Michael Jackson loved movies. He collected Three Stooges and Shirley Temple memorabilia, and cultivated friendships with screen legends Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. He studied Charlie Chaplin and screened films in a private theater at his Neverland Ranch. On occasion, the pop star appeared on the big screen himself: He played the Scarecrow in The Wiz and a space-farer in Disneyland’s Francis Ford Coppola-directed short Captain EO, and he even had a cameo in Men in Black II (not to mention a less-than-stellar turn in the straight-to-DVD comedy Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls).
In his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, Jackson recalled being bitten by the acting bug: “I…love to be in front of a 35 mm camera,” he wrote. “[s]omeday soon I plan to devote a lot of my time to making films.”
But it was not to be. Schedules got tight. Legal woes got in the way. Projects were floated, but never materialized. Outside of The Wiz, the entertainer’s most prominent movie was the posthumously released concert film, This Is It. Five years after Jackson’s death, here’s a look at three movie roles that might’ve been:
1. Peter Pan
This is the big one that got away. Back in 1983, stories swirled that Jackson — who was at the height of his Thriller fame — would star as the literature’s most famous lost boy in a film directed by Steven Spielberg. The project made sense: At the time, Jackson was a global star, years away from even the hint of scandal. Spielberg, too, was riding high, having just completed Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Together, the two had collaborated on the soundtrack and audiobook for E.T. Celebrity columnist Marilyn Beck reported that the music star and director would reteam for Peter Pan after Spielberg finished 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But in 1986, the Jackson-Spielberg project was declared dead amid reports that Spielberg had lost the rights to author J.M. Barrie’s writings (according to the piece, the rights had been won by Dodi Fayed, the London playboy who would die in the 1997 car crash that also killed Princess Diana). Fayed said he didn’t want or need a prominent director, and claimed that Jackson had priced himself out of the picture with a demand for $10 million.
Of course, Spielberg circled back to the property with 1991’s Hook, which Fayed executive produced. But Jackson was not involved — Robin Williams played the part, albeit as a middle-aged version of Peter. The entertainer’s absence was chalked up to a busy schedule, but maybe it was for the best: Hook brought Spielberg some of the worst reviews of his career.
2. The Nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe
As reported in 1999, The Nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe would star Jackson, then 41, playing the 19th-century horror author in a fantasy film about the writer’s last days. Production was scheduled to commence the fall of 2000, with a theatrical release in 2002. The only other name linked to the was that of Gary L. Pudney, a veteran of the World Music Awards and the Elizabeth Taylor TV-special, Happy Birthday Elizabeth: A Celebration of Life, who was listed as co-executive producer. By 2000, the project was known as Poe 2000, but the year came and went without cameras rolling. Still, that same year Pudney told USA Today a search was on for a director, and that Jackson was committed.
In 2001, Jackson described the project to Yahoo! as “a fascinating story about what [Poe] went through to create his stories.” It seems the last word of the never-was film came in 2002, when Jackson was supposedly getting acting tips from his famous pal Brando. Pudney apparently remained close to Jackson: It was he who confirmed to the press that the pop star had welcomed a third child, Prince Michael Jackson II, to his family.
3. The Way of the Unicorn
During the same time he was developing the Poe movie, Jackson was also said to be starring in and producing a $75 million animated feature with an unwieldy title: The Way of the Unicorn, The Endangered One. Jackson would provide the voice of Sailor, a character that, per the AP account of the project, was “an orphan who works with a lonely rich girl and a group of endangered animals to save the planet.” The entertainer’s partner on The Way of the Unicorn was reported to be Dennis W. Peterson of Big International Group of Entertainment, a company that even a decade later the New York Times struggled to pin down. “This is the new Michael Jackson, the movie actor and producer,” Peterson said in 2001, sounding an awful lot like Pudney talking about Jackson and the Poe movie. A 2003 release date for The Last Unicorn was floated, but Jackson family attorney Brian Oxman said Jackson’s involvement ended abruptly when a $1 million check from a British backer bounced. Said Oxman in 2011, “That’s as far as The Way of the Unicorn ever went.”
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