Frank Dileo, a 5’2″ man with a bountiful belly, sat at the top of the 30-foot Banzai Boggan water roller coaster at Wet’n Wild in Orlando, blinking like a Buddha suddenly robbed of its serenity.
“C’mon, Uncle Tookie, c’mon down!” implored Michael Jackson from below.
Tookie giggled nervously; already he missed his cigar. Hadn’t he known that being Jackson’s manager meant being a barracuda in a three-piece suit one moment and a babe in bathing trunks the next? Hadn’t he left the 9-to-5 world because he yearned for new challenges?
“TOO-KIE, TOO-KIE,” Michael chanted impatiently.
Dileo repositioned his rump on the raft, closed his eyes, grabbed the sides of the chute with his two beefy arms and launched himself downward. The first half was exhilarating, but suddenly Uncle Tookie was hydroplaning, half in control, half out. It was kind of like managing Michael Jackson during the Victory tour.
His arms flailed, his ears caught Michael’s cackle, his body pitched headfirst toward the pool below. Geronimoooooooo…
9 a.m.: Dileo awakens in Philadelphia. It is not a typical morning on the Jackson tour. No 12-year-old girl has roused him from four hours’ sleep with a phone call or rap on the door, looking for Michael.
Ever since he agreed to manage Jackson last March, life has been one long red alert. He is the man at the neck of the funnel, the point through which everyone and everything trying to reach Jackson has to flow. And the deeper Jackson burrows into his own private world, the more he needs a man like Dileo to confront ours.
Another odd thing about this morning: His wife Linda, 36, is in the room. Since he took the job, she and the two kids had become strangers; the children had even refused to speak to him on the phone. He could tell Michael felt badly about it. Every few days the singer would ask, “Did you call home, Uncle Tookie? Did you tell your kids you love them today?”
Finally Dileo invited both children to Jacksonville, Fla. the third weekend of the tour, and the little varmints nearly drove him up a wall, sliding across the dance floor in Michael’s suite, knocking over a vase, starting pillow fights. Little Dominick even told two security guards they were fired.
Tookie—he has been called Tookie ever since he was a small boy, but no one can remember why—believes strongly in two things: eating and family. Each Sunday, before his recent move to Los Angeles, there were long, laugh-filled meals with all the relatives back in Wellsville, Ohio, near Pittsburgh, and each week-night aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces gathered on his back porch. “But after Jacksonville,” says his wife, “no more kids on the tour for Tookie.”
He gets out of bed, yanks a pink polo shirt over that big belly, steps into baggy black-felt designer warm-up pants and monogrammed blue-suede slippers, fetches his Porsche sunglasses and fires up a $3 cigar. “I pride myself on breaking every budget,” he says. He makes a few phone calls just to get going, then heads downstairs with his wife for a hearty breakfast.
11:30 a.m.! A Disney World hotel cap tugged over his slick wavy hair, Dileo walks down the Franklin Plaza Hotel’s secret back route to the vans. “Whew,” he jokes, going past the kitchen garbage cans, “smells like my last 10 dates.”
“Let’s went,” he barks at the driver, and spends the drive to Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium—where he must check on preparations for this night’s concert—doing imitations of Richard Pryor: “I knew yo’ mama when she was a ‘ho.’ ” Dileo’s bodyguard, an old friend named Vince Ionada from the Italian neighborhood in Pittsburgh where Tookie’s dad owned a tavern and restaurant, chuckles in the back seat. Dileo decided even he needed a bodyguard as the death threats mounted during the tour.
At the stadium he checks sight lines, the Jacksons’ dressing room, security precautions, claps crew members on the back to boost morale. “You’re ugly too,” he greets each one with a grin.
“I look at everything as being funny,” he says. Sometimes he tells Jackson his zipper’s down, or that he has just ordered fried chicken for him from room service, or sings Born to Run so off-key Michael runs for cover. Jackson does not quite seem a guffaw kind of guy, but the day he hired Dileo, he revealed his shrewdness. The cigar-smoking, steak-eating, wine-drinking, blunt-speaking little man was just the balancing weight the shy, skinny vegetarian needed. The more extreme Michael became, the more he coveted his converse in Dileo.
Negotiations between them had dragged on for eight months before Dileo agreed to terms in March. “I was surprised at how tough a businessman Mike was, and then I figured it out,” says the 37-year-old manager. “He demanded I work with him exclusively the first part of the contract; he knew the tour and a movie were coming up. He had the contract written so the guaranteed part was enough to interest me, and the incentive part was enough to keep me motivated.”
Jackson dreams big; Tookie craves big dreams. Last fall, after his marketing strategy had helped whip four singles from Thriller into the Top 5 and he’d introduced 12 acts in one year as vice-president of CBS’ Epic Records, he searched his mind for a new challenge. “Hey,” he thought, “why not get an audience with the Pope?” Four months of finagling later, he was chatting with John Paul II in the Vatican.
“Now Michael’s going to do a movie after the tour,” he says, “and it’s going to be the best and biggest-grossing movie with the best-selling sound track ever. My plan is to keep him as popular and in demand as anyone can be.”
Does he worry about what effect that might have on Jackson, the person?
“If he didn’t want it, he’d say, ‘Cool it.’ It’s too late, anyway. He won’t have a normal life even if I stop. I can’t worry about him living in the capsule—I’m in the capsule with him. I don’t think he’s lonely…but he does call me 82 times a day.”
Sometimes Jackson wanders into Dileo’s room while Tookie’s working and goes through all his mail, or wanders into his L.A. office and goes through every drawer. Sometimes the two just sit and watch reruns of The Honeymooners.
1:30 p.m.: Dileo uses the wooden doorstop he carries in his suitcase to wedge his hotel room door open. Fat Pat and Spider and Skeets and The Rat—the old pals he kisses on the cheek and eats five-hour meals with back in Pittsburgh—aren’t around, but he still wants folks in the entourage to mosey on in. “Some people collect stray cats; I collect stray people,” he says.
He digs a 20-foot telephone wire from his bag and attaches it to the hotel phone so he can pace. “I’m smarter than the average bear,” he crows. “We’re rolling now, brother, we’re in action. Hey, Vince, go check for my messages.” In New York he left his room for four hours to see Jackson perform. There were 187 messages when he returned.
He sets games of Monopoly and checkers on the bureau “in case Mike gets bored and wants to play.”
“Underneath all that macho Frank’s very sensitive, and I think that’s why he and Mike are so good together,” says Linda Dileo. A few weeks after they married in 1976, Dileo slept in a hospital waiting room for a month while his wife slept in a bed next to her dying mother.
The phone in his hotel room is ringing incessantly now. The red message light blinks crazily. Old friends call for tickets. A man calls wanting to book Jackson in Trinidad. Funny, but not nearly as good as the man who called recently with a plan to have Jackson do a live concert in five years—from outer space. No fantasy gets dismissed. “Call me in five years,” Dileo told the man.
Cheese steaks from Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philly are brought into the room. He wolfs his so fast he’s hiccuping halfway through. His wife allows the phone to ring twice before seizing it. “Get that,” he growls. God, how he’d love to plop by the pool, but now a three-hour meeting with promoter Chuck Sullivan and the Jacksons’ lawyers looms.
Another call. “I object. I’m ready to make a stand,” he snaps into the phone. “Meet me right now in Nance’s room.”
“This is trouble,” he says as he waddles from the room, leaving two badly chewed stogies in his wake.
10:55 p.m.: More than 100,000 hands sway in the air to I’ll Be There at JFK Stadium. One of them bears a gold ring and a cigar. It is the 26th time he’s seen the concert, but the little boy in Dileo that Jackson has helped coax back to the surface is not easy to muffle. He likes the idea of a second childhood; the first one was snipped at age 16 when his dad died on an operating table without any medical insurance. Suddenly the kid who wanted to be mayor of Pittsburgh found himself busing restaurant tables to help settle debts that would not be paid off for four years.
Instead of college he got a job selling records for a small company, and his flair with people sent him on an upward ricochet through the recording industry. Then, six years ago, as he attended the funeral of his wife’s grandmother, his home burned down. It was underinsured, and he was financially flattened again.
He took a job at Epic Records, worked longer and partied harder than anyone, had limo drivers wait in the driveway while he grabbed three hours’ sleep at his Connecticut home, and became the vice-president who brainstormed the more than 37-million album sales of Thriller. Jackson couldn’t help but notice.
“This proves America works,” Dileo says sincerely. “But if I get really wealthy from this, I only want one luxury—a real snobby English valet, one who gets irritated every time I light a cigar or put on the wrong outfit or drop a rigatoni on the floor, just so I can laugh at him.”
In the middle of the concert’s last song he shepherds his wife, his sister-in-law’s family and five other guests from their seats to a van waiting behind the stage. Tookie revels in the Godfather role, caretaker of every need in the cosmos.
The brothers rush offstage and into their van, and the police-escorted motorcade races for the exit. A car blocks their path, and during the delay fans identify Michael and storm his van, pounding on the windows. “Look at that!” says Dileo, his hand reaching for a door handle. The bottleneck breaks, the vans zip free. “I’ll look into that,” he says gravely. “I’ll follow that up with security tonight.
Out of nowhere, on the ride back, he says, “You know, it kills me when people say those things about Michael, about him being gay or having surgery on his eyes and cheekbones, or that he’s taking female hormones. I’m really considering suing. Frankie Valli sang higher for 20 years, and they never said anything about him.” There is a child’s naïveté, a How can they do this to us? tone to his voice that is as surprising in him as is the shrewdness in Michael.
12:15 a.m.: Tookie goes to Jackson’s suite to make sure everything’s okay. Michael reaches into Dileo’s pocket, removes $4,000, tosses it into the bathtub and starts to turn on the water. Tookie tackles him on the bed to get the money back. It is almost as much fun as the time Michael tossed Tookie’s cash out a car window, or the day he coiled his pet boa constrictor, Muscles, around Dileo and watched him flee Michael’s mansion in horror.
Midnight to 3 a.m. is the time Dileo and Jackson usually spend discussing business and receiving special guests. One night in Dallas, it was a 9-year-old boy who had a brain tumor and spinal cancer, rushed up to Michael’s room on a stretcher. Dileo turned away in tears when the boy weakly reached up with a gloved hand to touch his idol, but then Tookie once more saw in Jackson the sinew beneath the satin. “Don’t feel sad, don’t cry,” he told Dileo. “This is why I’m here.”
On this night there is no pathos in Jackson’s suite, only laughter. Two more boxes of cheese steaks materialize. Tookie squats like Yogi Berra over a low bureau and polishes off one thick with onions.
“Oh, I can’t believe all this; I wish this day was starting all over,” sighs his sister-in-law, Patti, still exhilarated after the evening’s events.
“Hey, every day is like this,” Dileo says with wonderful nonchalance, as he comes out of his catcher’s crouch to grab a second huge sandwich.
He grins and annihilates it. Hey, it’s all part of the job. Whenever he accidentally loses a few pounds, the skinny vegetarian tells him he prefers him to stay fat.