Michael Jackson’s talent as an entertainer was arguably beyond comparison, yet his music was only the starting point for a career that spanned multiple mediums: film, television (including a Jackson 5 cartoon), video games, theme-park attractions and more. While his appearances in films were relatively few and far between, his magnetism translated easily to the big screen.
Jackson’s first major film came in 1978, with director Sidney Lumet’s “The Wiz.” In the musical fantasy, adapted from L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” Jackson starred as the Scarecrow alongside Diana Ross’ Dorothy, Nipsey Russell’s Tinman and Ted Ross’ Lion. “The Wiz” is an urban fairy tale set in a tripped-out reinterpretation of New York. It remains an enduring classic for effectively casting the state of racial affairs at the time against Baum’s colorful backdrop.
The 1982 release of his album Thriller — the top-selling album of all time — was accompanied by 1983’s landmark, 14-minute music video for the title track. Working with director John Landis (“The Blues Brothers,” “An American Werewolf in London”), Jackson put together a video that forever changed the way people thought of the music-video format and can be considered a short film itself.
The video delivered a gentle play on horror-movie staples, featuring dancing zombies and a shocker of a final moment. It premiered on MTV a few weeks before Christmas in 1983 and was screened in theaters with Disney’s “Fantasia” in order to qualify for an Academy Award.
As high-profile as the Lumet and Landis associations were, the best was yet to come for Jackson’s film career. In 1986, Disney launched a 3-D film attraction in its theme parks featuring the short sci-fi film “Captain EO.” Produced by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, “EO” was an immediate sensation.
Jackson starred as Captain EO, a heroic space captain who brings the gift of song to the Supreme Leader (Anjelica Huston), a tyrannical alien queen of a broken and rotting world. The film featured a pair of then-new Jackson songs — “We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me” — along with a score by Oscar-winning composer James Horner. Rounding out the powerhouse crew was Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer who manned the lens on such classics as “The Last Emperor” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”
A year later, Jackson again collaborated with a silver-screen legend for another landmark music video, “Bad.” The 18-minute epic was directed by Martin Scorsese from a script by Richard Price (“Clockers,” “The Color of Money”). Also appearing alongside Jackson in the video are Roberta Flack and a very young Wesley Snipes.
A couple of years after “Bad,” a new pop culture sensation swept its way across the planet: Matt Groening’s hit TV series “The Simpsons.” Jackson was a fan of the show. He was also rumored to be an uncredited contributor to the writing of “Do the Bartman,” the hit single featured on the 1990 release The Simpsons Sing the Blues. A year later, the pop star lent both his voice and his musical talents (uncredited again) to the third-season premiere, “Stark Raving Dad,” though no one realized it at the time.
In the episode, Simpson family patriarch Homer is committed to an insane asylum. There he meets Leon Kompowsky, an overweight white man who believes he is Michael Jackson. The actor credited with voicing Kompowsky is John Jay Smith. In actuality, it was Jackson, who agreed to appear in the episode — and contribute the song “Happy Birthday Lisa” — only on the condition that be credited under a pseudonym.
Jackson’s film and TV career settled down considerably after his “Simpsons” appearance. He starred in the horror short “Ghosts,” directed by Stan Winston, who also co-wrote the script with Mick Garris. Many probably remember Jackson’s all-too-brief cameo in “Men in Black II,” in which he poked gentle fun at his surgically altered appearance by playing an alien disguised as a human. Jackson’s final film appearance came in 2004’s “Miss Cast Away,” starring Eric Roberts.
MTV will be paying tribute to MJ throughout the weekend with music videos, exclusive performances and calls and tweets from celebrity admirers and friends.
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