The King Is Dead: Worldwide Headlines and Personal Musings

When covering Hollywood, most days you just expect there will be news — whether it be a big casting or a new hot deal or a seemingly hot deal that falls apart.

And then, once in a blue moon, there is no new industry news — you scratch your head and think “Is today a holiday I don’t know about?” and then you are hit by something that seems so fantastical that it can’t possibly be the only news there is. Such is the case today with Michael Jackson‘s passing, and it’s only made stranger by the fact that you are mourning someone with an incredibly dubious past. And yet, if you are 40 or near it as I am, you can’t help but feel that a little part of your history has died.

I had the bizarre occasion to actually meet Michael Jackson in 2002 in Los Angeles. I had been invited, along with a few colleagues, to attend a dinner during which he was to announce a new deal with the producer Mark Damon. The event was at Damon’s house, to which we had been shuttled from somewhere down on Sunset.

Lovely pre-dinner drinks were set out before we moved under the main tent to await the King of Pop’s arrival. Quite literally, a throne was brought out to commence the proceedings and then Jackson, along with his dear friend Elizabeth Taylor, made his way to the stage. To the group of about 100, he spoke of the new deal and quickly departed. Or so we thought…

In fact, he and Taylor had retired to an outbuilding on the property where they would meet certain select members of the press. We managed to get in and stood in line — snickering, I admit — for our audience with the king. What happened next would be best described as surreal.

A colleague and I approached Jackson, who was holding court near the fireplace, and extended our hands. He shook them eagerly and asked my colleague where his accent was from. “I’m English,” said my colleague. To which Jackson replied, “Cool.” I grant that that is not very exciting but what was amazing was how soft-spoken and sweet the man/boy seemed. And I say man/boy because he seemed childlike in his demeanor.

He was dressed in an ill-fitting black suit that had been buttoned incorrectly (in French we say he buttoned Tuesday with Wednesday) and his hands were GINOURMOUS. (Insert joke, I can’t bring myself to).

Sitting on the couch near the hearth was the grande dame herself, Elizabeth Taylor, and when another colleague of mine approached her to talk perfume and how much she must miss Richard Burton it was, evidently, time for us to make a hasty retreat.

I admit that I was never a die-hard fan of MJ’s. Yes, when those first beats of “Billie Jean” start anywhere in the world I am the first to get overly psyched, and I loved the “Thriller” throwback sequence in that Jennifer Garner movie 13 Going on 30, but I didn’t hold Jacko as dear to my heart as others may have.

What was sad was the deterioration of a once brilliant entertainer into a mysterious — and sort of ephemeral — being. Despite his indictment for child molesting, he was acquitted on all charges but never recovered from the media scorn (wrongly or rightly). And yet, news of his comeback tour starting in London in July sparked a sell-out and met with worldwide media coverage. (The BBC is reporting today that ticketholders who bought directly should now get a full refund, although it is a gloomier picture for those who bought from a third party…)

As I am today in London, I can also attest to the fact that every single broadsheet — from the Daily Mail to the venerable Times of London — is leading with the news of Jackson’s death. The New York Times’s Web site has myriad stories about it running as the lead on its home page. Who ever would’ve thought?

Anyway, I have a self-imposed rule on not writing obits. I didn’t mean this to be one, but (even bizarrely devastated as I feel) I do find it interesting that my first reaction this morning was to call a dear French friend/Jackolyte living in Valencia, Spain, to ask if he was OK. He’s about to be 40 and grew up as the son of the admiral of the Tunisian navy, moved around all his life and now happily spends his time under the sunny Spanish skies running his own business. When I got him on the phone this morning his first reaction was to tell me where he was when he heard the news. I have habitually asked my mother what it was like when Kennedy died, but she demurs, saying she was too busy raising 6 kids to have really been a part of the zeitgeist.

I remember when John Belushi died and I was about 14. I think I’ll remember this day, too.