Nineteen-year-old Michael Joseph Jackson jumped off the big screen like one of the characters from the surreal, groundbreaking 1988 live-action/animated fantasy Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Which was pretty astonishing on a Back to the Future level given that the former prodigy and face of the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons was making his acting debut ten years earlier in the big budget, Sidney Lumet-directed adaptation of the soulful African-American-stamped Broadway hit The Wiz . Not only did it have to live up to the Tony-winning musical, the movie also would face judgment against the 1939 landmark Technicolor achievement The Wizard of Oz.
As the brainless (SPOILER: HE’S ACTUALLY PRETTY DAMN SMART), rubbery-legged Scarecrow, who first appeared in the classic L. Frank Baum-penned 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Michael’s movements were otherworldly and at times a bit disconcerting.
Not only was his singing and dancing superior to the great Ray Bolger and the enthralling three-time Tony winning Hinton Battle, two actors who gained fame and notoriety from their own worthy takes on the beloved character, one wondered if the future King of Pop actually wore his elaborate Tom Walton-designed costume to bed like some obsessive method actor. That’s how serious Michael—in a fried chicken bucket hat, mop-like wig, and a vest stuffed with scraps of newspaper—took his role in the “event” flick that was supposed to be another Tinsel Town showcase for Oscar-nominated pop diva Diana Ross, 33, who seemed strangely miscast as the 12-year-old Dorothy.
Indeed, when The Wiz was released on October 24, 1978, the Quincy Jones-produced spectacle (featuring an embarrassment of riches of black star power including the likes of Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell, and Ted Ross), which has surprisingly aged well despite it’s flaws, received good to lukewarm reviews. The cracking soundtrack featured the original Broadway compositions written by the award-winning Charlie Smalls and soon-to-be R&B great Luther Vandross—particularly Michael’s transformative rendition of the ridiculously funky “You Can’t Win.”
And while The Wiz struggled at the box office, a common theme in most of the write-ups was adoration for Jackson’s breakout performance. “It's good that the Scarecrow is the first traveling companion [Dorothy] meets,” late powerful film critic Roger Ebert noted in his original review. “Michael Jackson fills the role with humor and warmth.” The punch line? Early on, Lumet actually needed to be convinced that the same artist who just a year later would come into his own as a solo superstar with his chest-beating multiplatinum set Off The Wall (1979) would not be laughed off the screen.
“Michael Jackson’s a Vegas act. The Jackson 5’s a Vegas act,” the director bristled to Rob Cohen, the head of Motown Records, which had brought the film rights to The Wiz. Lumet instead wanted Jimmie “J.J.” Walker from the hit comedy series Good Times to play the Scarecrow. Slow blink.
So on what would have been Michael Jackson’s 60th birthday we are left to ponder just why arguably the greatest pure entertainer of his generation never excelled in the film arena? He certainly had the vision. One of his favorite movies in the early ‘80s was the brilliant An American Werewolf In London (1981), a genre-busting, dark and SCARY statement, which deftly merged comedy and horror. So MJ recruited the film’s ambitious director John Landis to anchor the mother of all music videos: “Thriller."
Costing a then record-breaking $500,000, the 1983 short film was a 14-minute triumph complete with state-of-the-art make up and special effects by the influential Rick Baker; a dancing army of the walking dead; the gorgeous Playboy centerfold Ola Ray (yeah, MJ got away with that one); and Mike pulling triple duty as a mischievous popcorn-munching schoolboy GIF waiting to happen; a nimble-footed Zombie; and a blood thirsty werewolf in full blown prosthetics. Of course, we all know what happened next. Michael Jackson went on to become the biggest pop star to ever breath air, a powerful statement from a black kid from Gary, Indiana. The world (and Jackson for that matter) would never be the same.
Which probably explains why the family-friendly behemoth’s next motion picture choices were less intriguing, narrative-driven works and more brazen advertisements for Michael Jackson Inc. The 1986 3D science fiction film Captain EO was dragged down by comically fluffy material unworthy of the Gloved One. To add insult to injury, Jackson wasted both his remarkable gifts as well as the innumerable talents of Star Wars mastermind George Lucas and revered Godfather saga auteur Francis Ford Coppola.
Michael’s 1988 anthology Moonwalker was his longest film (clocking in at 92 minutes) since The Wiz, and it was more special effects candy for the kiddies. It was clear that the record-breaking visionary who had so meticulously crafted a universal image that played well in corporate America, was too conspicuous for Hollywood. While there was talk that Michael wanted to make a more adult, critically acclaimed film in the vein of Purple Rain (1984), Prince's Oscar-winning rock and roll epic, the list of movie projects he showed interest in screamed otherwise. When Steven Spielberg called the singer to gauge his interest in starring as Peter Pan in his 1991 film Hook, the childlike superstar, who built his own forever-young estate named Neverland Ranch, turned down the role because it didn’t quite match with what he believed to be the classic version of the flying, wise-cracking free-spirit.
Michael also lobbied for the part of Jar Jar Binks in the 1999 prequel Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. “Me, Natalie Portman, and George’s (Lucas) kids — we were at Wembley arena at Michael Jackson’s concert,” Ahmed Best, the actor who played the now reviled CGI character, told Vice Magazine. “We were taken backstage and we met Michael. There was Michael and Lisa Marie [Presley]. George [Lucas] introduced me as ‘Jar Jar’ and I was like, that’s kind of weird. After Michael had driven off, we all go back up to a big after party. I’m having a drink with George and I said, ‘Why did you introduce me as Jar Jar?’ He said, ‘Well, Michael wanted to do the part but he wanted to do it in prosthetics and makeup like Thriller.’”
And it didn’t stop there. Michael also wanted to star in a ‘90s big screen version of Spider-Man, the beloved Web Crawler. So much so that he reportedly tried to buy a struggling Marvel years before its seemingly unstoppable box office dominance. And Michael eyed the lead role in 2005’s Charlie and Chocolate Factory, which ironically enough eventual headliner Johnny Depp drew inspiration from Jackson himself.
By the 00’s, Michael was so beyond this world that when he made an uproarious, scene-snatching cameo as an alien in 2002’s Men in Black II (the man’s comic timing was shockingly impeccable), it made too much sense. It took the emotional 2009 documentary-concert film This Is It , chronicling the fateful rehearsals for what was to be a series of comeback shows at London’s O2 Arena by Michael Jackson, before his tragic June 25 death, to bring him back down to earth.
On screen the tabloid version of "MICHAEL JACKSON" --who in his later years was dogged incessantly by legal troubles and rumors about his personal life--could be free. The still hungry, leave-it-all-out-on-the-floor veteran was always more at home with the classic movie musicals he worshipped from the ‘30’s, 40’s, and ‘50s. In another life, and a racially equal playing field, Michael would have shared the screen with the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Julie Garland, Harry Belafonte, Paul Robertson, and the Nicholas Brothers.
And he still would have walked off the movie set the biggest star of them all.
(Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)