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'Producer' excerpt: Freaking out is not an option

By Wendy Walker, CNN
Wendy Walker's book gives readers her insight and behind-the-scenes account of 30 years in the TV business.
Wendy Walker's book gives readers her insight and behind-the-scenes account of 30 years in the TV business.
  • Wendy Walker is "Larry King Live" senior executive producer
  • She helps land exclusive interviews with the newsmakers and celebrities
  • In "Producer," she shares her stories of 30 years in television
  • In this excerpt, she shares her account of the day Michael Jackson died

Editor's note: Wendy Walker is the senior executive producer of CNN's "Larry King Live." Below is an excerpt from her new book, "Producer: Lessons Shared from 30 Years in Television" (Center Street). In this excerpt, Walker talks about the day Michael Jackson died and the way she and her staff handled shifting the show's topics as the day's news progressed.

(CNN) -- I remembered exactly where I was when John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy, and Princess Diana had died. I knew that if Michael Jackson really was gone, this was the same kind of monumental loss that would send the entire world into collective shock. But I had a show to book. I returned to my office and got back on the phone, so far removed from where I'd been when I woke up that morning, it was hard to believe it was the same day.

In the next half hour, the Los Angeles Times reported:

"Pop star Michael Jackson was pronounced dead by doctors this afternoon after arriving at the hospital in a deep coma, city and law enforcement sources told the Times."

It wasn't long after this bulletin that I was e-mailed a photograph of Michael's head, presumably dead. The photographer wanted money for it. He was wasting his time. Soon after, CNN made the announcement that Michael had died. Now it was official.

I dove headfirst into the business of finding out who knew Michael best and who we could get on the show in just a few hours. Show number four was in full production mode, and still, I had to do my regular job when a crisis arose about something else altogether. An executive producer wears a lot of hats, and it seemed that Billy Ray Cyrus had been on the show June 12 and had concerns about his segments. It was a rare occurrence when a guest was less than satisfied. I couldn't even remember the last time, so I wrote Billy Ray an e-mail to the effect that I was a little busy with the current breaking news but I wanted to apologize. I followed that with a short explanation of what had occurred and why. In essence, I took the blame, fell on my sword and sent the e-mail.

It's a good idea to avoid blaming the other guy. If you made a mistake, just admit it. It might feel uncomfortable at the time, but owning your mistake will make you look a far sight better than coming up with a lame excuse that nobody believes anyway. For this very intense moment in time, it worked with Billy Ray. I got an e-mail straight back from him, saying he couldn't believe that on a day that two icons had died, I was still concerned about him. He thought that was amazing and he wrote, "We'll always have this moment of sharing the tragedy of the death of Michael Jackson. He was so important to me and I am so sorry."

Wendy Walker talks about her new book and her career

I exhaled. Back to the work at hand. My staff had the tough and highly delicate job of letting the Farrah Fawcett people know that we were pre-empting her for the death of a more famous and celebrated star than the woman they loved so well. Then an e-mail arrived from Lisa Ling. One would expect her to be completely wrapped up in advocating for her sister, but she was caring enough to have moved outside her own tragedy and thought of me:

"I don't know if you know this, but Deepak was very close to Michael."

This was news to me. I shot out a thank-you e-mail to Lisa and got Deepak Chopra on the phone. I knew Deepak well, I respected him and his opinions, and he agreed to appear on the show the very next day. During that call, he stated to me in no uncertain terms, by the way, that he believed that drugs administered by licensed medical doctors had killed Michael. I scribbled down some of his comments as he told me that Michael had been taking a drug called Diprivan that was so powerful, it was only used in operating rooms. It created an effect that was about as close to dying as a person could get, and when someone was on the drug, they needed to be closely monitored in case they needed to be brought back from the throes of death. Deepak was furious at the doctors who he said he believed had administered such dangerous medications to Michael in his home without proper monitoring. He told me that Michael liked getting dangerously close to death and then brought back.

In a few minutes, Jonathan Klein, president of CNN, called me to confirm tonight's show and ask if we could run for a straight two hours with reruns at midnight and at 3 a.m. We agreed. This was a rare evening when I did not have dinner with my children. I stayed in my office and when Larry was ready to go on the air, we had booked enough star-studded guests, all stunned and upset by the death, to fill the show.

We started with Dr. Prediman K. Shah, director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Then we went on to singer-musicians Smokey Robinson, Céline Dion, Cher, Aaron Neville, Donna Summer and J. C. Chasez. We had Tommy Mottola, former Sony music executive, Suzanne de Passe from Motown who had discovered the Jackson Five, and Shelly Berger, former manager of the Jackson Five. Larry also interviewed Kara Finnstrom, Ted Rowlands and Richard Roth, all CNN correspondents, and Carlos Diaz, correspondent for Extra. Everyone had something to say.

We also had Thea Andrews from "Entertainment Tonight."

King: At the UCLA Medical Center, which is, by the way, a $ 2 billion edifice, much of it named in honor of the late Ronald Reagan, Thea Andrews stands by. She's an "Entertainment Tonight" correspondent. Still crowds there?

Andrews: Many crowds, Larry. There are thousands of people here on all sides of the medical center. As you said, it's a huge facility. It takes up more than a whole city block. Getting here, trying to find your cameras was hard, because there are so many news people out here, thousands of crowds, helicopters buzzing overhead, and, of course, many supporters of Michael Jackson, many people devastated by this loss.

King: What has the hospital said?

Andrews: The hospital has been mum. They haven't released a statement yet. What I can tell you is that ET has exclusively obtained the last photos of Michael Jackson, as he was being removed by paramedics from his home. As you heard earlier, it's very close to here, about six minutes away.

He was in full cardiac arrest. Paramedics attempted to revive him during transport here to the hospital, and they continued to attempt to revive him inside the emergency room. Obviously, they were not successful. But as you see the photo, I don't know if you have the photo up there, Larry. They're attempting to revive Michael. His eyes are closed.

King: How did you get that photograph?

Andrews: I don't know, Larry. You'll have to ask my executive producer.

King: That's a heck of a job of reporting. We'll be checking back with you.

Also that night, Larry interviewed Randy Jackson from "American Idol," civil rights activist Jesse Jackson and actor Corey Feldman. Two Jackson fans named Cheryl and Melvin came on the air, and musicians Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Sheryl Crow and Kenny Rogers called in. It was an impressive lineup as we checked in with people from all over the country and the world who were devastated and shocked by the sudden death of the self-declared King of Pop.

Cher called in and said, "You know, I was just sitting here listening to you talk. And I'm having a million different reactions.

"Things that I didn't expect I would feel. When I think of him, I think of this young boy, that teenager that I first met. This adorable boy that I met who, you know, loved to look at my beaded socks. Yes, he was a great singer. You know, it's like God gives you certain gifts. And some people he gives different gifts, and some people he gives more gifts. And this child was just an extraordinary child, touched by this ability to have people feel him and feel people. And he just had that sense that you get, and you don't get it from a living person. You get it from someplace else. He had it."

Céline told Larry on the phone, "I am shocked like the rest of the world. It doesn't sink in right now. I'm overwhelmed by this tragedy. I have to say that Michael Jackson's been an idol for me all my life. I remember being in my house when I was very, very young and having his posters above my bed. He's been my idol all my life, I looked up to him, and my goal was to be maybe doing the same show business world as him."

And Liza Minnelli called in and said, "Oh, Larry, I couldn't believe it, honey. I got a call at two o'clock in the morning from a lawyer telling me that he's gone into cardiac arrest. They said he had been complaining of chest pains, you know? He changed show business. He hit with a force that was spectacular as he started to grow up. And then he grew and grew and grew. All the time. He grew all the time."

Talk about flying by the seat of our pants, we were actually booking guests while the show was on the air. Larry would say, "We just got this person on the phone," and he would launch into an interview with no preparation whatsoever. Michael's death finally felt real to me when I saw the live picture of the helicopter that was transporting his body to the morgue. And the news just kept on coming.

As the story unfolded, I noticed a rhythm that is often present when we are dealing with breaking news. It actually takes on a whole different feel than a prepared show has when you know exactly what you are covering and with whom. With breaking news, you are constantly getting new information and an energy takes over as the story unfolds in a natural way. That was the case with the Michael Jackson story as we began to let the incoming news items guide us.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, I went to tuck my kids into bed. Then it was back to my office, but now I was using my large office in another portion of the house that had been converted into a state-of-the-art newsroom with a dozen screens that allowed me to check breaking news on all the cable and broadcast networks, national and international. The news about Michael was spreading fast all over the world, and global reactions were pouring in about the shocking and untimely death of this musical icon.

By 2 a.m. it was all over, at least for the day. This was a story that would not end with a single day of coverage or even a week. I knew it would go on and on as accusations of drug overdoses and finger-pointing at so-called unscrupulous doctors began to dominate the conversations, along with relentless reports of Michael's bizarre and unhealthy lifestyle. And then there were rumors about Debbie Rowe, one of Michael's ex- wives, the mother of his two oldest children.

I dropped into bed exhausted and amazed that, once again, I had made it through a day that dealt me so many dips and turns I should have gotten seasick. After all, I had awakened with one show in mind and had booked three more before Larry went on the air. I'd answered thousands of e-mails, much more than my usual number, I had taken care of my kids, and we had all done our jobs. And the show had gone on.

Click on Wendy's Facebook page to follow Wendy as she goes through her final month as Senior Executive Producer of 'Larry King Live'