While his personal life was a perpetual source of controversy and speculation, singer, songwriter, and entertainer Michael Jackson (1958-2009) had an unchallenged run as the most successful recording artist of the 20th century. According to Billboard, Jackson has sold more than one billion albums. (Thriller, his most successful venture, moved more than 100 million copies alone.)
Jackson, however, harbored ambitions beyond creating music. Throughout his career, the musician made several attempts to become a movie star. Owing to his distinctive appearance and persona, disappearing into a role was an uphill battle—though he continued to pursue it, even taking acting lessons from longtime friend Marlon Brando. In honor of what would have been Jackson's 60th birthday, take a look at seven projects the singer tried his best to get involved in.
1. WILLY WONKA // CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)
When Jackson learned Warner Bros. had hired Tim Burton to reimagine Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—which had been previously filmed with Gene Wilder in 1971—the singer became so preoccupied with being considered for the role of eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka that he recorded a soundtrack to surprise studio executives. Although they loved the music, no one was behind the idea of casting him as Wonka. When they offered to pay an exorbitant sum for the soundtrack and give him a small supporting part, an offended Jackson dropped out of participating entirely. The role eventually went to Johnny Depp, who denied he based his portrayal on Jackson.
2. SPIDER-MAN // SPIDER-MAN (2002)
For years, Jackson had attempted to acquire Marvel Comics, which was experiencing financial issues in the late 1990s and had even filed for bankruptcy in 1996. In 1999, Jackson met with writer Stan Lee to discuss the possibility of an acquisition—though Lee had no direct involvement with Marvel at the time—and to get Lee’s thoughts on the potential for Jackson starring as Spider-Man in a feature film. According to Lee, Jackson felt buying the company would be the only way he’d get the part.
Jackson was unable to gather the financing needed to buy Marvel; Sony produced a Spider-Man feature in 2002 with Tobey Maguire. Curiously, Jackson also lobbied to be Professor Xavier in Fox’s 2000 adaptation of X-Men.
3. UNNAMED MIME // STREET DANDY
In 1984, Jackson was circling a script by Flashdance writer Tom Hedley titled Street Dandy, a musical about a New York café where a group of aspiring performers congregate. The “street dandy,” People magazine explained, was a mime and “fashion sensation." In 1987, producer Lynda Obst said the project was dead because the role was “too fanciful” for the singer. 1978’s The Wiz remains the only feature musical Jackson ever starred in.
4. PETER PAN // HOOK (1991)
Jackson, who had long been obsessed with the idea of flying, took a special interest in Peter Pan, author J.M. Barrie’s boy who never grew up. According to director Steven Spielberg, Jackson was close to being cast as Pan in Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook, which examined Pan’s life as a world-weary adult who discovers the young man he used to be. That twist was apparently disagreeable with Jackson, who didn’t envision a revisionist Pan in the same way Spielberg did. The role went to Robin Williams.
5. QUASIMODO // THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Jackson was so infatuated with the Victor Hugo story about deformed cathedral occupant Quasimodo and his love for a street dancer that he screened the 1939 film adaptation countless times. Screenwriter Tom Hedley recalled that he and Jackson spent many nights discussing the possibility of Jackson taking over the role of the hunchback. The project never got off the ground; Hugo’s story was later the basis for a 1996 Disney animated feature.
6. JAR JAR BINKS // STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)
The critically maligned Star Wars prequel took a particular drubbing over computer-generated comic relief Jar Jar Binks. According to motion-capture actor Ahmed Best, who was recalling the controversy surrounding the role for a Vice interview in 2015, Jackson had petitioned director George Lucas for the role. “[Lucas] said, ‘Well, Michael wanted to do the part but he wanted to do it in prosthetics and makeup like Thriller,” Best said. “George wanted to do it in CGI. My guess is ultimately Michael Jackson would have been bigger than the movie, and I don't think [Lucas] wanted that.”
Jackson’s closest brush with a major starring role came in 1991, when Sony Pictures was actively developing a film titled MidKnight. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sony was heavily invested in the action-adventure film with an undisclosed plot rumored to involve a boy who can transform into a dancing knight at 12 a.m. Oscar-winning production designer Anton Furst (Full Metal Jacket, Batman) was rumored to be the studio’s choice for a director. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson told Vice in 2009 that part of the appeal for the studio was the idea that, as a knight, Jackson’s face would be obscured by a helmet for most of the running time.
The project was part of a contract Jackson had signed with Sony, which also included projects like Jack and the Beanstalk. Owing to the negative publicity surrounding Jackson at the time, none of the proposed ideas ever got off the ground. During a meeting to discuss his film opportunities, Jackson allegedly "inexplicably placed his head on the table and began to cry uncontrollably.”
All images courtesy of Getty.