A Superlawyer Returns, a Pop Icon Dies — a Will Is Discovered
In death, Michael Jackson once again is getting the most out of Branca, highlighted by a record-setting $275 million in first-year posthumous earnings
Part 5: A Superlawyer Returns, a Pop Icon Dies
At around 7 o’clock one evening during the third week of June 2009, John Branca arrived in Michael Jackson’s dressing room at L.A.’s Fabulous Forum, where rehearsals were under way for the performer’s “This Is It” concert.
It was their first meeting in three years. They immediately hugged, before Branca handed Jackson a letter to be signed, formally rehiring the superlawyer.
It was an abrupt reunion after a bitter split — and just days before the show business legend died.
It was also the culmination of a 30-year-odyssey of unmatched highs and darkest lows, during which Jackson had cultivated deep distrust for the lawyer. At least twice, he fired him.
For his part, Branca had grown weary of Jackson’s chaotic life of profligacy, questionable advisers, crushing debt and scandal. Finally, he quit.
“They hadn’t really spoken since 2006,” says CEO Randy Phillips of AEG Live, the promoter of Jackson’s “This Is It” concert series.
So how did Branca’s and Jackson’s epic relation come full circle, as if according to a Hollywood script?
In fact, Branca had begun to seek a return to the fold no sooner than Jackson wrapped up the press conference unveiling “This Is It” in early March 2009. The lawyer phoned Phillips. ‘“I’d do anything in the world to be involved,”’ Phillips remembers Branca saying. The AEG executive was noncommittal then.
Later, however, Phillips and Frank DiLeo, Jackson’s manager from the 1980s glory days, phoned Branca. DiLeo himself had only recently been invited back onto the brain trust, exactly two decades after Jackson fired him in 1989, a year before Branca was booted for the first time.
By the time DiLeo returned, Jackson’s inner circle had shriveled practically to nothing — no lawyers or accountants, for example — with the July kickoff of “This Is It” just weeks away, DiLeo contended in an exclusive interview.
Only Jackson’s then-manager, the “mysterious Dr. Tohme Tohme,” as the press sometimes described him, remained, DiLeo says. And soon Tohme Tohme’s status turned murky.
“Look, come back, it’s a little messed up,”’ said Jackson, as DiLeo remembers it.
Phillips, too, was anxious to have Branca return to the fold. According to a well-placed music industry leader briefed on the matter, the lawyer’s re-emergence appeared to lessen a potentially massive legal and financial predicament for AEG Live and Phillips.
Phillips was concerned that the company could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars –productions costs, guarantees, ticket sales and more — if the fragile Jackson were unable to perform his 50-date London run, according to the music industry leader. Phillips was said to be worried that a court might void AEG’s contract with the singer due to a conflict of interest — Jackson and AEG were sharing the same lawyer, Joel Katz, a well-known music attorney, and his gobal firm Greenburg Taurig.
“I felt another attorney that had nothing to do with my company” was prudent, Phillips acknowledged in an exclusive interview. “I felt it was important for Michael.” He added: “That was one reason I was supportive” of Branca’s return.
In an interview, Katz said that he first heard the idea of luring Branca back from DiLeo, who took on the role of intermediary between the lawyer and Jackson. Would Branca be open to “talk to Michael about some things?” DiLeo said he asked the lawyer in an early phone call.
In a follow-up call, DiLeo says he urged Branca, “Now we need to be able to work together” — meaning, no more drama, please! And finally, he says he told the lawyer, “Michael wants you to start thinking about some ideas. Don’t just come in and say hi to him.”
On the morning of the reunion, DiLeo reminded Jackson, “Don’t forget, John’s coming today.”
Phillips was in Jackson’s dressing room at the Forum for the reunion. After the hug and official signatures that evening, Branca began rattling off ideas, having honed them over the previous week. Some involved the concert. But DiLeo and Phillips say Branca’s primary responsibility was elsewhere.
“There was a serious aspiration to make a movie,” says Phillips. “Michael wanted to finish a movie called ‘Ghost’ … and a 3D version of ‘Thriller.’ He wanted John to do the film financing and DVD deal.” Phillips said AEG had planned to contribute cash for developing projects.
With the due date on a $300 million debt to Barclays on the distant horizon, Jackson also wanted Branca in Sony’s face about “restructuring the loan because Sony had the loan guarantees,” Phillips said, adding that he was thrilled for Michael to have a corner man “who knew where all the bodies were buried.”
After the dressing-room meeting, Jackson headed off apparently to his intravenous Propafol drip and Branca to a Mexican vacation, where a few days later, on June 25, his phone rang with Katz on the line. Jackson had just died after Dr. Conrad Murray, his private physician, administered the drug.
“Does anyone have a will,” Katz wondered?
“I have one,” he says Branca answered. “If it’s valid.”
It was, in fact, the will that installed Branca, along with longtime Jackson family friend John McClain, as co-executor of the Jackson estate.
As attempts by Michael’s father Joe to oust him continue to fail, Branca is firmly ensconced in control of all of Jackson’s earthly goods, with the half-interest in Sony/ATV as the centerpiece — the prized legacy that the entertainment icon left to his three children, mother Katherine and charities.
In death, Jackson once again is getting the most out of Branca, highlighted by the late entertainer’s record-setting $275 million in first-year posthumous earnings. Branca again is collecting his 5 percent cut off the top of entertainment-related revenue — a stream of income that will continue for years.
And, finally, the King of Pop and the kingmaker have achieved lasting peace.