Nigel Lythgoe on that time Prince surprised everyone on ‘American Idol’

Prince performs in a surprise appearance on the “American Idol” television show finale at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, May 24, 2006. (Photo: Reuters/Chris Pizzello)
Prince performs in a surprise appearance on the “American Idol” television show finale at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, May 24, 2006. (Photo: Reuters/Chris Pizzello)

This Sunday, American Idol and the top seven will make history with Prince Night, the first time that the late Prince’s catalog has ever been cleared for the show. But Prince has made history on Idol before. One of the most thrilling Idol guest performances ever was when he showed up out of nowhere — almost as if in a genie cloud of purple smoke — on the Season 5 finale in 2006.

This wasn’t a typical Idol finale cameo. Prince didn’t perform alongside any of the contestants; his appearance was a complete shock (even to the finalists and employees of the show); and he vanished almost as quickly as he had appeared, immediately after tearing through the 3121 tracks “Lolita” and “Satisfied.”

Shortly after Prince’s death in April 2016, Idol‘s executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe, spoke to Yahoo Entertainment at BritWeek’s Annual Business Innovation Awards honoring Idol creator Simon Fuller, and he recalled the surreal Season 5 scene.

“When I first met Prince, I told him exactly what was going to happen [on the show], how Ryan Seacrest would introduce him,“ Lythgoe remembered. “And he said, ‘No, Nigel. I don’t want any introduction.’ And I said, ‘To be honest with you, sir, we’re going to need to do that.’ He said, ‘No, Nigel. I’m going to come on that stage as a complete surprise.’ So he went out there with the two girls, was sensational, and left the stage before Ryan could even say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen: Prince!’ He was gone.

“The funny thing about that was, Prince had [a driver] in the theater area, on a telephone in his car, going around the block. So the driver knew exactly when Prince was going onstage, and when he was done. The car drove up, Prince jumped out of the car, ran onto the stage, ran off the stage back into the car, and drove off. Gone.”

While Prince was unwilling to take direction from Lythgoe (“He was very ‘this is the way it’s going to be’”), Lythgoe stressed that Prince was “very gentle with that, not rude in any way. He was very congratulatory about the program and how well he thought it had been done, and I believe he was very, very happy to be appearing on American Idol. But it was literally those conversations: ‘No, Nigel. We’re not going to do it that way.’ Which I’m unaccustomed to!”

As for how Prince’s finale appearance remained such a secret, Lythgoe laughed, “I just kept my mouth shut! Yeah, I know — it’s not like me! But when I need to keep quiet, I can, you know!”

Lythgoe produced American Idol during its first seven seasons as well as Seasons 10-12, and he returned to oversee Fox’s nostalgic series finale two years ago, at which he had once hoped Prince might make another appearance. “I thought about asking Prince to play again for the Season 15 finale,” Lythgoe revealed, “but then once I went down the route of thinking there shouldn’t be anyone on the finale apart from the judges and contestants, I dropped that idea. But it’s quite interesting that the two people that came into my head [when planning the Fox finale several months earlier] were David Bowie and Prince. I suppose thank God I didn’t think about anybody else, right?”

Lythgoe ended up including a Bowie medley on Fox’s Season 15 finale, starring past winners David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Phillip Phillips, and Nick Fradiani. When asked which contestants he would have picked for a Prince tribute, Lythgoe pondered for a moment and said, “That’s a good question. It’s really difficult to recreate Prince. I suppose Adam Lambert would have been great for that. I’d have to think about it, because there was nobody for me ever that was like Prince — apart from [Fox’s former President of Alternative Entertainment] Mike Darnell,” he joked.

“I always used to make fun of Mike’s height [Darnell is 5’2”], so he actually walked up behind Prince [to compare height]. And he was smaller than Prince! But then again, Prince was in stilettos.”

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