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.
By Nancy Griffin
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, driving Thriller 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.”