Hollyweird

Hollyweird: Michael Jackson and the Making of Disney's 'Captain EO'

by Trey Taylor

Hollyweird, in collaboration with @velvetcoke, takes stock of once-known but obscure or forgotten stories about popular celebrities and cult figures.

In 1986, Michael Jackson leaked a photo of himself sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber to The National Enquirer. The media went berserk. Was he really trying to live forever? Not exactly. According to him, the image was clearly released to promote Captain EO, a short space opera featuring Jackson. A weird story, sure, but anything to help drum up publicity.

Captain EO was created especially for Disneyland. A dream team of The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, exec producer George Lucas, actress Anjelica Huston and the ILM special effects team came together to make the most expensive film ever for its length at the time — it cost $23.7 million and it had a run time of 17 minutes. The film was essentially a musical showcase for Jackson, who was still riding high off the success of his music video for "Thriller." Disney wanted a piece of the action, and the King of Pop had an affinity for Disney — it was a match made in Tomorrowland.

Jackson played the titular heroic space captain. Huston was the Supreme Leader who emerged at the end of the film after Jackson saved the galaxy through the powers of singing and hip thrusts. For context, take a read of this quasi-plot description courtesy of Wiki: "[Captain EO's sidekick] Hooter manages to repair his instrument and sends out a blast of music, providing EO with the power to throw off the guards. He uses his power to transform the dark hulking guards into agile dancers who fall into step behind him for a dance number." Right.

Though her part was small, Huston had great recall for the film's bizarre production, which she wrote about in her 2017 memoir Watch Me.

"When Michael and I started to rehearse, I was impressed not only by his extraordinary androgynous beauty but also by his exertions to keep it all in place," she wrote. "It was evident at short distance that he had undergone a lot of bleaching and surgery; his facial skin was several degrees whiter than his hands, his eyebrows were tweezed, his mouth and eyelids tattooed."

Instead of showing up fresh-faced every morning, explained Huston, Jackson arrived with his face covered in thick makeup. She also noticed how difficult it was for Jackson to get mad. "When Francis asked us to improvise a scene, I was struck by how obviously hard it was for Michael to display anger. He seemed incapable of it."

The most peculiar thing to Huston, though perhaps least surprising knowing what we know now about Jackson, was his on-set child pal. "Michael had a friend, a blond boy about twelve years of age, who kept him company on the set. They often spoke on walkie-talkies, and sometimes the kid would sit on Michael's lap. At lunch, they would retire to his complex of mobile trailers to watch Disney movies and eat vegetarian lunches provided by Michael's cook, who was a Sikh."

Jackson also had a conveyor belt of famous visitors — Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor — who, upon leaving, would leave a lipstick signature and a kiss on his dressing room mirror.

One day on set, Huston had to get in full makeup and costume just so that Jackson could react to her character. "I was not to be on camera that day but had to undergo hours of preparation and then get strung up to the rafters in my uncomfortable costume," she wrote. "I was slightly put out — until the music started and he rose dancing on an elevated hydraulic platform opposite. Instantly, my annoyance was dispelled as I witnessed the heart-stopping brilliance of Michael Jackson, live and up close, singing just for me."

The film debuted on September 18, 1986, and everyone was in attendance — except Jackson. He was taking a break from the fame circuit. However, some allege he was in the crowd that day, disguised in costume as one of the characters from the film. The best takeaway from the whole bizarre making of the flick is the catchy song "We Are Here to Change the World." Or, maybe the slightly disturbing photo of Jackson sleeping in a plastic tube pumped with fresh oxygen. Yes, maybe that.

Photo via Getty

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