve, preternaturally gifted 25-year-old “who wanted to be turned into a monster, just for fun,” as Landis recently told me—and had the money to make it happen. “Thriller” marked the most incandescent moment in Jackson’s life, his apex creatively as well as commercially. He would spend the rest of his career trying to surpass it. “In the Off the Wall/Thriller era, Michael was in a constant state of becoming,” says Glen Brunman, then Jackson’s publicist at his record company Epic. “It was all about the music, until it also became about the sales and the awards, and something changed forever.”
It was the “Thriller” video that pushed Jackson over the top, consolidating his position as the King of Pop, a royal title he encouraged and Elizabeth Taylor helped popularize. “Thriller” was the seventh and last single and third video (after “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”) to be released from the album of the same name, which had already been on the charts for almost a year since its release, in November 1982. The video’s frenzied reception, whipped up by round-the-clock showings on MTV, would more than double album sales, drivingThriller into the record books as the No. 1 LP of all time, a distinction it maintains today. But, for anyone paying close attention during the making of the “Thriller” video—and Jackson’s collaborators were—the outlines of subsequent tragedies were already painfully visible.
Jackson would dominate pop culture for the remainder of the decade, owning the 80s as Elvis had owned the 50s and the Beatles the 60s. To rule the entertainment universe had been his dream since he belted out “I Want You Back” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969 as the precocious lead singer of the Jackson 5. Under the strict, physically and psychologically abusive tutelage of his father, Joseph, he had sacrificed his childhood to make money for the family and Motown Records. He would later describe his boyhood as a blur of tour buses and tutors, and rehearsals that his father supervised with a belt in his hand, ready to whip any son who stepped out of line. Joe reserved especially harsh treatment for his most gifted and defiant son; although extremely sensitive by nature, Michael was also quietly stubborn and frequently clashed with his father. The brief moments Michael spent onstage were when he felt happiest. “I remember singing at the top of my voice and dancing with real joy and working too hard for a child,” he recalled in his autobiography, Moonwalk.
His mother, Katherine, whom he adored, called him “the special one.” A musical savant, young Michael hungrily devoured show-business knowledge and studied favorite entertainers from Fred Astaire to James Brown to the Beatles. Ron Weisner, hired by Joe Jackson in ’76 to co-manage the Jacksons, recalls that on tour Michael—exhibiting the insomnia that plagued him throughout his life (and would be a factor in the drug overdose that killed him)—stayed up late after each show. “We’d be on the bus and we had a little TV and VHS player. He would watch tapes of James Brown and Jackie Wilson over and over until his brothers were screaming and cursing him and throwing things at the TV. The next day they would hide the tape, and Michael would be crying. He would never, never, never stop.”
Obsessive about tracking his sales figures, Jackson compared them constantly with those of Prince and Madonna.
As he grew older he pulled away from his family to venture into solo projects, notably the 1979 funk-disco smash Off the Wall, which he layered with lush grooves and falsetto vocals with the help of producing partner Quincy Jones. The pair teamed up again three years later for Thriller. This time Jackson’s aim was nothing less than a Beatles-like domination of the charts that would lay waste to the divisions between rock, soul, and pop. The strategy was to compile a succession of hit singles that would offer something for everyone: the first release was the ballad “The Girl Is Mine,” a duet with Paul McCartney. Second up was the funky anthem “Billie Jean.” Third was the rocker “Beat It,” which featured a blistering Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. Executives at Epic pushed the LP tirelessly, pressuring a range of radio formats to play it and marketing it as a mainstream disc.
Most serendipitously, Jackson was the ideal video star. Not only did he radiate an epicene glamour that was at once innocent and intensely erotic, but he was also conceptually inventive, a great dancer, and a sartorial trendsetter. He judged the quality of what the fledgling rock network MTV was airing to be poor, and felt he could do better. He hired the best directors and choreographers and applied everything he had soaked up from watching Gene Kelly and Astaire movies. In a black jacket and pink shirt he slid and spun his way down a surreal city street in the “Billie Jean” video—an electrifying, transformative performance. Although the song’s thumping bass line and synthesizers excluded it from MTV’s definition of a rock song, the network knew a hit when it saw one and put the clip into heavy rotation. The “Beat It” video was grittier, an homage to West Side Story, with Jackson strutting and spinning in a red-orange leather jacket in the midst of 20 dancers and genuine recruited gang members.
More than any other artist, Jackson ushered in the heyday of the music video, demonstrating its promotional power, raising the bar creatively, and paving the way for greater acceptance of black musicians on MTV. But the Thriller campaign, concocted by the album’s brain trust—Jackson; his lawyer and closest adviser, John Branca; CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff; and Epic head of promotion Frank DiLeo—did not include plans for a third video, and certainly not a video of the title track, which wasn’t even going to be released as a single. “Who wants a single about monsters?” says Yetnikoff, summing up how the group felt at the time about the song’s potential.
But in June of 1983 the album, after four months as No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, was bumped from the top slot by the Flashdance soundtrack. It briefly regained the top position in July, then was toppled again, this time by Synchronicity, by the Police. The three remaining planned singles—“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” just released in May, “Human Nature,” scheduled for July, and “P.Y.T.” for September—were not expected to drive album sales as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” had, nor were they suitable for videos.
Jackson was upset. Obsessive about tracking his sales figures, he compared them constantly with those of his competitors in the top echelon, including Prince and Madonna. “He enjoyed being on top,” says Larry Stessel, Epic’s West Coast marketing executive, who worked closely with the star. “He reveled in it. He didn’t like it when it ended.” With his own album making history, Jackson yearned to shatter records held by the Fab Four. “It was all about the Beatles,” says Stessel. “He knew in his heart of hearts that he would never be bigger than the Beatles, but he had such tremendous respect for them, and he certainly wanted to come as close as he could.”
In the summer of ’83, Yetnikoff and Stessel answered calls at all hours of the night from Jackson. “Walter, the record isn’t No. 1 anymore,” Yetnikoff remembers Jackson saying. “What are we going to do about it?” “We’re going to go to sleep and deal with it tomorrow,” Yetnikoff told him. It was DiLeo who first mentioned the idea of making a third video, and pressed Jackson to consider the album’s title track. “It’s simple—all you’ve got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary,” DiLeo recalls telling Jackson.
Jackson had known episodes of real-life terror. His father once put on a fright mask and crawled into Michael’s bedroom, screaming.
In some ways “Thriller,” written by Rod Temperton, is the album’s sore thumb, a semi-novelty song with sound effects of creaking doors and eerie footsteps and bwah-ha-ha narration by Vincent Price. Horror was a genre with which Jackson had an ambivalent relationship. As a child, he had known episodes of real-life terror. Michael’s biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli recounted that Joe Jackson had once put on a fright mask and crawled into Michael’s bedroom through a window at night, screaming; Joe Jackson said his purpose was to teach his son to keep the window closed when he slept. For years afterward Michael suffered nightmares about being kidnapped from his room, and said that whenever he saw his father he felt nauseated.
Jackson had reason to be fascinated by scary disguises and things that go bump in the night, but he didn’t want them to seem too real. His tastes generally ran to benign Disney-esque fantasies where people were nice and children were safe. “I never was a horror fan,” he said. “I was too scared.” He would make sure that the tone of his “Thriller” film was creepy-comical, not genuinely terrifying.
In early August, John Landis, whose most successful films had been National Lampoon’s Animal House and Trading Places, picked up the phone and heard Jackson’s wee voice on the line. The star told Landis how much he had enjoyed the director’s horror spoof An American Werewolf in London. Would he be willing to direct Jackson in a music video with a spooky story line that had him transform into a werewolf? At the time, making music videos was not something feature directors did. But Landis was intrigued enough by Jackson’s entreaty to take a meeting.
On the afternoon of August 20, Landis and his producing partner, George Folsey Jr., drove through the gates of Hayvenhurst, the high-walled mock-Tudor estate in Encino where the family had moved when Jackson was 13, and where he still lived with his parents and sisters LaToya and Janet. In 1981, Jackson had purchased the house from his parents and rebuilt it, installing such diversions as an exotic-animal farm stocked with llamas, a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs diorama, and a 32-seat screening room with a popcorn machine. In the corner of his second-story bedroom suite stood his “friends,” five life-size, fully dressed female mannequins.
At the time, Jackson was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness who obeyed his religion’s mandate to spread the faith by knocking on doors in his neighborhood, wearing a crude disguise of mustache and glasses. He attended services at the local Kingdom Hall and abstained from drinking, swearing, sex before marriage, and, supposedly, R-rated movies. The gregarious Landis teased Jackson about having watched the R-rated An American Werewolf in London. “I said, ‘Michael, what about the sex?’ He said, ‘I closed my eyes.’”
Landis told Jackson that he would not direct “Thriller” as a music video, proposing instead that they collaborate on a short narrative film that could be released in theaters—reviving that endangered species, the short subject—before it went to video. Landis would write a story line, inspired by the song, about a cute young guy on a date who turns into a monster. The short would be shot on 35-mm. film with feature-film production values, including great locations and an impressive dance number. Landis would call in a favor from Rick Baker, the Oscar-winning makeup wizard who had created the title creature for An American Werewolf in London, and get him to design Jackson’s transformation makeup. Jackson was enthusiastic about Landis’s vision and immediately said, “Let’s do it.”
Although CBS/Epic had ponied up $250,000 for the “Billie Jean” video, Yetnikoff had refused to underwrite “Beat It,” so Jackson had paid $150,000 out of his own pocket. When Folsey and Landis worked up the budget for “Thriller,” they put it at an estimated $900,000. Landis and Jackson placed a call to “Uncle Walter,” as Jackson referred to him, to explain the “Thriller” concept and what it would cost. Landis says that Yetnikoff screamed so loudly that the director had to hold the phone away from his ear. “I’ve only heard three or four people swear like that in my life,” he says. When Landis hung up the phone, Jackson said calmly, “It’s O.K. I’ll pay for it.” Eventually Yetnikoff agreed that the record company would contribute $100,000 to pay for the video, but that left a long way to go and Jackson’s collaborators didn’t want the star to be on the hook.
It was Folsey and John Branca, Jackson’s lawyer, who put their heads together to solve the budget shortfall. Although cable TV was a new phenomenon and the home-video market had yet to explode, they decided to film behind the scenes on 16-mm. for a nearly 45-minute documentary, Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which, bundled with the “Thriller” video, could be sold to cable. MTV agreed to pay $250,000 and Showtime $300,000 for the one-hour package; Jackson would cover some up-front production costs and be reimbursed. Then Vestron came in and offered to distribute Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller as a $29.95 “sell-through” video on VHS and Betamax, a pioneering deal of its kind. (Most videos were then sold for far higher prices to rental stores, rather than directly to consumers.) “You have to remember, back in those days none of us realized quite what home video was going to become,” says Folsey. “The studios treated it pretty much the way they treated television in the 50s and 60s, with total disdain. They had no idea that the home-video business was going to save Hollywood—it never crossed their minds.”
Landis had the opposite of “I won’t grow up” in mind: he wanted Jackson to satisfy his female fans by showing some virility.
With the financing in place and only six weeks before the first shooting day, October 11, the team moved swiftly into an accelerated pre-production. Landis hired his director of photography from Trading Places, Robert Paynter, and drafted his own wife, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, best known for putting Harrison Ford in a fedora and leather jacket forRaiders of the Lost Ark, as costume designer. “Beat It” choreographer Michael Peters was brought in and began auditioning dancers and developing street-hip dance phrases for the zombie choreography. Folsey crewed up, securing locations and equipment.
Jackson was driven by the pop star’s occupational affliction: the desire to be a movie star. He had met and befriended Steven Spielberg when he narrated the soundtrack album and audiobook for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. (Jackson cried when recording the part where E.T. dies.) He and Spielberg were in discussions about Jackson’s playing the lead in a filmed musical version of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
But Landis had precisely the opposite of “I won’t grow up” in mind: he wanted Jackson to satisfy his young female fans by showing some virility. He wrote a script that loosely spoofed I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Michael would go on a date with a sexy girl in two separate time periods, the 50s and 80s. There would be dialogue interspersed with music. As the 50s guy, Michael would ask his girl to go steady, tell her, “I’m not like other guys,” then transform into a werewolf and terrorize her. As the 80s guy, he would woo her with seductive dance moves before turning into a ghoul. “The big thing was to give him a girl,” says Landis, pointing out that Jackson hadn’t interacted with females in the videos for “Billie Jean” or “Beat It.” “That was the big breakthrough.”
After Jennifer Beals of Flashdance turned down an offer to co-star, Landis cast an unknown 23-year-old former Playboy Playmate named Ola Ray. “I auditioned a lot of girls and this girl Ola Ray—first of all, she was crazy for Michael,” Landis says. “She had such a great smile. I didn’t know she was a Playmate.” Jackson signed off on Ray, then reconsidered the seemliness of cavorting with an ex-Playmate and came close to derailing the casting. According to Landis, “I said, ‘Michael, she’s a Playmate, but so what? She’s not a Playmate in this.’ He went, ‘O.K., whatever you want.’ I have to tell you, I got along great with Michael.”
It was Deborah Landis’s job to play up Jackson’s masculinity while dressing him in hip, casual clothes that were comfortable for dancing. Since the video would be shot at night in a mostly somber palette, she says, “I felt that red would really pop in front of the ghouls.” She chose the same color for both his jacket and jeans to emphasize a vertical line, making his five-foot-seven-inch, 100-pound frame appear taller. “The socks and the shoes were his own,” she says. “He took that directly from Fred Astaire, who always wore soft leather loafers to dance in, and socks. And Michael was elegant. I worked with David Bowie, who was also that same body frame, again very, very slim. Fred Astaire was a 36 regular; Michael was a 36 regular. David and Michael and Fred Astaire—you could literally put them in anything, and they would carry themselves with a distinction and with confidence and with sexuality.”
OCTOBER 13, 1983; 10:30 p.m.
Downtown Los Angeles.
On a desolate city street, Jackson lipsynchs to a playback of “Thriller” as he dances and skitters playfully around Ray. Landis has barely rehearsed the scene because he is hoping for some spontaneous sexual energy between his actors and has asked Jackson to improvise. Ray, who looks deliriously smitten, is supposed to keep the beat with each footstep. Landis puts his hand over his eyes and quietly shakes his head as she repeatedly messes up the tempo, necessitating many takes. Jackson remains charmingly frisky in every one, hugging her as he sings, “Now is the time for you and I to cuddle close together … ”
Ray has made it clear to Jackson and everyone else that she wants the cuddling to continue after the “Cut!” “Michael is very special, not like any other guy I’ve met,” she says, kicking off her high heels and settling into her set chair after the scene wraps. “Since we’ve been working together we’ve been getting closer. He was a very shy person, but he’s opened up. I think he’s lived a sheltered life. He knows a lot of entertainers, but he needs friends that he can go out and relax and enjoy himself with, instead of talking to his mannequins in his room.”
The congenial atmosphere on “Thriller” seemed to have a salutary effect on Jackson. He delighted the crew by hanging out on the set between shots, and although he didn’t say much, he responded graciously to anyone who approached. Landis frequently got him giggling with horseplay, once lifting him up by the ankles and shaking him upside down while Jackson shrieked, “Put me down, you punk!”
He would also enjoy a secret interlude with Ola Ray. The actress had her makeup done each day at a studio where Jane Fonda happened to be shooting a workout video. Ray engaged in girl talk with Fonda, a friend of Jackson’s, and solicited tips on how to pique Jackson’s romantic interest. As Ray remembers, “Miss Fonda said, ‘Be yourself—just be sweet and talk to him about things he might be interested in or like to do. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, so you should talk to him about religion. Maybe he will want you to go to church with him one day.’”
Arriving at the set, Ray would sit outside her trailer and finish touching up her makeup. “Every day Michael came and sat and watched me,” she says. “He was in awe of me. He was always in my face trying to learn to do things with makeup like I did.” When he asked her to come give pointers to his own makeup person, saying, “I have a shine on my nose that I can’t get off,” she agreed. “So I’m seriously talking to his makeup artist, trying to explain what to do, and she looked at me and said, ‘Girl, don’t you know that no matter how much powder I put on his nose it’s going to shine? Do you know how many nose jobs he’s had?’ Then Michael started laughing, because I didn’t know he had had nose jobs! I guess the whole world knew.”
“I dealt with Michael as I would have a really gifted child,” says Landis. “He was emotionally damaged, but so sweet and so talented.”
The flirtation progressed. “I had some intimate moments with him in his trailer,” says Ray. How intimate? “Let me see how I can say this without, you know, being too …” She pauses. “I won’t say that I have seen him in his birthday suit but close enough,” she says, laughing. Because he was shy, she tried not to scare him by coming on too strong. “What we had was such like a little kindergarten thing going on. I thought it was important for him to be around someone who would make him feel comfortable, and that was my main objective.” Did they make out? “Kissing and puppy-love make-out sessions,” she confirms, “and a little more than that.” That is all she cares to divulge. “I’ve already told you more than I’ve ever told anyone!”
Ray watched Jackson switch seamlessly from silly to sober for business meetings. When Jacqueline Onassis’s white limousine pulled up, he greeted the Doubleday Books editor, who had flown out from New York to discuss publishing Jackson’s memoir (which eventually became Moonwalk), with courtly professionalism. Landis says that he barged unknowingly into Jackson’s trailer, and the star coolly said, “John, have you met Mrs. Onassis?”
An eclectic assortment of luminaries appeared on the set to see Jackson. Fred Astaire and Rock Hudson both dropped by. Quincy Jones, watching the filming of the zombie dance, mused about Jackson’s ability to maintain his child-like quality: “It takes a lot of maturity to control all that innocence.” Perhaps the most unlikely visitor to appear was Marlon Brando, who, Landis learned, was slipping acting advice to Jackson. One day when Landis admonished him for not knowing his lines, Jackson said, “Marlon told me to always go for the truth, not the words.” When MTV executive Les Garland arrived for a scheduled visit, he waited in the living room of Jackson’s trailer, chatting with a couple of female assistants. Then “a pair of socks came bouncing out from the bedroom and landed by me,” says Garland. “One of the ladies said, ‘That means Michael is up and ready to see you now.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s unique.’”
If his spirit on the set seemed carefree, behind the scenes Jackson was emotionally stressed by long-simmering family and business pressures. As he grew to trust some of his “Thriller” collaborators, including Landis, Baker, and Stessel, he opened up about his loneliness, his perception that he had been robbed of his childhood, and his troubled relationship with his father.
Jackson faced a critical moment in his personal development: would his new mega-success and wealth spur him to grow, becoming more confident and independent, or to withdraw further into his gilded fantasy world? His “Thriller” friends marveled at his paradoxical qualities: simultaneously sophisticated as an artist, canny to the point of ruthlessness in business dealings, and breathtakingly immature about relationships. “I dealt with Michael as I would have a really gifted child,” says Landis, “because that’s what he was at that moment. He was emotionally damaged, but so sweet and so talented.”
More than once Landis found himself caught up in the twisted dynamics of the Jackson family. One night when Joseph and Katherine Jackson visited the set, the director recalls, “Michael asked me to have Joe removed. He said, ‘Would you please ask my father to leave?’ So I go over to Mr. Jackson. ‘Mr. Jackson, I’m sorry, but can you please … ?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m John Landis. I’m directing this.’ ‘Well, I’m Joe Jackson. I do what I please.’ I said, ‘I’ll have to ask security to remove you if you don’t leave now.’ ” Landis says he had a policeman escort Joe Jackson off the set, which Jackson, through his lawyer, denies.
Distancing himself from his father was a theme in Michael Jackson’s life. He had to approve the reams of promotional materials that Epic generated to support “Thriller,” and one day he called the record label’s art department and asked an art director if she could retouch his nose on a famous photo of him as a child. “I want you to slim the wings of my nose,” Jackson told her. “O.K., but why, Michael?” she asked, and tried to reassure him that his face looked fine just the way it was. “I don’t want to look like my father,” Jackson replied. “Every time I look at that photograph I think I look like my father.”
Although he was no longer Michael’s manager, Joe Jackson remained an intimidating and powerful presence in his life. In the summer of ’83, Jackson relied on his close adviser John Branca to communicate with his father about business matters, avoiding direct confrontation with Joe whenever possible. “Michael was scared to death of Joseph,” says Larry Stessel, who vividly recalls an evening when Joe walked into the room at the Encino house and Michael literally moved behind Stessel to hide, cowering. (Not until a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey would Michael publicly acknowledge how his father had brutalized him as a child.)
Michael was the Jackson family’s golden goose, and ever since he emancipated himself, at the age of 21, Joe had been hostile to his solo endeavors. Now, with millions of Thrillerdollars flowing in Michael’s direction, Joe and Katherine and the brothers—all of whom needed money, thanks partly to extravagant spending habits—felt entitled to cash in. They set about organizing a Jacksons “Victory” reunion tour to take place the following summer, railroading Michael into serving as the star attraction. Joseph sent his secret weapon, Katherine, to implore her “special one” to do right by the family, knowing that Michael could not say no to his mother. “Michael did not want to tour,” says Stessel. “He said to them, ‘I will do this for you this once, but don’t come and ask me for money again. After this I have to do my own projects.’ ”
At Hayvenhurst, Jackson led a strange, cocooned existence. A round-the-clock security team kept the ever increasing swarms of fans outside from breaching the walls. Inside, the family’s interactions were gothic and tense. While Katherine had filed for divorce the previous year following revelations of her husband’s infidelity (he had fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter, Joh’Vonnie, whom he visited regularly), Joe had simply moved into a bedroom down the hall rather than move out. Michael tried to make his mother’s life more pleasant and avoid colliding with his father. “Michael would lock his bedroom door,” remembers Branca, “and Joe would threaten to bang it in.” (Joe Jackson, through his lawyer, denies this account.)
Michael transcended the oppressive atmosphere with bursts of musical creativity. He once described his songwriting process as “a gestation, almost like a pregnancy or something. It’s an explosion of something so beautiful, you go, Wow!” When a song was ready to be birthed, he drafted siblings to help him record demos in his home studio; Janet sang backup on the first version of “Billie Jean.” The night before his now legendary appearance on the Motown 25th-anniversary TV special on NBC, where he introduced the Moonwalk, he had choreographed and rehearsed his performance in the kitchen.
On Sundays, Jackson observed the Sabbath with fasting and hours of cathartic ritual dancing. “It was the most sacred way I could spend my time: developing the talents that God gave me,” he later said. Sometimes he invited young street dancers to come show him the latest moves; that was how he learned the Moonwalk.
Jackson would ask startlingly ignorant questions about sex—“simple, biological, stupid 12-year-old questions.”
Jackson also reveled in the company of children at Hayvenhurst, which was like a warm-up for Neverland, a kids’ paradise, which he loved sharing. He had struck up a friendship with the four-foot-three-inch television star Emmanuel Lewis, 12, with whom he would invent games and roll around on the grass, laughing. When George Folsey’s son, Ryan, 13, accompanied his father to meetings at the Jackson home, Michael behaved like a kid who was bored hanging out with the adults, jumping up to show Ryan around. They would feed the llamas, play the video game Frogger, and drive toy Model T’s around the grounds. “Michael was 25, but I’d say that he was 13,” says Ryan. “Mentally, he was 12 to 15 years behind. He could relate to me because he was my age.”
Ryan hung out with Michael in his bedroom, which had a mattress on the floor, toys everywhere, and illustrations of Peter Pan on the walls. They talked about music—“I was amazed that Michael didn’t know who U2 was”—and the girls they had crushes on. Jackson revealed how discombobulated he had been by Ola Ray’s sexual allure after a dance rehearsal with her. “He started getting all nervous and stuff,” says Ryan. “He said, ‘She’s adorable, she’s adorable. She’s so hot!’ It was just so funny seeing him that way.”
No one knew if Jackson, who told Landis he was a virgin, was practicing abstinence for religious reasons, or because he had gotten spooked about women by the obsessed fan who accused him of fathering her child (inspiring “Billie Jean,” according to some reports), or because he was simply too shy to date. Vince Paterson, who helped with the choreography in “Thriller,” says that Jackson would ask him startlingly ignorant questions about sex—“simple, biological, stupid 12-year-old questions.” He adds, “I never saw Michael as a sexual creature. He was always sort of asexual to me—some people are like that. I never had one vibe, as dynamic and electric and powerful as he was. He was like nobody I had ever met in my life. On the one hand he was so socially retarded, and on the other hand he was a creative genius.”
Paterson remembers Jackson asked him once after a dance rehearsal, “ ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m just going to a party with some friends. Do you want to come?’ ‘No, I’ve never been to a party. If I ever went to a party I would just want to go stand behind the curtain and be able to peek out and watch what people do.’ ”
“Friendship is a thing I am just beginning to learn about,” Jackson told Ebony magazine in 1982. “I was raised on the stage and that is where I am comfortable. And everything else is, like, foreign to me.” Jackson had high-profile showbiz buddies such as Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Taylor, and Diana Ross, whom he could gossip with on the phone or invite to be his date for a public function. But when “Thriller” colleagues invited him for dinner and suggested that he bring a friend, he showed up alone. He frequently hung out at John and Deborah Landis’s house. “I liked Mike,” says John. “He used to come over to our house all the time and just stay there. I think he was so lonely. He and I got along fine, watching television until three or four in the morning, or looking at books. Deborah [called me into] the kitchen once, and she said to me, ‘John, the most famous human being on the planet is in the library, and I want you to get him the fuck out. Tell him he has to go home!’ ”
OCTOBER 23, 1983; 9:45 a.m.
Rick Baker’s studio, North Hollywood.
‘He’s completely unreliable,” sputters Landis, fuming and pacing as Baker, the makeup creator, arranges werewolf ears, paws, and teeth on his worktable. (Actually, given Jackson’s delicate features, Baker has created a look that is more along the lines of a werecat.) Jackson was scheduled to arrive 45 minutes ago to be made up for his grisly metamorphosis sequence. Finally the star’s black Rolls pulls up outside. Jackson trots in and plunks himself down in the chair. He is wearing a yellow T-shirt, black pants short enough to show his argyle socks, and black loafers with one sole flapping loose. He is carrying the book How to Be a Jewish Mother with a copy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine, The Watchtower, inside.
As Baker hovers over him, working meticulously, Jackson sits silently with his hands folded in his lap. An assistant arrives carrying a yellow pillowcase with something lumpy inside and puts it down in the outer room. “Say Say Say” comes on the radio, the latest Jackson hit single, another duet with Paul McCartney, this one appearing on McCartney’s album Pipes of Peace. Jackson yawns. “I have to tinkle,” he says, and gets up for a bathroom break.
He returns carrying an eight-foot boa constrictor—retrieved from that yellow pillowcase—which he has named Muscles. He wraps the snake around my neck. “Don’t be afraid—Muscles won’t hurt you,” he says in a feathery voice.
When shooting was finished, Landis and Folsey worked every night in an editing room on the Universal Studios lot; after the original editor departed for another project, Folsey took over cutting. Jackson liked to hang out with Landis and Folsey while they worked, driving himself and arriving in the editing room at about nine P.M. They’d bring in his preferred dinner of salad and brown rice and vegetables. “We’d look at cut footage and talk about things, and it was always fun,” says Folsey. “He was very appreciative and had good ideas.” All three were pleased with the way the short film was shaping up, and looked forward to the premiere at the Crest Theatre, in Westwood, on November 14. When Jackson departed at one or two in the morning, he’d find mash notes on the windshield of his Rolls.
About two weeks before the premiere, Jackson called Branca and, hyperventilating and speaking in a halting voice, ordered him to destroy the negative of “Thriller.” After much cajoling he revealed the reason for his decision. “He said the Jehovah’s Witnesses heard he was doing a werewolf video,” Branca recalls. “They told him that it promoted demonology and they were going to excommunicate him.” Branca conferred with Folsey and Landis, and all agreed that the “Thriller” negative had to be safeguarded. Landis immediately removed the film canisters from the lab and delivered them to Branca’s office, where they were locked up.
Next, according to Landis, he got a call from Jackson’s security chief, Bill Bray, who reported that the singer had been in his room with the door locked for three days, refusing to come out. Landis drove to the Encino estate. “Bill and I kicked in the door, knocked it down, and Michael was lying there. He said, ‘I feel so bad.’ I said, ‘Michael, have you eaten?’ He hadn’t eaten. It was weird. I just said, ‘Look, I want you to see a doctor right now.’ ”
Landis returned to see Jackson the next day and found him at Frank DiLeo’s house, a few blocks from the Encino estate, in a more cheerful state. He apologized for issuing the order to destroy “Thriller”: “I’m sorry, John. I’m embarrassed.” Landis then informed the star that his directive had been ignored. “I said, ‘Michael, I wouldn’t let it be destroyed.’ He went, ‘Really? Because I think it’s really good.’ I go, ‘Michael, it’s great and you’re great.’ ”
Still, Jackson was concerned about the video’s content. Branca, desperate to mollify his client, invented a ruse. “I said, ‘Mike, did you ever watch Bela Lugosi in Dracula?’ He goes, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Do you know that he was a devout Christian?’ I was just making it up. And I said, ‘Did you ever notice there were, like, disclaimers on those movies?’ He goes, ‘No.’ ‘So, Michael, before we destroy this film, let’s put a disclaimer on it saying that this does not reflect the personal convictions of Michael Jackson.’ ‘Oh!’ He liked it.” Problem solved. Says Landis, “You know, what’s wonderful about Michael—this is where genius comes in. No matter how wacky something was, it always had some amazing benefit. That disclaimer caused a lot of talk, and it generated a lot of interest.”
The A-list turned out for the premiere at the 500-seat historic Crest Theatre: Diana Ross, Warren Beatty, Prince, Eddie Murphy. “I’ve been to the Oscars, the BAFTAs, the Emmys, and the Golden Globes, and I had never seen anything like this,” remembers Landis. Ola Ray looked for Jackson before the lights went down and found him in the projection booth. He told her that she looked beautiful, but refused her entreaty to come sit in the audience. “This is your night,” he told her. “You go enjoy yourself.” Landis warmed up the audience with a new print of the Mickey Mouse cartoon “The Band Concert.” Then came “Thriller,” with its sound mix cranked up to top volume. Fourteen minutes later the crowd was on its feet, applauding and crying, “Encore! Encore!” Eddie Murphy shouted, “Show the goddamn thing again!” And they did.
As the December 2 MTV debut of “Thriller” approached, there was massive audience anticipation. Former MTV executive Les Garland says the network settled on a saturation strategy he describes as “ ‘Every time we play “Thriller,” let’s tell them when we are going to play it again.’ We played it three to five times a day. We were getting audience ratings 10 times the usual when we popped ‘Thriller.’ ”
Showtime aired Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller six times in February. Within months the Vestron release had sold a million copies, making it at the time the biggest-selling home-video release ever.
Landis’s dream for “Thriller” to have an international theatrical run, like the short films from Hollywood’s golden age, would not be fulfilled. In a sense, he became a victim of his own success: Yetnikoff and DiLeo killed any chance of that when they realized that the video was a spectacular marketing tool. “Epic gave away the video free all over the world, to every television station that wanted it,” says Landis. “There was a month when you couldn’t turn the television on and not see ‘Thriller.’ ” Since Landis and Folsey together owned 50 percent of both “Thriller” and Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, they had the legal right to be consulted. “I don’t think it was very kosher,” says Landis, “but it was the right thing for CBS Records to do.”
Having transformed a fun but marginal song into a heroic and historic video, Michael Jackson rode “Thriller” to the mountaintop. The video sent the album’s sales back into the stratosphere, with Epic shipping a million copies a week; by the end of 1984, the album had sold 33 million copies in the U.S. Since then, Thriller has remained unchallenged as the No. 1 album of all time (current sales worldwide: an estimated 110 million).
Jackson grew accustomed to shattering records, collecting spoils and statuettes. On February 28, 1984, he dressed like American royalty in a spangled military jacket to escort Brooke Shields to the Grammy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium, where he picked up an unprecedented eight trophies for Thriller. By this time he was a fabulously wealthy man, thanks to the industry’s highest royalty rate, more than $2 per record, which Branca had negotiated for him.
Thriller had profound consequences on Jackson’s life and subsequent career: it was both a source of his greatest pride, and his curse. Like most entertainers, he was happiest during the heady days of the upward trajectory, and hated the downward journey; his story became uniquely tragic because he viewed everything that came afterward as a failure, and the satisfactions of his private life were not sufficient to compensate. “Michael didn’t see Thriller as a phenomenon,” says Brunman. “He saw it as a stepping-stone to even greater things. We were ecstatic when [his next album] Bad shot past the 20 million mark. Michael was disappointed.”
“To me what happened with Michael is he felt like he needed to top himself,” says Branca, who represented Jackson on and off for the rest of the star’s life and has been named a co-executor of his estate. “That was a lot of pressure. I remember we were in Hong Kong on vacation after Thriller, and I said to him, ‘Mike, you should think about doing an album of the songs that inspired you.’ He said, ‘Why would I do that?’ ‘Well, it would take the pressure off you. Nobody would expect you to have to top Thriller.’ And he looked at me like I was from Mars. And he said, ‘Branca, the next album is going to sell 100 million.’ ”
In January 2009, six months before the star’s death, John Landis and George Folsey filed suit against Michael Jackson and his company Optimum Productions for breach of contract, alleging that they had not been paid their 50 percent of royalties in many years, and accusing Jackson of “fraudulent, malicious and oppressive conduct.” Landis says that over the years he had spoken with Jackson many times to complain that he, Landis, was not receiving the royalties due him, and that Jackson promised to correct the matter. But the entertainer’s financial affairs were chaotic for the last decade of his life as he continually shuffled his business managers. Branca and his own attorney Howard Weitzman report that the “Thriller” video’s accounting records are currently being audited as part of the executor’s obligation to settle the Jackson estate’s debts. “From our perspective Landis and Folsey are priorities,” says Weitzman. “They will definitely get paid what they are owed.”
Ola Ray also sued Jackson, on May 5, 2009, for nonpayment of royalties. “I got the fame” from “Thriller,” she says, “but I didn’t get the fortune.” (The suit is ongoing.) In 1998 she fled Los Angeles and the casting-couch syndrome she says plagued her during the years following “Thriller.” “There were so many big-name directors who told me that if I wanted to do films I had to sleep with them,” she says. She moved to Sacramento to be closer to her family, and is today a stay-at-home mom to her 15-year-old daughter. Ray enjoys hearing from Michael Jackson fans on Facebook and Twitter. “I can’t walk down the street without people recognizing me,” she says.
Ray thinks about Jackson every day, with considerable regret. “I just wish I would have had the opportunity to be a little bit more in his life. I bet he would have been happy with me. It would have taken someone like me who would not put pressure on him or play him for his money or anything other than that I wanted to be with him for who he was,” she says. “I had no other agenda than that.”
Ola Ray and I strongly agree on one thing: we both like to remember Michael Jackson the way he was on the night of October 13, 1983. I can’t forget the way he looked as I peered at him through the glass of the ticket booth at the Palace Theatre: elfin, radiant, ascendant. To me, Thriller seems like the last time that everyone on the planet got excited at the same time by the same thing: no matter where you went in the world, they were playing those songs, and you could dance to them. Since then, the fragmentation of pop culture has destroyed our sense of collective exhilaration, and I miss that.
For Ray, the scene with Jackson later that evening, as he scampered adoringly around her, was a defining experience. “That walk with Michael, when he was dancing around me and singing, I felt like I was the most, I don’t know, blessed girl in the world. Being able to do that and being able to play with Michael, and having him play around me. I felt so in love that night. You can see it in my eyes. You can see it for sure.”