It was a scene that moved even Marcel Marceau to words. On Dec. 6, the celebrated mime was inside New York City's Beacon Theater preparing for his appearance on HBO's Dec. 9 special Michael Jackson: One Night Only, when the King of Pop suddenly went flat. ''He was so full of energy, in absolutely wonderful condition,'' said Marceau, who turned away for a moment ''and heard silence. Everything stopped. I looked and he was on the floor.''
After he was rushed to Manhattan's Beth Israel North Hospital, Jackson's family doctors said he was suffering from a viral infection, irregular heartbeat, and acute dehydration. But that might not have been all that was ailing him.
EW has learned that the days leading up to his fainting spell were not exactly thrillers. ''He was discouraged that the city didn't open its arms up to him,'' says a source close to the concert. Unlike the Romanian city of Bucharest, which practically shut down when Jackson taped an HBO special there in 1992, the singer was allegedly miffed that New Yorkers hadn't rolled out the red carpet. ''He wanted to close down streets. He wanted the concert to be broadcast in Times Square [on the Sony Jumbotron], and since the screen has no sound, he wanted Sony to hand out free radios,'' says the source. While a spokeswoman for the mayor's office denies being contacted about such showand traffic-stopping events, she adds, ''I would be surprised if they would close down Times Square for him, or anyone, for that matter.''
Equally problematic was the concert's location. The 2,800-seat Beacon is a charming but somewhat shabby venue. And size matters. According to a witness, Jackson's lighting system was too strong for the small stage. Its intensity was hazardous to crew members and forced Jackson to limit his dancing to a small portion of the stage.
Until recently, Jackson might not have tolerated such plebeian working conditions. But sales of his greatest-hits package, HIStory, are not what they should be, and the concert was most likely being staged to juice flagging CD sales. Could a sudden illness do the same? Jackson's media-hungry sister La Toya told the press she thought her brother's fainting spell was a publicity stunt. An associate of Jackson's disagrees: ''At first, I thought Michael was faking [it], but there must have been something wrong for him to cancel. He needed this to sell records.'' In light of this theory, a rumor that Jackson dropped to the floor in solidarity with his friend, displaced HBO and Warner Music Group chairman Michael Fuchs, seems equally off-the-wall. But if Jackson's aim was payback, he accomplished his goal. The 11th-hour cancellation forced HBO to fill the airtime with an umpteenth running of The Specialist and ruffled many feathers. HBO's official response has been one of concern for Jackson's health, but as one exec put it, ''All everyone is thinking about here is the money we spent and the advertising we did.''
New York media analyst Porter Bibb agrees HBO has taken a hit, but thinks the real loser is Jackson. Despite assurances that the concert will be rescheduled most likely sometime this spring, the singer has missed a golden opportunity to reclaim the throne. ''Jackson has run out of gas,'' Bibb says. ''He may have seen his day as the King of Pop.''
(Additional reporting by A.J. Jacobs and Jessica Shaw)