The moment Michael Jackson did his first moonwalk on TV and changed music history forever

16 May 2023, 13:26 | Updated: 13 February 2024, 15:19

The Jackson 5 perform 'Dancing Machine' on The Carol Burnett Show

It's been 40 years since Michael Jackson took the stage to perform his first moonwalk to an audience of 47 million people.

By Giorgina Hamilton

Michael Jackson was performing his new song 'Billie Jean' on May 16, 1983, when an extraordinary moment took place that changed dance history.

The King of Pop was taking part in the TV programme Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, filmed to celebrate the record label's greatest artists and saw a whopping 35% of all TV owners in the United States tuning in to see Michael and other stars perform.

The show was produced and directed by Don Mischer, who has broadcast other historical moments including the opening ceremony for the 1996 Olympic Games and many Oscar ceremonies, and he vividly remembers the arguments about whether Michael would even be allowed to perform the song.

Michael Jackson performs 'Billie Jean' on the TV show Motown 25 - Yesterday, Today, Forever on May 16, 1983
Michael Jackson performs 'Billie Jean' on the TV show Motown 25 - Yesterday, Today, Forever on May 16, 1983. Picture: Getty
Michael Jackson performed his first public moonwalk on the NBC Motown TV show on May 16, 1983
Michael Jackson performed his first public moonwalk on the NBC's 'Motown 25' show on May 16, 1983. Picture: Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever/NBC/Starvista

Speaking to the Huffington Post, Don says that as the Motown 25 show was to promote the label's greatest hits, he and executive producer Suzanne de Passe banned everyone - including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross - from performing new music.

Michael Jackson had other ideas and was determined to perform a new song called 'Billie Jean'.

Don the standoff: “Look, if we let Michael do a new song, who’s going to take the phone call from Marvin Gaye on Monday saying, ‘Why did you let Michael do a new song and I couldn’t do a new song?’”

Michael Jackson - Billie Jean (Motown 25 Performance) (Remastered)

However, minds quickly changed when they saw Michael perform the song in rehearsals.

“I think Linda Ronstadt was there, Smokey Robinson was there, Diana Ross was there, but the place was empty basically,” Mischer said.

“So we watched ‘Billie Jean’ for the first time, the whole thing, the hat, the socks, the moonwalk — after that was over, we just knew this was incredibly special.”

Michael Jackson pictured in 1983, the same year he released 'Billie Jean' and performed his first moon walk
Michael Jackson pictured in 1983, the same year he released 'Billie Jean' and performed his first moon walk. Picture: Getty

The producers allowed Michael Jackson to perform 'Billie Jean', and the incredible moment - all two and a half seconds of his first moonwalk - has gone down in musical history.

Don recalls Michael had a big say in what shots of the performance would finally make the final cut, with the artist visiting him a few weeks later to go over the video.

“He had very clear creative ideas about what he wanted and how he wanted to see himself portrayed,” said Mischer. “There were times we disagreed about a shot or something, but I always deferred to him … I trusted his judgment.”

“He was always quiet … he was a very quiet, shy human being,” Mischer said. “He would come into a room and just go into a corner. He would whisper to people. [But] when he got onstage, he was like a general.”

Don said that after the show aired it had a huge impact and a few days later he saw just how much it had affected people.

The producer was in Washington to film an interview with the first lady, Nancy Reagan, and says he remembers, “Coming down the elevator [of the hotel], everybody’s talking about Michael. In the taxicab going to the White House, everybody was talking about Michael. In the East Wing [of the White House] … everybody’s talking about Motown 25 and Michael.”

He added, “We do these kinds of things and we never know how people are going to react, but that morning in Washington … suddenly I said to myself, ‘This show really had an incredible impact.’”

Michael Jackson would later go on to discuss his own experience of his first moonwalk in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1993 and said he 'cried' after the performance.

"I'm never satisfied," Michael Jackson said, "Even when I see something that I've done, and people say: 'Oh it was phenomenal'.

"When I did Motown 25, and I did the moonwalk for the first time, I was backstage crying afterwards because I was unhappy."

Oprah was stunned. "You cried!?" she said in disbelief.

"But then I was walking to the car there was this little boy who was like 12," Michael continued.

"He was this little Jewish kid and he said: 'You're amazing! Who taught you to dance like that?'"

"And for the first time I ever felt like I did a good job," he concluded.

"Because I know children don't lie, and I just felt so good about it."

In the same 1993 Oprah Winfrey interview, Elizabeth Taylor also discussed her impression of Michael Jackson.

"He is the least weird man I've ever known," the Cleopatra star said.

"He is highly intelligent. Shrewd. Intuitive. Understanding. Sympathetic. Generous, to almost a fault of himself.

"He just - if he has any eccentricities it's that he is larger than life. And some people can't accept that, or face it, or understand it."

Elizabeth Taylor added: "His talent on stage - on why I called him the king of pop rock soul music entertainment, whatever - there's nobody that can come near him; [or] dance like that."