The halftime show for Super Bowl XXVI, in 1992, was legendarily awful – and not just because of the grotesque, striped sweater Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano wore while declaring, with Dorothy Hamill at his side, "It's winter magic!" Kids in MC Hammer pants rapped about Frosty the Snowman; a dude on stilts was inexplicably given seven of television's most valuable seconds to wave to the camera. You could practically hear viewers changing channels to Fox' In Living Color halftime special, which beat CBS' official halftime show in the ratings. Something had to be done. Something big.
Michael Jackson big.
By 1993, MJ's brand of dance music was slipping out of pop culture, as grunge, alternative rock and hip-hop were ascending. The King of Pop was halfway through the Dangerous tour, playing stadiums around the world, but he was 10 years removed from Thriller and needed a pop-culture revival. He agreed to an interview with Oprah Winfrey – still one of Oprah's highest-rated shows ever – and said yes when the NFL asked him to play the 1993 halftime show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
He had conditions, of course. He wanted to do his newish ballad "Heal the World" for the entirety of the 12-minute performance. He wanted 3,500 "volunteer fans" to surround the stage, providing an MJ-in-concert experience rather than a bathroom break for rich, beer-drinking football fans in the stadium. And he wanted Don Mischer, the show's producer, to sit in the production truck, directing the performance in real time, even though NBC, the Super Bowl's new network, had its own people and didn't appreciate the meddling.
"Michael wasn't too aware of the Super Bowl. He wasn't too aware of how big this was," recalls Arlen Kantarian, the show's executive producer. "He just said, 'Why don't we call it the Thriller Bowl?'"
Jackson did not win every argument. The Super Bowl was still the Super Bowl. Producers talked him into performing a medley of his hits – "Billie Jean," "We Are the World" and the newish "Jam" and "Black or White" – in addition to an elaborate show-closing version of "Heal the World." But they agreed to let thousands of children file up the steps and onto the stage during the finale, and they agreed to let Mischer co-produce the halftime show in the booth along with NBC's longtime game producer.
MJ brought his own band and dancers to perform on a set that weighed 12 tons and had to be built quickly from 26 separate pieces – without damaging the turf for the second half. Producers arranged for 275 people to do the job in less than six minutes.
A few days before the game, Jackson and crew had rehearsed in a tent outside the Rose Bowl. "We all knew, just by reading, about how Michael is a perfectionist," Kantarian says. "But to see how he repeated the same choreography, 12, 14, 16 times, was just incredible." Jackson's choreographer, Vince Paterson, tried to convince him to try new moves for the show, but MJ didn't want to complicate things. "That was one of the little points of contention between us for that project," Paterson recalls. "I kept saying, 'But Michael, we've already done this,' and he kept saying, 'But everybody will love it!'"
When MJ arrived on stage, he was jittery. "That's the only time I ever felt that Michael was nervous – because that's a hell of a lot of pressure. If something goes wrong, that's forever," says Jennifer Batten, his lead guitarist at the time. "He was a little scatterbrained."
Jackson had been opening shows on the Dangerous tour by launching eight feet into the air, from a machine known as the toaster, then holding a pose in his navy-and-gold military jacket and sunglasses as the crowd roared. "He said, 'Don't queue the music to start, or anything else, until I break my wrist. I'm gonna feel it. I'm gonna feel it,'" Mischer recalls. "So he bops out of the toaster, and 20 seconds go by. Thirty seconds go by. It is now feeling like an eternity. His fans are screaming, but he just doesn't give me the cue. ... It got down to me saying, 'Come on, Michael! Jesus Christ!' It finally came down to a minute and 35 seconds – that's like $15 million worth of advertising time."
Everything went right – even "Heal the World," one of Jackson's most mawkish songs, justified its extended performance with an elaborate stunt, in which the entire crowd turned over cards to reveal giant cartoons of children holding hands. With MJ, the Super Bowl graduated from what Kantarian calls "a college marching band or Up with People" to big-time pop stars from Beyoncé to Prince and Bruce Springsteen. And it was one of the final times Jackson was fully in command of his own image and career – months later, a child would accuse him of molestation, charges Jackson fought, then settled. "He was a gentle, quiet man," Mischer says. "But when he stepped onstage, he became a general."