Behind the scenes, the King of Pop and his loved ones haggle over the ABC rockudrama

By Cable Neuhaus
Updated November 13, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

He hasn’t lived at Hayvenhurst for 4.5 years, but Michael Jackson’s presence at his family’s Encino, Calif., estate lingers palpably. A metal star engraved with his name is embedded in the walkway to the 20-room mansion, lest anyone forget that this is a house that Michael built and still maintains. In the 32-seat east-wing theater, his sister-in-law Margaret Maldonado Jackson, who lives at Hayvenhurst with husband Jermaine and his parents, Katherine and Joe, props herself on the edge of a seat and wearily fixes her gaze on her Chanel shoes. As coproducer, with Jermaine, of the five-hour ABC miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream, Margaret has spent most of the previous night editing the final cut.

”This was an impossible project,” she sighs, recalling the early uncertainty that hovered over the film. Most ”impossible” was obtaining the consent of the individual members — patriarch, matriarch, and eight of the nine children — of what may be America’s most dysfunctional musical family (La Toya, seldom in touch with the brood since her 1991 blame-flinging autobiography, was not included). In the end, the Jacksons came to terms for $1 million, possibly the highest fee ever paid by TV for someone’s life story, plus a cut of the eventual profits from syndication, merchandising, videos, overseas sales, and a tie-in album.

”This family likes to set records,” says Margaret, 27. ”Janet got her big deal ($40 million with Virgin Records), then Michael had to go and top it (with his $65 million Sony deal).” Only half-jokingly, Jermaine, 37, says: ”It’s hard to get Michael’s attention on any deal worth less than $40 million.”

Actually, people close to the Jacksons say Michael agreed to the project chiefly to give his family the chance to cash in big one more time. His ground rules included approval of the writer, the script, the director, and all three actors who would play him at various ages. And, says Margaret, ”he did ask for someone beautiful to play his mother.” (The role went to Angela Bassett, who costars in the film Malcolm X.)

Few TV projects have been so complex: The cast, which includes Holly Robinson as Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams as Motown founder Berry Gordy, and Vanessa Williams as former Motown exec Suzanne de Passe (who is co-executive producer of the miniseries with Stan Margulies), features 29 youngsters doing their own dancing and moonwalking as the Jackson kids. ”From the beginning, my feeling was that the chances of this happening were about 1,000 to 1,” says Rob Lee, the William Morris agent who handled the deal for the Jacksons.

Margaret, Jermaine, and mom Katherine approached Lee with the miniseries idea at the beginning of 1989. According to Margaret, ”It was a weird time. Michael had moved out of the house and gotten his ranch. Janet was away doing an album. And after the Playboy thing with La Toya (posing nude), Katherine got really emotional.” The TV project was thus conceived as a unifying, healing venture.

Nonetheless, the ensuing negotiations generated ”the most paper I’ve ever seen, without a doubt,” says Lee. ”Michael’s representatives were extremely protective” about his portrayal. Then, of course, Janet and her attorneys demanded nearly equal input — which she got. The nine months of back and forth were complicated by the fact that none of the Jacksons can easily reach Michael through his handlers and guards, whom some in the family refer to derisively as ”Michael’s camp.” Earlier this year, says Margaret, when Michael’s okay was urgently needed to sign director Karen Arthur, Joe Jackson, who is portrayed in the film as a brutally determined stage parent, tracked his son to a Washington, D.C., hotel and left him a stern message: I’ll fly down there, and you don’t want that. Michael promptly faxed his signature.

An unexpected hurdle sprang up in November 1991, when Jermaine’s Michael-dissing single ”Word to the Badd!!” was released. Soon after, Michael showed up at Hayvenhurst unannounced. He, Jermaine, and Mom and Dad closeted themselves in the first-floor trophy room for a talk, in which Jermaine says he told Michael that he had not written the offending lyrics but had been pressured by Arista officials to stand behind them (which Arista denies). Shortly afterward, Michael departed with The Jacksons still on track.

For the most part, shooting this summer in and around Pittsburgh and L.A. went smoothly, with almost no interference from Michael. On the three days of filming at Hayvenhurst, Michael did insist on one bit of verisimilitude. ”He really wanted lions at the house,” recalls Margulies. ”I said to his people, ‘I don’t know if we can get lions.’ They said he’d take care of that. And at 3:45 that Friday, a truck drives up with a full-grown lion in a cage and a young lion on a leash (from Michael’s ranch). When Michael wants lions, he sends them!”

Jermaine had hoped to assemble his family in the Hayvenhurst theater for a reconciliatory viewing of The Jacksons, but the logistics proved too daunting. Instead, his siblings will be scattered at their various homes when the miniseries airs, with perhaps one or two joining Jermaine, Margaret, Katherine, and Joe at Hayvenhurst.

As for Michael, he has sent word to the family that he may show up. Just in case, his room upstairs, off-limits to servants, is ready and waiting.