Michael Jackson on Top of World: Summer of 1984

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

ByABC News
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.