My father loves to brag to his friends that while his son is a big-shot Hollywood reporter, it was his father who actually met Michael Jackson. Until he retired a few years ago, my dad had a store called the 24 Collection on the Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach that specialized in fashion, jewelry, art and one-of-a-kind oddities (I still have a clock set into a Cuban cigar box with a portrait of Fidel Castro on the clock face). One day Brett Ratner, who grew up in Miami and whose mother was a regular customer at the store, called my dad and asked if he could bring his pal Michael Jackson by to look around. As he often did as a courtesy for celebrities who might be annoyed or hounded, my father closed the store that afternoon and put the staff at Jackson's disposal.
"Michael walked around every inch of the store, feeling things, smelling things," my father remembers. "He'd ask questions about what this was or that was, where it was from, how we found it. I made sure the staff didn't intrude on him, although one person did ask for an autograph, which made them an ex-employee right away. But Michael was just off in his own world, curious about everything he saw."
I think my dad got his hopes up when he saw that Jackson was also accompanied by an aide who had a zippered envelope full of cash. But the King of Pop never bought anything. After spending an hour in the store, he just thanked everyone for letting him look around and left.
I called Ratner this morning to ask him how he became such fast friends with Jackson. It turns out that they met in 1998 when Ratner was finishing his first "Rush Hour" picture. One day, Chris Tucker was doing a scene and broke into a wild, Michael Jackson-style dance. The sequence was so funny that when Ratner had test screenings of the film, it got one of the biggest laughs in the picture. But because it was an obvious Jackson impression, Ratner knew he had to clear it with the pop star before he could put it in the movie
That presented a problem, since Jackson was so reclusive that even Ratner, one of the great celebrity schmoozers of our time, couldn't get to him. He even called Jackson's Neverland ranch but never got anywhere. Then he got lucky. "My editor was talking to the projectionist who ran the final screening and it turned out that he was Michael's personal projectionist," Ratner told me today. "So I gave him the print and asked him to play the beginning of the second reel for Michael, which had Chris' dance in it."
Two days later Ratner picked up the phone and heard the soft, feathery voice of Michael Jackson. So what did Michael say? Keep reading.
"Michael said he'd watched the whole movie and loved it, especially the scene Chris did with his dance. He said, 'You have my permission to use whatever you want.' " That was great, but Ratner needed something in writing. When he asked Jackson to sign something on a piece of paper, Jackson simply invited him up to the ranch. "So I drove up there and walked in, with all his giraffes and other animals, all out there to greet me." Ratner recalls. "I ended up staying at the ranch and we just became great friends. We both had this huge, almost childlike fascination with movies and music and all kinds of entertainment."
Over the years, Ratner and Jackson spent an enormous amount of time together. They would film each other, with Jackson asking Ratner about how he became a film director and Ratner asking Jackson about how he became an entertainer. "I have hours of footage of us, sitting around in our pajamas, with me asking him about what kind of music he loved as a kid, what kind of books he had on the wall as a kid. When you were with him, you really felt like God was within him. He was an amazing, superhuman kind of person, but he always treated you as an equal. He would be your friend and he never asked for anything in return."
One of their favorite activities was to have dance-offs in the game room at Jackson's house. Jackson would put on a record, usually a song by his sister, Janet, and unleash some awesome dance moves. Then Ratner or Chris Tucker, who would sometimes come along, would play Michael's records and dance along to them. I asked Ratner if that felt a little like a mere mortal playing one-on-one with LeBron James. "Hey, I wasn't self-conscious. I'm a pretty good dancer. It was just fun to do it together."
When they weren't dancing, Ratner and Jackson would watch movies together. He says they must've watched the original version of "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" 50 times over the years. "I know that people looked at Michael and thought he was strange, but to me, he was fascinating," Ratner says. "He was the most inspirational person in my life. His one dream was to cure all the sick children in the world. And when I'd say, 'Isn't that impossible?' Michael would just start to cry. He was very emotional about things that moved him. I guess you'd have to say he was a pure innocent in a world that wasn't so innocent anymore."