Randall Sullivan, the highly-acclaimed journalist, spent three years getting behind the mask of Michael Jackson, the most celebrated entertainer our world has ever known.
“There hasn’t been anyone that famous in a single moment as he was during ‘Thriller’ time,” he said. “I think that was probably the peak of celebrity for a human being.”
Sullivan’s new book, “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” in stores Tuesday, is a tale of family, fame, lost childhood, and startling accusations never heard before. It paints a portrait of a prescription drug addict who could spend $250,000 on a shopping spree without thinking. “The shopping, like the drugs, were a, it was a painkiller for him,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said Jackson would often call business partners, including Marc Schaffel, and ask them to bring him bags of cash. “In one case there was a phone call where he’s asking Marc for $7.5 million,” Sullivan said. “When Schaffel first gave him cash, for some reason he put it in an Arby’s bag, it was like a French fry bag or something and gave it to Michael. And so that became an in joke, ‘Well, I want you to Super Size this order.’ ‘Could you bring me some more money, but this time super size it?’
“He wanted to have money he could actually put in his pocket,” Sullivan continued. “To him that was real money.”
In his description of the King of Pop, Sullivan says Jackson was a man-child who couldn’t leave fame, or family, behind. “Michael was tired of being a song and dance man,” he said. “He didn’t want to perform on stage from the time, well from the time of the History tour, which was 1995, 1996.”
Jackson, who starred as the Scarecrow in the 1978 blockbuster flop, “The Wiz,” wanted to be an actor, Sullivan said. He had wanted to buy the rights to every Marvel character before anyone else thought of making them into movies. “He wanted to play Spiderman,” Sullivan said. “How that would have worked? I don’t know.”
And he wanted to play Willy Wonka in the 2005 remake of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” but he didn’t get that role either. Jackson claimed to be a child trapped in an adult world. Sullivan said even as an adult, Jackson never got to express his sexuality.
“I think he did all that he could to neutralize himself,” he said. “I don’t think Michael was trying to be homosexual, heterosexual, pedophile, I think he was trying to be asexual: pre-sexual actually. I think he was aiming to be pre-sexual because he saw that as the one place where innocence and purity and great ideas and you know, artistic visions and poetic fantasies all abided.”
Sullivan said Jackson long saw himself as a real-life Peter Pan, and his insistence on this make-believe role became so sincere that he had plastic surgery to copy the appearance of actor Bobby Driscoll’s “Peter Pan’s nose.”
“He eventually gave himself the nose of the boy, the young actor Bobby Driscoll, who was the model for Peter Pan in Walt Disney’s movie,” Sullivan said.
There were of course the accusations that Jackson’s love of children was, in fact, sexual. There is no proof Jackson molested anyone. In 2003, he was cleared of the only accusation that ever made it to trial, but he admitted to sharing a bed with pre-pubescent kids. According to Sullivan, he slept next to dozens of children. Sullivan: ‘I Think [Princess Diana] Was a Little Creeped Out by Him’
“The ultimate question is, did Michael Jackson ever molest a child?” he said. “My conclusion is that I don’t think he did. I wish I could say conclusively, ‘no he didn’t.’ I can’t. There is a shadow of doubt. And I had to come to accept I was going to have to live with it. And I think anyone who is honest about Michael will have to learn to live with it too.
“He wanted to be a child himself,” he continued. “He wanted to believe that he was another 12-year-old or 13-year-old… He wanted a sleepover. He felt he didn’t get childhood.” Jackson was a star from a young age, perhaps too soon. He became the focal point of the family at age 7 as the lead vocalist on many Jackson Five smash hits, including “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “I’ll Be There.”
“People want to believe that the Jacksons are a family of very, very talented people,” Sullivan said. “Really there was one very, very talented person. I mean Jermaine has a bit of a voice, but I don’t think he’d have risen above the level of lounge singer without Michael.”
Michael, desperately lonely, apparently sought the company of a handful of other people who could understand his level of fame. He was, Sullivan said, given the brush-off by Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Princess Diana.
“For lack of a better word, I think [Diana] was a little creeped out by him because of the intensity of his desire to be with her,” Sullivan said. Sullivan said he tried and failed to interview family members for his book, including Joe Jackson, but claims the patriarch has mellowed with age.
“He’s a comical figure in a lot of ways,” he said. “People would tell me he was carrying a gun in the waistband of his pants a lot and would always let them see to let them know that at 84 he’s still a bad dude, or he would make a point of telling people, ‘When I go to visit Katherine, she stills cuts my toe nails.’ Like, ‘I’m the man.'”
In the book, Sullivan describes how various people, including Michael Jackson’s wife Lisa Marie Presley, were beguiled by the star’s intelligence and charm. Sullivan himself admitted that he too felt a “deep affection” for Jackson after writing his book. “I hope I fell for what’s good about him,” he said. “I don’t think I ever was blinded to the aspects of Michael’s character that are not so attractive, or questionable.”
In all, Sullivan’s book sprawls over nearly 800 pages, including 165 pages of bibliography and notes. “You’re relying on sources and in Michael Jackson’s universe you have to bear in mind, there is no one with truly clean hands,” Sullivan said. “So you’re talking to people that always someone, some people have accused of this or that or who has this is or that issue. That was Michael Jackson’s world.”