Michael Jackson's Pepsi Commercial Shoot Still Haunts Director

Photo: Steve Allen, Hulton Archive
Photo: Steve Allen, Hulton Archive

More than 30 years after Michael Jackson was burned on the set of a Pepsi-Cola commercial and five years after Jackson's shocking death on June 25, 2009 director Bob Giraldi finds it tough reflecting on the tragic event.

"I don't have fond memories of that shoot," Giraldi tells Yahoo Music. "It's not a moment that I like to remember. I've put it out of my repertoire when I think of working and being around Michael in his genius."

[Related: Michael Jackson Hologram at Billboard Music Awards Met With Mixed Response]

On Jan. 27, 1984, while taping a performance scene for the infamous Pepsi ad, an explosion caused Jackson's hair to catch fire, resulting in the superstar being hospitalized and treated for third-degree burns.

According to an Us Weekly report that ran less than a month after Jackson's death in 2009 (when the magazine acquired and released disturbing, previously unseen footage of the Pepsi accident), the singer was never quite the same after being set ablaze by pyrotechnics that day at Los Angeles's Shrine Auditorium. Us reported that Jackson's addiction issues (as well as his obsession with plastic surgery) began after he was prescribed several types of painkillers to ease the suffering from the burns on his scalp and body.

Giraldi, who also directed the music videos for Jackson's "Beat It" and the Paul McCartney collaboration "Say Say Say," says the "finger-pointing" that followed the Pepsi tragedy made an already horrible situation much worse. The accident signaled the end of Giraldi's working relationship with Jackson, who had scored one of the biggest celebrity product endorsement deals at the time.

Before the incident, Giraldi remembers other unrelated issues on the commercial's set. The director, who had helmed spots for McDonald's, Diet-Rite Cola, and Almond Joy, recalls tension between the talent and executives. He suspected that corporate demands on the artists were overwhelming, and the pressures ultimately had an impact on the creative.

Jackson's interaction with a young Alfonso Ribeiro (dressed like Jackson) and a group of kids dancing in the street did not capture the emotion that Giraldi had been aiming for, he says today. "None of that really had a pureness to it as the videos that I did with [Michael] and Paul McCartney, and that has to do with the pressure and the tension of advertising commercial sets and clients and expectations."

[Related: Michael Jackson's Originals Better Than Updates on ‘Xscape']

Giraldi adds he and Jackson remained cordial over the years. "[We saw] each other since at affairs and other occasions, just in passing, and greeted each other with hugs," he recalls. And not all of Giraldi's memories of the Pepsi incident are sad ones.

"One of my fondest memories of him was on the set of Pepsi-Cola commercial when the brothers were downstairs in the dressing room," Giraldi recalls. "While I was talking to Jermaine and some of the brothers, we all heard a blood-curdling scream and we thought, 'Oh my God, someone has gotten to Michael, or got at him.' We all ran to where the scream was coming from. It was coming from bathroom downstairs in the dressing room area... He had dropped his white glove into the toilet, and was screaming for someone to please get it out of there. We all looked at each other like, 'Who’s going to be the schmuck to go down and pick out his glove in a bowl?' And it was a prop guy who was smart enough to come in with a wire and pick it up.  I’ll never forget that moment, which shows you how even the biggest of superstars have to use the bathroom."

Giraldi, who has worked on set with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, says Jackson was by far the nicest. "My relationship with Michael was kind and gentle," he says. "There was a kindness and gentleness that I don't usually see in the performers. I've done this for 40 years and I've worked with a lot of so-called self-important people, and it seems that Michael still remains the number-one celebrity that I've ever worked with yet."

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