'Thriller' Portraitist Dick Zimmerman: 'Michael Jackson Had Tears In His Eyes'
By Matthew Shepatin Posted Mar 10th 2011 10:34PM
Dick Zimmerman became world-renowned for introducing a style of celebrity portrait photography that looked like a painting. (You remember all those TV Guide covers from the '70s and '80s, right?) Over the years, he's shot some of the biggest names in Hollywood, ranging from Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to John Travolta and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Over a 13-year period, Zimmerman also had three sessions with Michael Jackson, the most famous being in 1982, when Zimmerman shot the cover for the record-breaking 'Thriller' album. Zimmerman, who these days offers oil-painting portraits on commission worldwide, tells us about creating that iconic MJ portrait, as well as spending Christmas with Tom Cruise, and living for a week with Salvador Dalí.
Tell me about the day you photographed Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' cover.
On the day of the shoot, he came alone. No entourage. We had two racks of wardrobe, handpicked by one of the best stylists in LA. Michael didn't really care for anything on it. He said, "I'd like to be wearing something like what you have on." I was wearing my white suit that day. I said, "Well, we're about the same height." So Michael is actually wearing my white suit on the cover.
What happened to the suit?
I auctioned it off at Sotheby's years ago. I was concerned with the safety of my wife and myself because, at the time, we had a very big house and I went out of town a lot. I didn't know if word would get around that I had the suit, and I didn't want to take a chance. I decided to just get rid of it.
How much did it sell for?
I believe I got $27,000 for it, and I'm guessing that was 10 years ago. Today, I could probably get a million bucks for it.
Tell me about shooting the exclusive wedding portrait of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley.
We did the shoot at the Trump Tower in Donald Trump's suite. They actually closed down 5th Avenue in front of the building because they didn't have enough room on the sidewalk for the photographers. The whole street was filled with photographers.
How did you get past the throng of photographers?
They had to sneak me in through the service elevator. After we did it, I was worried about my life. These photographs were worth a lot of money. We closed down a whole photo lab so we could produce the images in secrecy.
After shooting the couple's wedding portraits, you went back up to Trump's suite. What happened then?
Around midnight the maid let me into Michael and Lisa Marie's suite and told me that Michael would be down in a few minutes. Thirty minutes go by and no sign of Michael. I'm walking around the suite -- it was kind of dark in there -- and I see this fellow across the room wearing a mustache and beard. I figured he was a security guard. I walked over to him asked if he had any idea when Michael was going to be here. I looked at him and all of a sudden I realized it was Michael. We both laughed as he pulled off his disguise. He had been waiting there the whole time, just watching me, waiting for me to notice him.
What happened after that?
He opened up a bottle of wine and sat down and looked over the photographs. We talked and talked until about 3 o'clock in the morning. He told me about all his frustrations. He had just done an interview with Diane Sawyer where he took her on a tour of his Neverland Ranch. He said he was as honest with her as anybody could possibly be, and the next day the press jumped on him. He had tears in his eyes. He said, "I don't know what to do anymore."
Do you feel he was misunderstood?
He was very misunderstood. They talk about him being a pedophile. I can tell you that didn't happen. He was very childlike. I thought he was like a gentle butterfly. All he talked about was future generations of children, the environment, air quality. His problem was that he had too many bodyguards around him. Too many people pushing him in all different directions, and with ulterior motives.
Tell me about shooting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman?
Tom flew me into Telluride, Colo., on his own plane. It was Christmastime. I was there the two days before and after they got married. There was no celebrity thing going on. We were hanging out, decorating the Christmas tree, drinking egg nog, having a good time.
Anything stand out?
This still blows my mind: We were getting ready to rehearse the wedding. Nobody could find Tom. Where's Tom? What happened was, there was a friend of his, a woman that was part of the rehearsal, who had slid her car and gone off the road into a snow bank, and her car was stuck. Tom had run out in just his flannel shirt and was shoveling the car out by himself. He had never told us that he was running out there. I don't know how the guy did it. It was 40 degrees below that night. I was enormously impressed by that.
Tell me about meeting Salvador Dalí in the summer of 1973.
I was commissioned to re-create a portrait of Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala for their 50th wedding anniversary [pictured at right]. I went out to his house in Spain, and I ended up staying with them for five days. It was the most incredible time of my life.
Any moments from that trip stand out?
One day he invited me into studio to watch him paint, which I had heard from others he almost never does. I was sitting behind him. He was doing a spoof on Norman Rockwell where he was painting himself looking at himself in a mirror. While he's painting, I hear these grunts. I turn around and in the back of the room is Gala. Every one of her grunts was a comment -– either approval or disapproval -- as he applied each brush stroke. I could see she was the backbone to a lot of his paintings.
What's your legacy as a photographer?
When I came to Los Angeles in the '70s, the photography was very cut and dry, very old style lighting. I'd see a lot of pictures of famous people smiling. I tried not to do cheesy smiles. I consider those snapshots. What I did was I brought my techniques from London, where I had lived for six years, to shooting celebrities. I established a style that was not happening at the time. I changed the industry by introducing a whole new look -- people loved that they looked like paintings. I raised the quality of that kind of photography. I know it. I saw it happening.
And now you're trying to promote yourself as a painter?
Painting is where I started. That's what I studied in school. I've always wanted to get back to it. Now, I am.
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