As an international pop star, Michael Jackson was known to the entire world, but there were few who really saw behind the fame. In several never-before-seen clips with Michael himself, as well as recent interviews with his brother Tito Jackson and nephew TJ Jackson, Barbara Walters attempts to understand one of the most fascinating figures of the last century.
The Jackson 5 and Family Pressure
Michael Jackson was born in 1958 in Gary, Indiana. The seventh of nine children, Michael was originally considered too young to participate in his family’s musical group. But in a recent interview with Barbara Walters, brother Tito remembered how that all changed: “Michael performed one day at his elementary school, and his performance was so brilliant, we were looking at each other going like . . . ‘is that it?’ We couldn’t believe that was our brother….”
And just like that, Michael took his first step toward a long and celebrated career.
But as Michael started gaining more attention performing with the Jackson 5, his father asserted more control over his young son. Steven Knopper, author of The Genius of Michael Jackson, maintains that Joe Jackson beat his sons, and Michael in particular.
In exclusive 1979 footage with Michael, the singer said, “If he hit me, I would hit him back, which was terrible . . . but I would really get it, more than anybody.”
Solo Career and Reputation as “Weird”
After working with Quincy Jones on The Wiz, Michael teamed up with the legendary producer to create his first solo album that departed from the sound of The Jackson 5. When Off the Wall was released in 1979, it catapulted Michael to superstar status. Despite that, Michael was still living a restricted existence at home with his parents. That juxtaposition of creative freedom and personal limits began to wear on Michael. He exerted his control in any way possible — his music, his money, even his appearance.
In a 1997 interview, Barbara Walters spoke with a Michael Jackson who looked markedly different from that young musician who dominated the 1980s pop scene. When she brought up his nickname — “Wacko Jacko” — Michael responded negatively. “I have a heart and I have feelings. I feel that when you do that to me. It’s not nice. Don’t do it.”
Michael also said the fame made him feel like he was in “prison,” and that if he could create without the trappings of stardom, he would.
The Lost Boys of Neverland Ranch
A product of the combination of Michael’s childlike proclivity for recklessly spending lavish amounts of money and his reclusive nature was Neverland Ranch, a 3,000-acre ranch in Santa Barbara County, California. Michael developed a reputation for hanging out at the ranch with several children, including famous young actors like Macauley Culkin and Corey Feldman, and former child star Brooke Shields, as well as others.
In a 2003 interview with Barbara Walters, Culkin denied that there was anything weird about sometimes sharing a bed with Michael. “It wasn’t anything we thought about,” he said.
Thirteen-year-old cancer survivor Gavin Arvizo was another child invited to Neverland Ranch. After it came out that Michael had shared his bed with Arvizo, among other children, Child Protective Services began investigating the pop star. At first, Arvizo maintained that Michael was innocent, but later he said that the musician had molested him.
In 2003, Michael was charged with multiple counts of child molestation and administering an intoxicating agent, and 70 officers were sent to Neverland to search for evidence. Tom Meserau, Michael’s defense attorney, believed that the excessive attention from authorities was due solely to Michael’s reputation. “They did it because it was Michael Jackson, and they wanted to become famous,” he said.
Comeback That Wasn’t to Be
On June 13, 2005, the jury acquitted Michael on all charges, but the damage to his personal life had been done. He moved out of the country with his three children and, from all reports, became increasingly dependent on painkillers and other medications.
In 2009, after years of living in a more reclusive fashion and charging up to $100 million in debt, Michael announced his “This Is It” tour. Unfortunately, as he was rehearsing for the sold-out tour, he collapsed in cardiac arrest. On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson was pronounced dead.
Even after death, controversy surrounded Michael. His personal physician, Conrad Murray, was found to have behaved irresponsibly in prescribing Michael medications. He had injected Michael with Propofol to help him sleep, and then failed to follow up as medically required to ensure the dosage had no ill effects. In 2011, Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced to four years in prison, of which he served two.
Despite the many facets of Michael Jackson that created tabloid buzz and public fervor during his life, his legacy in music is undeniable. Although he was taken from this world too soon, his music and presence will be remembered forever.
Main photo: Michael Jackson poses with 14-year-old fan Donna Ashlock and his pet chimpanzee Bubbles at the Neverland Ranch 8th March 1986. [Bride Lane Library/Popperfoto/Getty Images]