I, Kathy Griffin, was an extra in the Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial in 1984 where his effing hair caught fire! I have two points to make.
POINT 1 You know what a Forrest Gump moment is, right? It's when you happen to witness or be present during an iconic moment in history, good or bad. I've had a few of those, and this was one.
Back then, I did as much work as an extra as I could because it was the closest I could get to feeling like a part of show business. On a side note, not only was I never destined to be an overnight success, but I also spent years as an extra for $35 a day just to have the opportunity to try to get my foot in the door. I did this while I was taking acting classes, improv classes and keeping my day job at whatever nine-to-five office would have me considering I have absolutely no office skills. Needless to say, I was excited when I got the call in late January for a two-day shoot in downtown Los Angeles at the Shrine Auditorium. Two days at $35 a day was $70!
Not only was the money fantastic, but when I learned it was to work on a commercial with the Jackson 5, I was the first in line. I was one of a thousand in a standing-only crowd that day, watching Michael Jackson do take after take of his big stairway entrance onto a glitzy rock 'n' roll-like set and jamming with his brothers to a reworked version of "Billie Jean," incorporating "You're the Pepsi Generation" into the song. It was fascinating just to be in that audience watching how a really big commercial is made with one of the biggest stars in history.
At one point, I noticed my buddy Jon Lovitz in the crowd - we were both in the Groundlings then - and when I asked why he was there, he introduced me to his pal Miko Brando, son of Marlon and one of Michael Jackson's bodyguards.
Philip Ramey/Corbis via Getty Images
POINT 2 This was all before the internet, social media, TMZ, cellphones with cameras, all of it. The public wouldn't know of a news event of this magnitude until much later. So when people ask me about what it was like to be there that day, I have to remind them of this. Here's what happened that day from an extra's point of view. You can see it online now because Us Weekly got hold of the footage of when a pyrotechnic effect went off too early and posted it in 2009. But at the time, the last thing a production would do following an accident like this would be to announce to hundreds, if not thousands, of extras something like, "There's been a horrible accident. Everybody go home!" I just remember we were all abruptly excused for the day. By the time I'd driven my parents' Toyota Corolla back to our Santa Monica apartment, it was all over the news. Over the years, it's been very strange to realize that I had been there for a momentous showbiz incident - one many believe led to Michael Jackson's debilitating addiction struggles and tragic death - and not known what had happened at the time. I still believe he molested all those kids, though.
Courtesy of Flatiron Books
Kathy Griffin's Celebrity Run-Ins: My A-Z Index is out Nov. 22. (Copyright © 2016 by the author; excerpt reprinted by permission of Flatiron/Holtzbrinck.)
This story first appeared in the Dec. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.