Live TV Helmer Don Mischer on Capturing Michael Jackson's "Electric" Motown Performance, Muhammad Ali's Olympics Moment

7:00 AM 2/1/2019

by Rebecca Ford

The veteran director, who’ll receive the Directors Guild of America's Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday, reveals the events he's most proud of pulling off — from an emotional post-9/11 Olympics opening ceremony to Prince's rainy Super Bowl halftime show: "My God, this is magical."

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

If there was a live TV spectacular in the past couple of decades, Don Mischer likely had something to do with it. The 78-year-old director has been the master behind dozens of major shows, from Super Bowl halftime concerts to the Oscars, the Democratic National Convention and President Obama’s star-studded inaugural concert.

Ahead of receiving the Directors Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award at its Feb. 2. fete, Mischer reveals the events he’s most proud of pulling off — from an emotional post-9/11 Olympic opening ceremony to a rainy Super Bowl halftime show.

  • Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (1983)

    Michael Jackson in 'Motown 25.'
    Michael Jackson in 'Motown 25.'
    NBC/Photofest

    The 25th anniversary celebration of Motown Records was shot at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. 

    "We wanted to get Michael Jackson to reunite with his brothers for a medley of Jackson Five songs. And Michael ultimately said, 'I'll come back together with my brothers provided that you let me do one new song.' This posed a dilemma. If we let Michael Jackson do a new song, why weren't we letting Marvin Gaye do a new song? Or Smokey Robinson? Or Diana Ross? We decided to take a look at the new song that Michael was going to do, and he came onto the stage at the Pasadena Civic a couple of nights before we taped the show and performed 'Billie Jean.' It was electric! That moment became what is, I think, generally considered to be one of the pivotal moments in music on television."

  • Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremony (1996)

    Muhammad Ali at the ’96 Olympics.
    Muhammad Ali at the ’96 Olympics.
    GEORGE FREY/AFP/Getty Images

    "There's something about doing the Olympics that is unique and extraordinary. I was going to a control room, which was down in the bowels of the stadium, and I passed thousands of kids who were in costume, ready to pour out onto the field. They'd been rehearsing for months without any pay, and the joy and the excitement on their faces about being part of this historic event was just very moving and touching for me. As a surprise to everyone, we had Muhammad Ali be the last American to hold the flame before the cauldron was lit. He had Parkinson's disease, so as he held up the torch, it was shaky — but you know what? It was a moment that kind of defined those games. I'm very proud to have been a part of that."

  • Salt Lake City Olympics Opening Ceremony (2002)

    2002 Olympics.
    2002 Olympics.
    Michael Cooper

    "It was significant to all of us involved because it was the first gathering of the nations of the world just five months after 9/11. Right before we sang the national anthem, we brought in the torn, dirtied flag that flew atop the first tower at the World Trade Center that fell. We brought members of New York's fire department, police department and first responders to Salt Lake City. Stadiums are irreverent places where it's very hard to ever get the feeling that you could hear a pin drop, and there were 60,000 people in the stadium. When that flag came in, nobody talked, nobody whispered. It was a moment of extreme power."

  • Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show (2007)

    Prince at Super Bowl XLI.
    Prince at Super Bowl XLI.
    Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

    Prince performed during the intermission at Dolphin Stadium.

    "Working with Prince was an unbelievably creative and stimulating experience. We had a bad weather forecast, and the day before it looked like it might be raining. We were concerned about that because the stage was in the shape of Prince's logo and it had a very slick Mylar on top of it, and when it got wet it was very, very slippery. During the commercial break as our stage was being put together, the heavens broke loose and it became a downpour. I was panicked. About 45 seconds in, I began to feel the magic created by the rain — there were drops of water on the lenses that fractured into prisms of light. There was an ethereal haze of low clouds that drifted across the stage. I was in the middle of directing this, but I said, 'My God, this is magical. We could never have created anything like this. We've been blessed. This is not a disaster. It is wonderful.' "

  • We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration (2009)

    The We Are One concert.
    The We Are One concert.
    Win McNamee/Getty Images

    This concert featured performances by Beyonce, U2 and more.

    "It was bitter cold ­— I think 17 degrees, and the wind was blowing 25 miles an hour. But the warmth, you could feel it among the hundreds of thousands of people. Generally, when you go after talent, you pay for expenses: air transportation, makeup and hair, security. On We Are One, all we could offer the talent was two hotel rooms. We certainly could not pay them. We thought we'd lose a lot of people because of that, and the opposite happened. It was a euphoric day in which we got behind our new president and felt so optimistic. As we journeyed to our production camp adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial, you could see the families coming in with their blankets, and kids all bundled up. They were going to wait there for hours in the cold to be part of that historic event."

    This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.