Carl Arlington
February 13, 1984 12:00 PM

Michael Jackson had been shot. That was the first reaction of those nearby when he grabbed the back of his head and screamed. It was not a bullet wound that made him scream, though it was almost as bad: Jackson’s head was on fire.

This live thriller unfolded last week before thousands of stunned fans at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, where Michael, 25, and his musical brothers were filming a Pepsi commercial. It happened during one of the last scenes after four hectic days of shooting under the direction of video wizard Bob Giraldi. Giraldi had ordered another take of the flashy gala opening sequence. Amid brilliant illumination, Michael appeared at the top of a stairway and began his dazzling dancing descent to the floor, where the remaining Jacksons were lined up.

About halfway down, he felt something hot but figured it was just the klieg lights. Pyrotechnical special effects were flashing around him as he pirouetted to a fizzy version of Billie Jean. Suddenly there was a jolt of pain and he cried out. The first to respond was Miko Brando, 22, Marlon’s son and a Jackson security aide. “I tore out, hugged him, tackled him and ran my hands through his hair,” reports Brando, who burned his own fingers in the process. Within seconds the fire was extinguished and Michael was surrounded by a crowd of bodyguards, Jacksons and technicians. A quick-thinking fan grabbed a handful of ice, borrowed a T-shirt to make a cold compress and applied it to the wound. A few minutes later paramedics arrived and whisked Michael away to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The accident occurred just after 6 p.m. and early bulletins on the local news reported that Jackson had been “severely burned and was in serious condition.” In fact, thanks to the emergency ice treatment, he was alert enough to tell the ambulance attendants that he wanted to keep his trademark jeweled glove on when he was wheeled into the hospital. The medical staff checked his vital signs and inspected the wound. The fire had scorched a palm-sized second-degree burn on his crown which surrounded a third-degree burn about the size of the hole in a 45-rpm record. An antiseptic cream (silver sulfadiazine) was applied, and Jackson was offered a painkiller, which he at first refused because of his disdain for narcotics. He later accepted an analgesic.

Word of the accident quickly reached Dr. Steven Hoefflin, Jackson’s personal physician and plastic surgeon, who rushed to Cedars-Sinai. “It was quite a shock for Michael, and when I got there he was in a daze,” reports Hoefflin. “After I examined him and told him he would be fine, he felt a lot better.” Hoefflin, who once cosmetically reshaped Jackson’s nose, decided to move his famous patient across town for treatment at the Burn Center of the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City. Accompanied by his parents, his brother Randy, two bodyguards and Hoefflin, Michael arrived at about 8:15 p.m. Once settled in room 3307, he became the patient of nurse Kathy McGrath, 29, who recalls that “he was still pretty shaken up and cold, so we put about five blankets on him.”

Soon fans began congregating at the hospital and crowding into the emergency room waiting area. Switch-boards were flooded with calls and six staff volunteers handled the jammed phone lines. Security throughout the hospital was beefed up and a guard placed at every entrance to the burn unit. “Practically everybody who works in the hospital found some excuse to visit the floor,” says Burn Center supervisor Pat Lavalas.

Michael, meanwhile, was making a fast recovery. Within a few hours he was asking for a videotape player. Because staffers did not have the key to the cabinet where the hospital video equipment was kept, they broke the padlock to get the machine and found an assortment of about 10 tapes for Jackson. He selected Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by his friend Steven Spielberg, and stayed awake watching it until 1 a.m. Then, after being given a sleeping pill, he had a restful night.

Michael awoke to a breakfast of fruit and juice and a tidal wave of messages from friends and fans. Diana Ross called. So did Liza Minnelli. Jackson’s favorite among the hundreds of telegrams was one from a girl that said, “I heard you were hot, Michael, but this is ridiculous.”

By the time Hoefflin arrived the next day, Jackson had watched American Bandstand on TV and, according to one nurse, “was bebopping in bed while the doctors examined him.”

Instead of a typical hospital gown, he had adorned himself in a turquoise scrub outfit. The nurses also fashioned a head bandage that could be camouflaged with a macramé hat. “You’re going to start a new wave here in 1984—the net look,” nurse Jan Virgil told Michael. “He laughed and said he wanted to look French.”

Jackson had been to the Burn Center previously, visiting patients there on two occasions. Only last month, in fact, Jackson called on Keith Perry, a 23-year-old mechanic who had suffered third-degree burns on 95 percent of his body. Perry had just undergone his 14th operation when Michael arrived and was placed in an adjoining room. Another severely burned patient with whom he had been in frequent contact was 41-year-old seamstress Bessie Henderson. “Bessie had gone through many operations and was very depressed,” reports Hoefflin, who is also her plastic surgeon. “When Michael started calling she turned around and now she is doing a lot better.”

Some of the patients were unaware they had a celebrity in their midst until Michael, wearing white socks and a single white sequined glove, made his rounds, visiting Keith, Bessie and the other six patients in the burn unit. One of the patients could not believe that he had actually been visited by Michael Jackson, so the singer returned to prove that it wasn’t just a dream. Another patient wanted to know why Jackson wore the glove. “This way,” he explained, “I am never offstage.” With the consent of his doctor, Michael decided after less than a day to check out of the hospital and continue treatment as an outpatient.

Accompanied by his entourage and sporting a black fedora and hospital whites over street clothes, Michael was taken to a private car in a wheelchair. On his way, he stopped to have his picture taken with several visitors. “He’s going to be bigger than Elvis Presley,” said a woman in her 50s. “Bigger than who?” chirped one of the preteens who had flocked around.

Nearly all of the Burn Center staff got their souvenirs, as their famous patient posed for snapshots and signed cassettes, Thriller albums and 8 x 10 glossies. And though Jackson did not dance, Hoefflin knew that wouldn’t last for long. “Telling Michael not to dance,” said the surgeon, “is like telling him not to breathe.”

Jackson plans to attend the mega-party that CBS and Epic Records are throwing in his honor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York this week, and he ought to be back in full gear by the time the Grammy awards (he’s nominated for a dozen) roll around Feb. 28. “Michael is healthy and in good shape,” says Hoefflin. “That will make for a speedy recovery.” It’s too early to judge if he will need any reconstructive surgery.

The exact cause of the accident at the Shrine Auditorium has yet to be determined. Eyewitnesses say it was a spark from one of the special lighting effects that ignited his hair. “Michael was exhausted when it happened,” says Hoefflin. “It came at the end of a week when he was trying to film the commercial, make plans for a major national tour and finish an album with his brothers.”

So far there has been no lawsuit, though the Jacksons and Pepsi executives have been carefully reviewing the film of the incident to determine if there was negligence. The sponsorship deal with Pepsi for two commercials is reportedly the most lucrative celebrity endorsement deal in history, guaranteeing the Jacksons at least $5 million. The family had to be nudged into the deal because, according to one insider, endorsing a product “isn’t a decision every artist could be comfortable with immediately.”

Although it will be a decidedly less lucrative undertaking, Michael also plans an autobiography. And for this, he will have the help of the most celebrated editor in publishing: Jackie Onassis. Mrs. O was first introduced to Mr. J several years ago at a Kennedy function in New York; both Caroline and John Jr. have been fans since the singer’s Jackson Five days. Jackie and Michael met again last October in California—this time, says Jackson aide Steve Manning, “to really get to know each other.”

Two weeks ago Jackie’s firm, Doubleday, announced a $300,000-plus deal with Jackson—and named Jackie as his editor. Michael’s memoirs, which will contain around 200 photos from his private collection, is due out in the spring of 1985. Jackson is also set to star in a new film of Peter Pan with Spielberg directing. The tour, meanwhile, is scheduled to begin this May with the kick-off possibly in the Jacksons’ old hometown, Gary, Ind. The concert may be broadcast internationally.

Not that Jackson needs the extra exposure. The Guinness Book of World Records recently stopped the presses on its latest paperback edition to cite Michael’s 23-million-copy Thriller as the biggest-selling solo LP of all time. He also continues to break sales records with his sixth single, Thriller‘s title cut, and his “Say Say Say” duet with Paul McCartney remains at the top of the charts. All of this is mere statistical evidence of Michael’s extraordinary fan appeal, a mystique now enhanced by a near tragedy. “I would be willing to break my arm,” said 14-year-old Tyrone Davis, one of the faithful who kept vigil outside the hospital, “just to be in the emergency room with Michael.” Not to be outdone, Davis’ sidekick, John Thomas, 13, boasted, “That’s nothing. I would break my neck.”

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