The director of Michael Jackson’s comeback concerts was convinced six days before the pop icon’s death that the tour would not happen.
“On the 19th (of June), I had more than a serious concern,” Kenny Ortega testified. “I didn’t think it was going to go on.”
Jackson had missed “a good week” of rehearsals and the only way to reach him was through Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s death, Ortega said Tuesday, the second day of his testimony in the wrongful death trial of the concert promoter.
“We discussed that unless things changed,” they might have to “pull the plug” on the tour, the famed director and choreographer testified Wednesday, his third day on the stand.
Jackson’s mother and three children are suing AEG Live, contending the company’s executives hired, retained or supervised Murray, who admitted to police he was giving the singer nightly infusions of propofol. The coroner ruled Jackson’s June 25, 2009, death was the result of an overdose of the surgical anesthetic, which Murray said he was using to treat Jackson’s insomnia.
AEG Live lawyers argue it was Jackson who chose and controlled Murray and their executives had no way of know the dangerous treatment he was giving Jackson in the privacy of the entertainer’s bedroom.
Ortega, who had worked with Jackson on other tours and projects, testified that he would have been less likely to agree to direct “This Is It” if he had known what happened the day Jackson was to appear in London to announce the tour.
AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips testified last month that he “slapped” and “screamed” at Jackson because he was “nerve-racked” on that day, March 5, 2009. Phillips recounted that it was “a miracle” that a “drunk and despondent” Jackson finally appeared at the London event. AEG was hosting thousands of Jackson fans and hundreds of journalists for the anticipated announcement, which was to be seen live around the world.
“I screamed at him so loud the walls were shaking,” Phillips wrote to AEG parent company CEO Tim Leiweke. “Tohme (Jackson’s manager) and I have dressed him, and they are finishing his hair, and then we are rushing to the O2. This is the scariest thing I have ever seen. He’s an emotionally paralyzed mess, filled with self-loathing and doubt now that it is show time. He is scared to death. Right now I just want to get through this press conference.”
AEG Live executives did not tell Ortega about the incident when they approached him days later to direct the show, he said. He would have been “less likely” to accept the job had he known, because of his concern about how the preparation for the tour would affect Jackson emotionally and physically, he said.
Ortega worked closely with Jackson in April and May preparing for the July debut, but Jackson “was slow at growing into the show” and he began missing rehearsals in June, the director said.
After a poor rehearsal on Friday, June 13, and a missed rehearsal the next day, Ortega expressed his concern in an e-mail to AEG Live co-CEO Paul Gongaware: “Were you aware that MJ’s Doctor didn’t permit him to attend rehearsals yesterday? Are Randy and Frank (DiLeo, another Jackson manager) aware of this? Please have them stay on top of his health situation without invading MJ’s privacy. It might be a good idea to talk with his doctor to make sure everything MJ requires is in place.”
The AEG Live executives later told him they met with Murray and put him in charge of getting Jackson to rehearsals, Ortega said. The director said he was told that if he needed to know if Jackson was coming to a rehearsal, he should call the doctor. Ortega was given Murray’s cell phone number, which he said he programmed into his own phone.
After Jackson was a no-show for another week, Ortega had a 30-minute conversation with Murray.
“I was told he was creating the schedule and the schedule wasn’t working,” Ortega testified. “He was my lifeline, so to speak.” Ortega said he was venting his frustrations with Jackson and was “crying out.”
Although Jackson showed up on June 19, he was “cold, shivering” and unable to rehearse, Ortega said. “On the 19th, I had more than a serious concern. I didn’t think it was going to go on.”
With just a dozen days left for rehearsals before the touring company moved to London for the opening, Ortega testified, he was worried “that all that we had worked for together, Michael and I—this dream, this desire—was going to fall away.”
He sent a series of e-mails to AEG Live executives warning that Jackson needed “a top psychiatrist to evaluate him ASAP.”
Ortega and Murray exchanged 11 calls that next day, according to phone records.
They discussed “a plan to get the schedule in order, because it was my feeling that we weren’t going to make it,” Ortega testified.
Jackson lawyers argue that Murray was influenced by a conflict of interest, created by his arrangement with AEG Live, that influenced his decision to continue the dangerous—and eventually fatal—propofol infusions to help Jackson rest for rehearsals.
He was in $1 million in debt and had abandoned his medical practice two months earlier to serve as Jackson’s personal physician for the tour. If he failed to get Jackson to rehearsals, the shows might be postponed or canceled and he would be out of a job, the attorneys argued.
The trial, which is in its 11th week, is expected to conclude sometime in August. The Jackson lawyers said they should call their last witness next week, which would be followed by AEG Live presenting its defense.
Alan Duke | CNN News Wire