The Backstory: How Michael Jackson almost didn’t make TV History in 1983

“…I shudder to think how close we came to not having that moment ever happen.”

Although not yet online, here’s a striking interview excerpt from the Archive of American Television’s interview with legendary producer, Don Mischer, who co-produced and directed Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, where Michael Jackson mesmerized the audience with his tradmark “moonwalk.” The interview was conducted November 7, 2008 by Beth Cochran.

“Suzanne de Passe had called me. She was a longtime associate of Berry Gordy and Motown Records and we started having meetings about doing a celebratory show about the 25th anniversary of Motown. I grew up on Motown music. The Temptations, the Tops, the Miracles, Smokey Robinson, it was just right down my alley. We started working on that.

It was a tough show to do. Many of the artists that appeared on that stage that night were suing Berry Gordy. Suzanne and I used to fight these battles about people wanting to do new material because many of them had left the Motown label and wanted to do new songs. Suzanne was so eloquent in talking to them. Our approach was: this is the 25th anniversary of Motown, it’s a celebration of music that started in Detroit and has now swept the nation. It did so much for civil rights, for the merging of black and white music, “you must do your most famous Motown song. You can’t do a new song.” We said that to Marvin Gaye and to the Tops and the Temps and everybody else who was on that show.

We wanted to bring the Jackson 5 back together. Michael Jackson said, “I will consider coming back again with my brothers, but I want to do a new song.” Suzanne and I said, “look, we can’t do that. If you say no to Marvin Gaye and no to Lionel Ritchie, no to a new song, how are you going to say yes to Michael Jackson? We really, really can’t do this. It’s not fair, it’s got to be favored nations, everybody’s got to do the traditional stuff.” And it was like the Monday before the show which was being shot on a Friday, that we finally realized that it was too much to lose to not have the Jackson 5 reunite on the 25th anniversary of Motown. So we said, we’re going to at least have to consider it.

It’s now the night before the Friday night taping. I’m in the truck. Michael shows up. We talk about how we’re going to do the Jackson 5. Michael always gives me hand cues about when to do certain things. “When I break my wrist I do this, when I point this way, I take my hat off and we, you know, whatever.” So Linda Ronstadt’s out there, Smokey’s out there, Diana Ross was just sitting in the audience, a bunch of runners and Pas sitting around. And Michael says, “okay, now let’s try the new song.”

Michael starts to do “Billie Jean” with the moonwalk. And I kick myself today: why didn’t I pop a piece of tape into a tape recorder in the truck and shoot this? I didn’t think about it. It was just another song, we were prepared not use. And man, it just electrified everyone! You know the rest of the story. He ended up doing it and it became one of the real remarkable moments in television. I shudder to think how close we came to not having that moment ever happen.”

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