An exclusive piece by John Landis from The Official Michael Jackson Opus
Michael had the biggest-selling record in the world before I met him. After we made the short film Michael Jackson’s Thriller, his international stardom went super-nova. Mike’s extraordinary talents had captured the entire world’s imagination and I was always astounded by his level of fame. Michael himself remained shy and soft spoken but never showed fear in front of enormous crowds of crazed fans. Perhaps the only time in my life when I really believed that I was going to die was at Walt Disney World on a visit with Michael Jackson. He had invited my wife Deborah (the costume designer of “Thriller” and later “Black Or White”) and our then one-year-old daughter Rachel to Disney World to celebrate the success of our short little movie. There was at that time an attraction in Orlando, long since closed, called Circus World. There we visited a two-day-old baby elephant which was the size of a big dog and as adorable as the baby Dumbo. We all shared Michael’s delight in playing with the baby elephant. It was the highlight of our trip. Sightseeing was made difficult by Michael’s gigantic celebrity. Crowds of people would appear whenever Mike went out in public and they were almost always hysterically screaming and kind of scary to me, but Michael never seemed fazed by the noise and crush of people. He’d smile and wave shyly as the rest of us would be frantically searching for an escape route.
Walt Disney World was the largest non-government construction project in history. Literally built on swamp land, the Disney Company created a tremendous labyrinth of concrete maintenance tunnels that run underground beneath the parks. Often we would take golf carts through these amazing tunnels and just pop-up through hidden doors into the park to go on a ride or see a show. One day someone suggested that Mike and I have our photograph taken with Mickey Mouse.
As someone who grew up watching the Mickey Mouse Club, I was all for it. So Mike and I took another golf cart ride in the underground tunnels, exited through a secret door and after a short walk in the sun found ourselves on this grassy area near the Castle in Fantasyland where a Disney photographer and a Disney security guy (easy to spot — they wear coats and ties, dark glasses and have a wire in their ear, like the men surrounding the President) were waiting for us. There was a little chain surrounding the lawn, like the ones that you wait behind in line at a bank. As the photographer posed us, I became aware of a roaring sound, and realized that a sea of people
had somehow discovered that Michael Jackson was there and surrounded us on our little island of grass. And I mean a sea of people! People as far as you could see in all directions. And they were growing increasingly excited seeing Michael Jackson. Shouts of “Michael, we love you!” soon became just shrieks and then sobs as the usually calm Disney World families morphed into a delirious mob of several thousand ecstatic fans. Michael was just smiling and waving, but I was thinking about Nathaniel West’s book, Day Of The Locusts. “They are going to eat us!” Just then a muffled voice came from inside Mickey Mouse’s head: “Holy crap!” And I could see the security guy frantically speaking into his small walkie-talkie. If Mickey Mouse was panicking, then I knew we were in trouble!
As the crowd broke through the little chain barriers and Mickey Mouse and I were thinking “We are going to die in Fantasyland, trampled to death by an army of crazed Michael Jackson fans”, a Cadillac limousine magically appeared before us. Security guys were grabbing Michael, Mickey and I and literally throwing us into the limo. The crowd of people surged forward like surf and swept over the car like the ocean crashing onto rocks. Faces and hands were pressed up against all of the windows and now my fears changed to “Oh my God, I hope no one is hurt”. Somehow they got us out of there safely and there were no injuries I know of.
“We are going to die in Fantasyland, trampled to death by an army of crazed Michael Jackson fans”
What I remember the most about the whole adventure was while the security guys, the limo driver, Mickey Mouse and I were terrified, Michael was calm and smiling, waving to the people. In later years Mike would always make fun of me for “being scared”. “They just wanted to see me. Everything was okay,” he’d say. And he would laugh.
That is the memory of Mike I will treasure: him smiling and waving, calm and serene in the storm.