Unlike his idol Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson never established himself as a movie star – namely in a musical remake of the 1938 James Cagney flick Angels with Dirty Faces – and it’s a reget he took to his grave.
That, according to the King of Pop’s Captain EO collaborator, and friend of 25 years, Rusty Lemorande.
In an exclusive interview with BlogTalkRadio, Rusty – who produced and co-wrote the 3-D, Francis Ford Coppola-directed Captain EO as a Disney theme park attraction in 1986 – recounts how Michael came to sign on for Angels and another feature during the early ’90s.
“Michael was pretty pleased with our relationship, and he had just set up his film company at Sony-Columbia. And the problem was, with all the development people, etc. – and it was a pretty thick company with people – he wasn’t committing to anything,” Rusty, whose other production credits include the 1983 Barbra Streisand star vehicle Yentil, tells Movie Geeks United! host Jamey DuVall of the pop star, who died June 25 after suffering cardiac arrest.
“I think people didn’t understand how to relate to him. I used to say to him, ‘You’re a little like Arnold Schwarzenegger. You can’t do any part. The part has to be tailored to you. He became a star because of Terminator.
“Well, Michael said, ‘You come up with some ideas.’ And I came up with two fairly quickly.
“One was to remake an old film called 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which was a  Tony Randall film that involved a child protagonist, and the other was to remake the film Angels with Dirty Faces, which is a James Cagney film. Michael was a huge James Cagney fan.
“Michael loved both projects. Part of it was the way I explained it to him, talked him through it. We had sketches done and creatures made – you really had to turn it into the toy version.
“On Dr. Lao, we had the set miniatures built of the circus and he committed to both, which was a major event at the time.
“One was set up at Warners. And the other was set up at Turner – who owned the remake rights. And everything was going great. Fantastic!
“And then the first scandal hit.”
(In 1993, Michael was accused of child abuse by the father of then 13-year-old Evan Chandler. Though he denied the allegations, the pop idol eventually settled the suit out of court for $22 million.)
“I remember it as vividly as I remember when I heard President Kennedy was shot. I was in my car driving to this studio where we were building these miniatures, where people were going to come and see them. And someone called me and said, ‘Did you see what’s on the news? Michael Jackson’s ranch has been raided,” continues Rusty.
“The truth of the matter is, very simply – and in fairness to Hollywood and the big studios – they have huge investment obligations to their shareholders. So they got very nervous. They didn’t know if the audience would still be there for Michael.
“Suddenly, nobody wanted to touch him… It was quite sad that it never happened, because it was very important for Michael to be in movies.
“He used to talk about Elvis Presley’s career and say, ‘If Elvis hadn’t made all those films, he wouldn’t be as remembered as he was.’”
During the 30-minute interview, Rusty also reveals how he came to earn Michael’s trust while he and The Godfather director were working on Captain EO.
“The secret of working with Michael Jackson was to think, how would you, literally, deal with a 10-year-old boy?
“Francis got it. At one point, he was having trouble directing Michael. Michael didn’t seem to respond to the kind of word dialogue that a director largely uses.
“So [Francis] sent out for some masks: happy masks – like clown masks – and scary masks. And when he wanted to elicit an emotion from Michael, he would put on those masks and it would be as if a child were reacting to a mask. And it was effective!
“Michael loved to go toy shopping. But the adult in him wanted to drive his car. And he drove like a maniac. I was always grippin’ my seat.
“He loved masks. He had masks in his glove compartment, which he would put on as he drove. His explanation was, ‘If I don’t put it on, people will see it’s me and they’ll chase me.’
“Then we’d go into a toy store. Then it was funny, because the mask he’d wear into the store would usually be like a woman’s harem mask kind of thing, with a veil across his face.”
To hear Rusty’s full interview, click here.