Michael Jackson on Top of World: Summer of 1984

"Thriller" insiders reminisce about moment King of Pop ascended to his throne.

June 23, 2010, 11:47 AM

June 24, 2010 — -- As The Jacksons' "Victory" tour kicked off in Kansas City in June 1984, Michael Jackson was the hottest celebrity on the planet. He had spent the previous 15 months atop a peak of success, fame and public admiration that no other entertainer has reached since.

He set fashion and style trends. He kicked it with President Ronald Reagan, who said as Jackson laughed: "Michael, please give some TLC to the PYTs. I know that sounds a little Off The Wall, but you know what I mean."

The Grammy Awards that year were a wash. Jackson won a record eight awards, including Record of the Year for "Beat It" and Album of the Year for "Thriller."

Watch the full two-hour special, "Michael Jackson: After Life," Friday on "20/20" at 9 p.m. ET.

"At that time, the dude could walk on water," said Nelson George, the writer and former editor of Billboard magazine. "This -- the acceptance and love for him -- was unbelievable. The media coverage was adoring. ... All the things that people sort of thought was eccentric and they didn't like five years later, in 1984 all of it was charming."

"Being with Michael at that time was like -- I said it's like being with Christ," said John Landis, who directed Jackson in the video for "Thriller," which won the Grammy for "Best Video Album." "People would see him and start sobbing."

"Thriller" was already on its way to becoming the biggest-selling LP ever when the era that defined Jackson at his pinnacle began on March 25, 1983. That was the day he unveiled his signature dance move, the moonwalk, at the Motown 25th anniversary special.

"He set the world on fire," said Debbie Allen, the director and choreographer. "When does somebody do a dance that set the world on fire? I was there. I was in the room. And it was like ... bristling. Everybody was like, 'Oh my God.'"

In the summer of '83, Jackson decided to do a video for the title track of "Thriller." He called Landis, director of "An American Werewolf in London."

"He was fascinated with the metamorphosis that the character in 'American Werewolf in London' goes through," said Landis. "And that's what Mike wanted. He wanted to turn into a monster."

Landis wanted to give Jackson his first onscreen girlfriend. Among those Landis auditioned was a 23-year-old beauty named Ola Ray. Back in 1980, Ray had cited Jackson as her favorite singer -- in her bio for Playboy.

"And I'm like, 'You, uh, uh,' I said, 'You got to give me this part,'" said Ray, laughing at the memory.

Michael Jackson: The 'Thriller' Video

When the cameras rolled in October 1983, Nancy Griffin was the only journalist on the "Thriller" set. For this month's issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Griffin wrote about the making of the video, in which she also appears.

"I remember very vividly the first night I was on the set of 'Thriller' and I was sitting in the ticket booth," said Griffin. "That was one of the nights when I saw him kind of cowering in the corner a little bit and looking around shyly ... almost looking as if he wanted somebody to talk to him."

Ray would prove happy to do just that. Onscreen, her job was to enjoy herself as Landis directed Jackson to charm her on their dance-infused stroll.

"We only did it twice," said Landis. "It's about a minute-and-a-half shot. And you can watch it. And I don't have to do all this cutting around, because he's great."

"He had to flirt with me," said Ray. "He had to play with me, touch me, and flirt with me. So that was great. ... I got to fall in love. And I'd never been in love before."

After a screen kiss, their relationship would deepen in Jackson's trailer.

"We would just sit in his dressing room, we talked about food, you know. We talked about, you know, religion," Ray said. "Wewould talk about why he couldn't date me, you know, why we couldn't be as intimate as I wanted us to be.

"He told me that ... there was someone else that really liked me on the set. He's like, 'I can't. I can't cross that line.'"

But some lines were crossed all the same.

"I think things got pretty sexy between Ola and Michael," said Griffin.

Griffin said she didn't think, in any case, that it was the peak of the star's experience with women.

"I wouldn't say that," Griffin said. "I don't think he's that innocent. He definitely knew what he was doing, in his own little way."

Michael Jackson: Visiting Stars

Jackson's lengthy sessions with makeup artist Rick Baker were captured by renowned photographer Douglas Kirkland, whose photo book "Michael Jackson: The Making of Thriller" will be released in November.

Kirkland also captured actor Rock Hudson's visit to the set.

"Michael ... sees Rock Hudson and he just goes limp," said Kirkland, laughing. "[He] goes over to him and he's looking up to him ... as this great giant."

None of the visitors loomed larger than the celebrity Landis was to meet inside Jackson's trailer late-late one night in L.A.'s gritty meatpacking district.

"I opened the door ... and Michael goes, 'John, do you know Mrs. Onassis?' And it was like..." Landis broke off, laughing. "It was Jackie Kennedy, with the pearls."

Jackson's famous friends hardly could have imagined that this most reclusive of entertainers spent his time off the set proselytizing for his faith.

"During the time 'Thriller' was filmed, Michael was still going door-to-door with copies of the Watchtower booklet," said Griffin. "He was spreading the message of Jehovah's Witness. And he would put on like a Groucho wig and glasses and mustache."

"Thriller" became a stupendous success for Jackson, becoming one of the best-loved music videos ever, imitated around the world. Yet both Landis and Ray later would sue for royalties they felt they were owed. Even in late '83, there were signs of the issues that would overtake the star.

"I had the feeling then, and I expressed it to John, of real concern about him," said costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the director's wife. "I thought he was very lonely. I knew he was lonely."

"He was in a strange domestic situation," said John Landis. "The kid who grew up on stage, he was living at home in his parents' house."

Ray described what she saw in Jackson's eyes.

"I saw a child," she said. "I saw a child who needed love, you know? It'd make me cry, just thinking about him. His personality was just so pure to me, you know?"

Michael Jackson: Trouble With 'Victory'

In January 1984, Jackson was burned severely while taping a Pepsi ad. Then came the "Victory" tour: not a Michael Jackson solo tour, but a reunion of the grown-up Jacksons.

"Unfortunately, he could not withstand the family pressure, and he agreed to do a tour which he did not want to do," said Griffin. "The Victory Tour was very poorly organized from the beginning."

Amid shimmering performances, there were problems behind the scenes. Tickets only could be purchased through the mail using a money order and application forms cut from newspapers. Many fans could not get tickets. Michael Jackson addressed the problem at a July 1984 news conference.

"We've asked our promoter to work out a new way of distributing tickets, a way that no longer requires a money order," Jackson said. "I want you to know that I've decided to donate all my money I make from the performance to charity."

Griffin attended several "Victory" performances.

"I interviewed his brothers," said Griffin. "I saw Michael. Michael was miserable on that tour. He was completely isolated from his brothers, barely spoke to them."

The troubled tour led many fans and observes to ask a question that would haunt much of Jackson's career: How could such a sure thing also become a debacle?

"I think that Michael's issue really was the money," said John Landis. "There was so much money. ... He was generating such vast amounts of money, and there were so many people and corporate interests that wanted their share."

George said "Thriller" was a mixed blessing.

"'Thriller' was probably the best and worst thing that ever happened to [Jackson],'" George said. "Because then he spent the next 25 years of his life, you know, in pursuit of something to match that."

Jackson's response over time to his quandary would be to withdraw even further, to live in isolated splendor.

Ray still looks back on what might have been.

"We were supposed to have a secret rendezvous," she said. "A friend of the family's had contacted me, and we were supposed to meet in Vegas, but it never happened. Now it won't ever happen."

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