The director of Michael Jackson's ill-fated comeback concerts told a jury on Wednesday that he was frightened when Jackson was shivering and seemed lost at one of his final rehearsals for the "This Is It" shows.
The rehearsal occurred six days before Jackson died in June 2009, Kenny Ortega testified during a negligence lawsuit filed by Jackson's mother against AEG Live LLC, the promoter of the concerts.
"I saw a Michael that frightened me," Ortega said, calling Jackson's appearance "very, very troubling."
Jackson wasn't coherent when he arrived that day but improved somewhat as the night went on, Ortega said. The singer didn't rehearse that night — the first time the director recalled seeing him after numerous missed rehearsals.
Court proceedings were briefly recessed when Ortega broke down while reading an email he sent to the CEO of AEG Live LLC hours after the rehearsal in which he described Jackson as a "lost boy." The singer's mother Katherine Jackson also appeared to cry during the proceedings.
Ortega said he was trying to alert AEG Live officials about Jackson's condition and trusted them to get the singer appropriate care.
Instead, Ortega said he was confronted by Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray, during a tense meeting the following day. Ortega said Murray assured him and AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips that Jackson was capable of rehearsing.
Ortega also recalled that Phillips didn't speak up during the meeting, which he left after about 15 minutes.
The director said on cross-examination that he believed Phillips and another top executive, Paul Gongaware, cared for Jackson. "I felt they loved him," Ortega said, adding that he doesn't think that sentiment has changed since they were sued by Katherine Jackson.
Jackson's mother is suing AEG Live, claiming the company missed warning signs about her son's health and failed to properly investigate the doctor later convicted of involuntary manslaughter after giving the singer an overdose of the anesthetic propofol.
AEG denies it hired Murray. The company also says there was no way it could have known the doctor was giving Jackson propofol as a sleep aid.
Ortega also said Jackson appeared to be under the influence of a substance on at least four occasions when he did attend rehearsals. Jackson's state was "fairly obvious" to others involved in the production, he said.
He told jurors that he sent the email describing Jackson's poor condition during the rehearsal to Phillips to suggest the singer needed professional help. He also said that based on Jackson's condition, he didn't believe the "This Is It" shows could go forward, but he hoped there would be a turnaround.
The director said he repeatedly called Murray that night, and his only concern was for Jackson's health. Ortega and Jackson worked on two previous concert tours and had been friends for years.
"I tried the doctor who I thought would be the most natural person" to help, Ortega said. "Then I reached out to AEG, Michael's partners, to make sure they were aware of how I felt and what I saw."
Jurors hearing the case have heard about Jackson's inability to rehearse from other witnesses, but Ortega was the highest-ranking tour worker to testify at the civil trial and had the most direct contact with AEG executives and Jackson.
Ortega said it was the only concert he had ever worked on where he had to coordinate a rehearsal schedule with a performer's doctor and concert promoter.
Anthony McCartney can be reached at http://twitter.com/mccartneyAP