Friday, June 26, 2009
Yesterday I was at Nickelodeon in Burbank picking up some work. While the computer guy was rendering out the animatic I walked over to the kitchen, through a crowd of ten-year-old kids and their stage mommies and daddies sitting nervously in the lounge waiting for an audition for some new show. I was getting myself a diet coke and cursing the pile of domino boxes for their emptiness CNN on the bigscreen announced 'BREAKING NEWS!' Breaking news in LA is usually a brush fire, a shoot-out or a car chase but in this case the announcer went nuclear...Micheal Jackson was dead! The North Koreans are aiming nukes at Hawaii, the Iranian protesters are having their legs broken with lead pipes and their faces slashed with straight-edged razors, the Chinese are demanding an alternative currency to the dollar, a virulent strain of the flu is engulfing the human race and the US government is taking affirmative steps to achieve the same standard of living for its citizens as exists in Jamaica; all this silly trivia was pushed aside in a second as a fleet of helicopters became airborne and began doing large circles between Jacko's rented pad up in the hills and UCLA Med Center down in Westwood.
It brought me back to the late eighties. It was a tough time in the animation biz. Hanna had sold out and Hanna Barbera was closed. The Disney debacle was happening and the hapless Disney family had paid some greenmailer so much money to drop his hostile take-over and 'The Black cauldron', one of the worst animated movies ever made, had lost so much money that they were making drastic staff cuts.
I was working for Filmation and moonlighting by doing special effects on rock videos. I did one very tricky and complicated job for this guy that had a small production house down in Hollywood and he called me in to his pot-smoke filled office one evening and offered me a gig working on Micheal Jackson's movie 'Moonwalker'. It was a substantial raise from being an FX animator on 'He-Man' and working at Filmation was depressing. When I told the head of the FX department I was quitting he went ballistic and screamed I just lost my seniority (a joke) and that I'd never work there again. He was right--Loreal bought the studio and closed it three weeks later, putting the entire 600-person staff out of work with little hope of getting another animation job. That was the first benefit I got by working for Mikey.
My 'boss' was an editor named Dale, a condom advocate in his free time who had his little office plastered with Captain Condom posters. My bigger boss was named Jerry an entertainment lawyer who decided he was a director and had such a strong personality that no one dared to argue with him about it. He and Mikey's manager Frank, a rotund Italian gentleman who looked like the kind of guy who kept a torture chamber in the cellar of his mansion for those carefree moments when he wasnt intimidating poeple in his professional life, were running the show.
This wasnt one of those jobs where you actually had to go there every day and show up at some arbitrary time, two of the worst aspects of any employment in my mind. We would think of stuff we wanted to do and write it down on a legal pad and Dale would get in his bashed-up VW bug and chug over the hill to Mikey's parents pad on Havenhurst in Encino where he was living at the time and Mikey would give the go-ahead or tell Dale to come up with something else. It fried Jerry that Mikey and Dale got on so well.
Jerry grew to hate Mikey with a passion. They would set up a shoot and tell Mikey to do something and he would say no. A director's nightmare and Jerry's own personal hell. He was definitely not used to hearing the word 'no' without 'problem' following it closely. But Mikey had the whip-hand and he used it on mean people who thought he was a wimp who could be bullied. Jerry was a slave to Mikey's quirks. he sat in meetings where twelve year old friends of Mikey (one of them know around the studio as Jimmy Sure-Shot) had more input than executives from Paramount. Jerry was known to smash furniture and throw loud tantrums after these meetings.
I would go over to 'Ultimate', the name of the studio, whenever they phoned me up or when I had something to show them. It was right across from Cedars Sinai in West Hollywood, the part of town with the most screwed-up traffic and legendary for its voracious parking meters. All of the few spaces at Ultimate were assigned but if you parked in a space on the street and got a ticket you could just lay it on the accountant and they would happily pay it. I could go into any art store and buy any art supplies that I needed and be instantly reimbursed in cash with no questions asked. My conscience still rankles at the beautiful set of paintbrushes that I purchased, used on one shot and kept. There were others with less conscience, but they were fools. this is a small town and getting a reputation as a sleaze can cost you a lot more than you can steal from an open-handed employer like Mikey.
On Fridays I would drop by to get my check. The head accountant, an extremely beautiful, elegantly-coiffed gay guy had a gray box full of cash that had 'Micheal' painted on the side. 'Michael' took anyone who wanted to go to lunch. 'Michael' didnt take us to Pinks on Melrose for a sidewalk chili dog, either. One drop of Pink's chili would have caused hundreds of dollars of damage to some of the outfits that were worn so fashionably by the 'Ultimate' staff so we restricted our jaunts to restaurants in Beverly Hills or on the Westside that were a little more upscale. The first time I opened a menu in one of those joints in almost lost control of my sphincter muscles. Appetizers were fifty bucks, and this was in the eighties when prices were 50% lower than they are now.
"I know it makes you nervous but you have to order an appetizer or we'll all be real mad," teased one of the women. When I got home and told my wife I'd just had a $200 lunch she got mad and asked whether I could have just asked for my share of the lunch in cash. No, that would have been uncool and being uncool was the worst thing you could have done. 'Michael' took us to some amazing joints, as Gary, the controller, knew all the best little bistros in downtown BH.
One sunny Sunday my daughter and her friends were playing out front and Katy was hit by a car and rushed to the hospital. I phoned up the office and told them what had happened and that I wouldnt be able to work for at least a week. The accountant phoned me back and said that they had mentioned it to Michael and he had told them just to mail me my checks for the next three weeks and to not worry about working. The next day we were sitting by Katy's hospital bed when a burly guy came in wheeling a gigantic monstrosity of a flower display. There were balloons with teddy bears inside of them peaking out of the exotic flowers. Everyone at Ultimate had signed the card and Dale had run over to Encino and gotten the MJJ scrawl. The hospital staff were suitably impressed.
I would do a lot of my shooting down at a tiny animation camera service down in Hollywood. That left me in a crime-filled part of town at two am, rushing the exposed film from the camera service to CFI to get there before the overnights turned into expensive daylights. The cameraman I worked with was this cat named Chris who would occasionally stop shooting to snort lines of coke off of a grubby mirror. He called it 'go powder'. I had reformed myself by that time but was still in the game enough to spot the tell-tale yellow of methedrine mixed in with the crap he was snorting. He didnt care. We would work all night sometimes. Shooting whatever variations we could think of.
Mikey was doing one of his incognito journeys down to the beach in Venice and found an old wino who had a guitar, a drum on his back attached to a string and a harmonica wired to his face who called himself 'The Amazing One-Man Band'. Michael paid him $100,000 or some vast sum to be in 'Moonwalker'. Jerry went ballistic, screaming that he could have hired this jerk for fifty bucks. Jerry hated when people wasted money without him getting a chunk; it was a kind of focused thriftiness. But he hired several camera crews and a temporary editor and a couple of assistants to deal with the hundreds of feet of film they were shooting down in Venice. Somehow Pepsi donated a huge amount of soda to the shoot. The small offices of Ultimate were filled with cases of Pepsi and Sprite. When I turned up that day they said that I had to take as many cases as my tiny Datsun would hold. My wife cracked up when I turned up back home with thirty cases of soda loaded into my car, the hatchback tied with twine to allow more cases. One of the assistant editors on this sequence was this guy from Texas who would tell tales of wandering around bars in Hollywood with the guy who played 'Data' on the new Star Trek, looking for women. He was Data's wing man. They worked like fury on this for several weeks. Meanwhile Mikey split for a tour in Europe. Jerry cut the sequence together, flew to Rome, rented a movie theater and grabbed Mikey (not easy) to screen 'The Amazing One Man Band' sequence. Michael turned to him and said, "That's really nice Jerry but I dont think it fits." And walked out. We were all ducking Jerry for the next couple of weeks after he got back. He was in a rage.for a week after he got back.
The rap party was a hoot. The band he had toured with, including Cheryl Crow, was there. They rented the posh DGA theater on Wilshire. There was a mountain of shrimp and lobster and a fountain that poured liquid chocolate onto a mountain of strawberries. Moet Chandon flowed like water.
As the production ended Michael's tour played LA, down at the sports arena. there were tons of tickets floating around Ultimate and I went to see him twice. Both times he was fantastic. You shouldnt be allowed to say anything about Mikey if you've never seen him perform live. I've seen James Brown. Bob Marley, Pavarotti, and a million others and Mikey was The King Of Pop! He rocked. the show was wonderful. the crowd responded to every move with hysterical applause and delight. He was the best.
So now he's dead. Everybody is obsessing about what a freak he turned into one more time but there should be a word about the kind side of MJJ. He saved me from a terrible year of unemployment, paid me highly, let me dream up my own projects and, although I never met him personally, sent me some really complimentary messages through Dale. He hated hustlers and bullies and although he didnt have any personal contact with the artists who worked for him he treated us with kindness and respect. He had a horrible life. People who are happy dont shoot up demerol. He had something that the crowd loved and that love killed him. This is the biggest celebrity death since Elvis. I hope his torments are over. Rest In Peace, Mikey.