Michael Jackson, who died Thursday, was world famous for 40 of his 50 years; and while his cultural impact was clearly greatest in the music realm, he was certainly a major figure in television history as well.
TV viewers marveled at the prepubescent Michael's capacity to entertain, were thrilled by the young man who became the biggest solo star since Elvis, and watched in dismay as his personal quirks began to compete with and then totally overshadow his career. Here is a look back at Jackson's greatest television moments, in chronological order.
The Jackson Five cartoon series: Anyone who remembers this curiosity is really dating themselves. The brothers starred in their own ABC Saturday morning cartoon in the early 1970s, engaging in the sorts of adventures common to humans trapped in cartoonland. In a preview of coming attractions, young Michael was surrounded by exotic pets.
The Jacksons, 1976: The family got its own live-action series on CBS in 1976, which starred not only the singing brothers, but their heretofore little-seen sisters, including the still normal-looking Latoya and the baby of the family, Janet. As the family's biggest name, Michael bore the brunt of the skits and songs, and while he was soft-spoken as always, he gave little indication that he would be seen as a first-class weirdo within ten years.
"Billie Jean" Comes to MTV: The video channel maintained an unofficial but obvious "no black artists" policy during its first year and a half on the air, but Jackson's first #1 hit from the Thriller album was a force that could not be denied. He not only paved the way for Prince and dozens of rap artists that MTV would embrace in the ensuing years, but made choreography a major part of music videos for the first time.
Motown 25: If there was one moment that elevated Jackson from a mere superstar to all-time icon, it was his appearance on the NBC special commemorating the 25th anniversary of his original label. He began with a brief salute to the songs he had done with his brothers, before launching into a performance of the non-Motown "Billie Jean" that was a revelation to the millions who still didn't have MTV on their cable systems. The highlight: Jackson's introduction of the legendary moonwalk.
The "Thriller" video: Michaelmania peaked with the December 1, 1983 release of this video, which had all the trappings of a Hollywood epic. It had a big name director in John Landis, a credit sequence, and a fifteen-minute storyline that ran much longer than the song itself. "I'm not like other guys," the soon-to-be-werewolf Michael warned his video girlfriend, a phrase that later took on all sorts of ominous overtones.
The Pepsi commercial: Jackson was so big by the mid-1980s that his endorsements got as much attention as most artists' album releases. But the filming of an ad for Pepsi, meant to replicate a Jackson concert experience, ended up in news footage when a pyrotechnic mishap set the singer's head on fire.
"Bad": Jackson's clout was such that he could land an even bigger name than Landis for the filming of the title song from his first post-Thriller CD: Martin Scorsese. But the spectacle did not have the same impact, in part because Jackson was never especially convincing as angry, and in part because his increasingly odd appearance was beginning to detract from the music.
"Black Or White" premieres everywhere, gets people mad: The first video from the album Dangerous received its world premiere on several networks at once, not just MTV. It was memorable for the then-revolutionary morphing technique (primitive though it may seem today), and for a bizarre coda that featured Jackson screaming, smashing car windows, and repeatedly fondling his crotch. Complaints from stunned parents later prompted Jackson to drop this portion of the video. It was right around this time that Jackson started asking to be referred to as the "King of Pop."
The 1993 Super Bowl: It wasn't always commonplace for major recording artists to appear at the Super Bowl, but that changed when Jackson provided the entertainment at the 1993 Super Bowl in Pasadena. He was a good deal more entertaining than the game (which Dallas won by five touchdowns), although the performance of songs like "Heal the World" illustrated Jackson's increasing penchant for grandiose imagery.
Denial of first child abuse charges: When Jackson was first accused of sexual abuse of a child in 1993, he released a pained video statement to the media in which he proclaimed his innocence and criticized the intrusiveness of his police strip search. It was an early example of a celebrity using cable news to go over the heads of the legal system.
Michael kisses Lisa Marie at the VMAs: Eyes rolled when the notoriously asexual Jacko married Elvis Presley's daughter Lisa Marie in 1994. Always up for a media event, Jackson and his bride walked on stage at the start of the '94 MTV Video Music Awards to the screams of a startled audience. "Nobody thought this would last," Jackson smirked before planting an awkward kiss on Lisa Marie. No one was surprised when the marriage bit the dust within a few years.
Living With Michael Jackson: Even as Jackson faded from the top of the charts, public interest in the rumors surrounding him was always strong. This 2003 documentary, hosted by Martin Bashir and run in the U.S. on ABC, did not succeed in improving Jackson's image for eccentricity, to say the least. After already beating one charge of abuse, stating openly that he saw nothing wrong with children sleeping in his bed was not the wisest move Jackson ever made. He would never be so forthcoming in an interview again.