An Ode to Wylie Draper: Remembering the Man Who Played Michael Jackson
A lot of people remember the moment they became a fan but, I feel like my story is more complicated.
The Jacksons: An American Dream film miniseries was my introduction to Michael Jackson. After watching for the first time, I remember becoming totally enveloped in learning more. I began discovering his solo music, short films, watching interviews and old tapes. I started to spend a lot of late nights on the internet- reading whatever I could.
Once I'd seen the miniseries, I not only wanted to learn about Michael but, I also wanted to know more about the man who played him.
Who was he?
How was he chosen to play Michael Jackson?
And perhaps most important, what happened to Wylie Draper after The Jacksons: An American Dream?
In this post I hope to answer some of those questions and also tell a story that needs to be told.
This is my ode to Wylie Draper; Professional dancer, son, brother, friend, actor… and the man who introduced ME to Michael Jackson.
The Jacksons: An American Dream
Loosely based on Katherine Jackson’s autobiographical book, “My Family, The Jacksons,” The Jacksons An American Dream aired on ABC in November of 1992.
The biopic aired as a 2- part miniseries and was one of the most popular televised events of the 1990s. Also the recipient of an Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography, The Jacksons: American Dream has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the Best Music Biopics of all time. Starting from the courtship of Joseph and Katherine, on to the early years performing at talent shows, through the Motown years, Thriller, and the Victory Tour, The Jacksons An American Dream focuses on the years the family performed as a group together.
The miniseries featured a host of well-known actors. Angela Bassett played Katherine Jackson, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Joseph Jackson, Vanessa Williams as Suzanne DePasse, Holly Robinson Peete as Diana Ross, and Billy Dee Williams as Berry Gordy. Terrance Howard, well known for his roles in The Best Man, Hustle & Flow, and the TV series Empire, made his debut in entertainment in the role of Jackie Jackson.
But for me and I’m sure many others, the performance of Wylie Draper was one to remember. One of three actors approved by Michael himself, Draper gave a performance that radiated both Michael Jackson’s talent and personality.
Who Was Wylie Draper?
It was an interesting road from West Virginia, where Wylie Draper was born on May 5th 1969, to his first day on set as Michael Jackson.
Wylie Draper grew up listening to and enjoying Michael Jackson’s music, as recalled by his brother Desmond. He played football in high school but his heart and passion always lied in dancing. Draper attended Point Park College (now Point Park University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to refocus on dancing and further pursue his aspirations to be an entertainer. As a dancer at Walt Disney World and a lead performer for Norwegian Cruise Line, he was beginning to live out his dreams.
But while on a cruise ship, Draper would find out about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
An audition for the new Jackson family biopic.
Casting Michael Jackson
Casting the third actor to play Michael Jackson was undoubtedly the most difficult for producers. He would not only have to resemble Michael but, would also need to dance and move like him too. The LA Times spoke with Jaki Brown, the casting director for the film in November of 1992. Brown had the task of finding all 15 actors to cover the five Jackson brothers through 3 life stages.
To begin casting, Brown and her team set up a post office box in Los Angeles, welcoming videotape “auditions” from around the world. They received hundreds of submissions but Brown wasn’t satisfied with the outcome.
"I can't say it produced as many people as I hoped it would… I constantly reminded the producers, if there is another Michael Jackson in the world, I think we would have known of him”.
The Jacksons also assisted in casting, as first round approvals were sent to producers Jermaine Jackson and his then wife, Margaret Maldonado-Jackson. Then they were sent to Joseph and Katherine Jackson for a second eye and Michael, who would approve all 3 actors who played him.
Wylie Draper was recommended to director Karen Arthur by a former teacher of his from Pittsburgh.
“She knew I resembled Michael and could dance like Michael," recalled Draper.
Brown took that lead and tracked him down to request an audition. "He walked in and my heart stopped," Brown said. It was the last weekend of casting when Wylie Draper would come in to meet her and Mrs. Jackson, who was moved to tears.
"When Mrs. Jackson came and she saw [Wylie], she started crying. He did his routine of a kind of Michael Jackson takeoff and we knew that was it."
Prior to snagging the role as Michael Jackson in the Jacksons biopic, Wylie Draper had no real actingexperience.
"I was kind of scared for myself to try to play him. I didn't know how I was going to act (as Michael)” he remembered. Most of Draper’s scenes in the movie were with Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winning actress, Angela Basset. Although arguably best known for her roles in “Malcom X,” “Waiting to Exhale,” and the Tina Turner biopic, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” her performance as Katherine Jackson was outstanding and memorable as well. Draper credited Bassett with helping him ease into his role as Michael.
"She brought out the best in me. When you are an amateur and working with someone that talented and experienced, they bring the best out of you. She was so real, you had to be real yourself."
A 1992 review by Entertainment Tonight, praised Wylie’s performance.
“[The cast] all do excellent jobs of capturing the Jacksons’ whizzing dance moves, and Draper is fairly amazing in the way he has gotten down not only Michael’s gestures but also his soft voice and shy yet curious manner.”
Wylie’s dance experience also played a part in the miniseries outside of his role, as he assisted choreographer Michael Peters (Beat It, Bad) with creating dance routines for the film.
On a relevant sidenote, The Jacksons: An American Dream was also my introduction to Hayvenhurst, the Jacksons home for many years. Michael lived there, recording demos for both Off the Wall and Thriller at the Hayvenhurst compound studio. Several scenes showed Draper and other actors on the property and I'd always wanted to visit. I didn't get to go inside the gates but, I did pay a visit to Hayvenhurst last year.
I visited several Michael Jackson related sites on that trip but, was totally on edge with anticipation as my friend and I drove towards the Jacksons home. The Jackson family has always meant so much to me- it was probably one of the most memorable and special moments of my time as a fan.
Below are some photos of me at Hayvenhurst!
My Favorite Scenes
My favorite scenes from Wylie were the ones that really zeroed in on Michael’s emotions. The “Never Can Say Goodbye” montage, as Michael performs on stage without Jermaine for the first time, the hospital bedside discussion with Joseph after his Pepsi burn incident, and the final Victory Tour finale scene are some I really loved.
Wylie’s performances reminded me that family matters can be complicated, struggles are real, and emotions are all part of being human.
Even for Michael Jackson.
Wylie Draper’s Legacy
After his role as Michael, Wylie found a few more roles, including one as a backup dancer in the music video (or as Michael would call it, short film) for “Remember the Time”. Shortly after the Jacksons movie aired, Wylie was diagnosed with a rare and acute form of leukemia.
Wylie Draper sadly passed away at the age of 24, on December 20th, 1993.
His last roles would be in the made for TV movie, “The Disappearance of Christina” and as a dancer in “The Red Cable Diaries” which would air after his untimely death.
In 1994, Wylie’s family started the Wylie Draper Foundation in his memory. You can find their online presence in their Facebook page HERE.
There will ever be another performance like Wylie Draper’s.
To be honest, his is the only interpretation of Michael that I really accept and love. Wylie Draper’s talent brought Michael Jackson to life for me. He’s not only an important piece in Jackson family history as a standout star in their biopic, he’s also a part of my personal story.
I can’t say that I wouldn’t have developed an interest in Michael Jackson without having watched the Jacksons miniseries but, watching Draper as adult Michael in the scene pictured above, was the moment I remember becoming a fan. It was the start of a special chapter in my life, one that continues to grow and flourish.
And for that I am thankful.
In Memory of Wylie Draper.