FRANKLY SPEAKING An exclusive HITS interview with Frank DiLeo
Industry vet Frank DiLeo, who was the manager of Michael Jackson from 1984 through 1989, returned to the fold to help guide the superstar through his “This Is It” concerts and presumably beyond, but it was not to be. Here, the industry veteran shares his thoughts with HITS’ own ambulance-chasing Roy Trakin.
Q. This is like Godfather III… Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in. How did you get involved with Michael again?
Michael first called me a couple of years ago, after he came back from Bahrain, then was in Ireland and Vegas for a while. We chitchatted, he called again and we started communicating about film projects. There were a couple of scripts we wanted to develop and produce. Then he got involved in this concert deal.
He called me in March and said, “Frank, I need someone with a little bit of experience. Would you like to manage me again and take care of all this stuff?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” By the time I came in, everything was signed. Dr. Thome Thome—who is someone I don’t want to talk about in this interview—had miscalculated the scheduling on the dates, which is something I had to take care of, because Michael didn’t want to perform more than twice a week.
Q. Was Michael aware that he was signing for up to 50 individual shows?
Absolutely. I read the contract. I know what the minimum amount of dates were, as well as the maximum number of dates. That contract was read to Michael by three different lawyers, as well as Dr. Thome. He wanted to beat Prince’s record and be in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was the one who picked the number 50. There were enough ticket sales to do 85 shows, but he was zeroed in on 50. That’s what he wanted and that’s what happened. Dr. Thome had him doing three or four shows a week, though. I was adjusting and moving dates to try to make it more palatable for Michael to do.
Q. What had you been doing since managing Michael the first time?
I was in New York with a management company in the ’90s. I retired for a while and spent some time with my son and daughter, seeing them through college. My kids didn’t get a lot of time with me growing up because I was on tour so much, so I felt I owed them that. And that lasted seven years. I did a lot of consulting work. I owned a piece of Tribeca Grill with Robert DeNiro, which did very well.
In 2004 I lost my eyesight, and it’s taken six operations to enable me to see. I still have limited vision. It was a diabetic condition that separated the retina. I lost complete sight in one eye and 80% in the other eye. It took two years for them to figure that out. There’s a lot of scar tissue still, and I don’t see well in light. I have to wear dark glasses all the time. I have to move my head to see certain letters because I have a permanent “V” in my vision.
Q. You sat in on most of the rehearsals.
Every single one. He was in good condition. He was working out with Lou Ferrigno. He was dancing over three hours every day after his workout. He was prepared. A lot of times he would watch and direct. These are songs he’s sung his whole life. He didn’t have to go full out every day. The last couple of weeks, he stepped it up.
On the night before he died, when he came down after doing 10 or 11 songs, Kenny Ortega was at the bottom of the stairs, we all hugged and Michael put his arm around us and we around him, to walk him to his dressing room. And he said, “Frank, I’m ready. I’m doing all 50 shows. Don’t even think that I’m not.”
We talked about possibly doing stadiums after the 50. He said, “Frank, I’ve never been happier. Since you’ve been back, things are going well. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We did it once. This is our time to do it again.” And that was the last time I saw him alive.
Q. People were saying Michael was down to 110 pounds and wasn’t in good physical shape.
No, that’s all bullish. He was not down to 110 pounds. He was around 140. At his maximum, he was maybe 155.
Q. You’re telling me this is a very confident guy, ready to take on this challenge.
He knew he was 50 and that the other dancers were young. He built his stamina up to the point where he knew he could do it. Michael’s a competitive guy.
I don’t care whether you’re five years old or 40, you’re not going to out-dance Michael Jackson. He’s gonna put it to you sooner or later. And he worked himself up to that.
Q. How did you originally hear about Michael falling ill?
A fan called and said there was an ambulance in front of Michael’s house. I had just sat down to lunch. I called Michael’s assistant and asked what was going on, and I was told there was something wrong and he was on his way over there. So I got in my car and drove over. When I got to the gate, they told me everyone had already left. I turned around and went to UCLA Medical Center, and while I was in the car, Katherine called and I told her she should meet us at the hospital.
So we went in the back, and they were working on him in the room. So I thought he was going to be OK. Then the nurse came out, she looked at me and I looked at her… I almost fainted. The look told me it was over, but they would keep working on him until his mother arrived.
Meanwhile, the kids were all there, in another room. I had to go in with a doctor and a social worker to tell them what happened. And those are two things I never, ever want to do again. Excuse me a minute, I might cry here. Let me get a sip of water.
Q. What was the children’s reaction?
Exactly what you think it would be: [they] ran up to me, grabbed me, crying and screaming. Finally, Jermaine and LaToya showed up, then Randy… And a social worker started talking to all of them. Meanwhile, I was dealing with the press, trying to keep everybody out, and set up some security.
At that point, they said the kids wanted to see their dad. So they moved Michael into a room and covered him. I went in first, got a chance to hug him, kiss him and say goodbye, and 20 minutes later, the kids and the rest of the family got to do the same thing.
Everybody forgets. Michael wasn’t just a client to me; he was my friend. I always managed him from that basis. We were friends in the ’80s, and we were friends after he fired me. We were always friends.
Q. Were you aware that Michael had a prescription drug problem?
I didn’t know. I realize it’s come out that he did go to rehab. I asked him in March about it, and he got very indignant. He said, “Frank, do you think I would do something that would jeopardize my kids and leave them alone? Don’t be ridiculous.”
So what do you say? Do addicts ever admit they’re doing drugs? No. So, I got to take the man’s word. He’s 50 years old. How far could I push him? I never heard of the stuff he supposedly took [propofol]. When I heard about that on TV, I couldn’t believe it.
Q. Do you have any opinion about the two doctors under investigation, Dr. Arnold Klein and Dr. Conrad Murray?
Michael’s gone to Dr. Klein for years. I don’t know how Michael met Dr. Murray. Michael brought him up to me when he mentioned that part of his contract required AEG to hire him a doctor to be with him in London, and he specified he wanted Dr. Murray, claiming he was his family doctor. The original price he asked for was outrageous. I told Michael I could buy him a whole hospital for that kind of money.
Q. The press reports said AEG was paying him $150k a month.
That’s what I OK’d. What he originally asked for was astronomical. AEG did not hire the doctor. That was Michael’s doctor for months. AEG just advanced him the payment, which was part of the budget.
I had one meeting with him, making sure Michael had the right vitamins, what kind of smoothies to make, should it be G2 or Gatorade after the show? He told us he was a cardiologist, and I said, “Michael, this is perfect. Because I’ve already had three heart attacks and I have seven stents in my heart. If I drop over in London, this guy’s right there.”
Q. Dr. Murray was the last man to see Michael Jackson alive.
He was, yes. Nobody knows what happened in that room. We have to wait for the toxicology and the autopsy. I do know the preliminary autopsy said Michael’s organs were in good shape, his liver was good, his heart was strong. They said he did not have a heart attack. It had to be some sort of allergic reaction or something that didn’t blend right. There was some sort of reaction.
Q. Where does that leave you at this point?
There are a few things that have to get cleared up. I have to make sure the estate understands some of the things that I know. I’ve been appointed to the board of Sony/ATV Music Publishing. So I have a role to play there.
Michael wrote the letter getting me appointed. After they removed Dr. Thome, they added myself and Joel Katz.
Q. Does it sadden you to see how the family’s inner disagreements are now being aired in public?
It’s sad to the point that there’s a lot of misinformation. The family didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t see Michael every day like I did. He was the closest to his mother and his kids. But I gave him that personal space to be with his family.
Some of them are talking about things I don’t think they have the knowledge to talk about. That’s just emotion. They have to face the facts and make some decisions.
Q. What was Michael’s relationship like with his father?
Joe was his father, and that’s what Michael wanted. He didn’t want to know about any business. He just wanted him to be his father. He wanted to be loved as a son, not a commodity.
Q. Did he ever get that?
I don’t know. Watch the Larry King interview with Joe Jackson and you make that determination. It was a train wreck.
Q. You must still be in a state of shock.
Michael created one of the greatest shows ever, a $27 million production. I went through it with him every day. It’s sad that people will never get to see that. But the key thing here is that I lost my friend. That’s what matters to me. All this other stuff is what it is.
Q. Where is your nickname “Tookie” come from?
That’s derived from the name “Tookie.” The chief of police in Pittsburgh came to see my dad when I was born and called me that. Then it became “Tukkie” when I met my wife. Everybody I know from childhood calls me “Tookie.”
For everybody after I met my wife, it’s “Tukkie.” We’ve been married for 32 years. I’m the only guy in the record business who’s never had to go to rehab or get a divorce.