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06/25/2010

One year ago: Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson

June 25, 2010 |  5:00 am

MJackson FawcettMJ Minutes after I put the final touches on actress Farrah Fawcett’s obituary – a story that I originally wrote almost three years earlier – an in-house e-mail flashed on my screen that said something akin to: “Pop singer Michael Jackson is dead.” Unbelievable.

Two major pop-culture figures had died within hours of each other, sending the media into overdrive. Like everyone else, we were astonished. Luckily, we were also prepared.

A full four years earlier, my colleague Elaine Woo suggested we prepare what we call an “advance obituary” on Jackson. Usually, candidates for obituaries written ahead of time are relatively old, or in Fawcett’s case, known to be seriously ill. We have quite a few such stories in the queue, part of the dance the obituary staff does with death as we try to be ready for the next big name.

In mid-2005, Jackson, at 46, was neither old or known to be ill. But he had appeared extraordinarily fragile that year, and years of plastic surgery had turned his face into a bizarre landscape. Something seemed off, so Woo got to work.

The day that Jackson died, Woo was out of the office, so Geoff Boucher, who was covering pop music for The Times, stepped in to give shape to the Michael Jackson obituary on deadline.

As the next day’s front page showed, Jackson’s death eclipsed Fawcett’s. “King of Pop is dead at 50” said the Times’ banner headline. Fawcett, dead at 62, an actress who was a generation’s pin-up, made the bottom of the page.

Here in Obits, where we keep company with a life-size model skeleton (currently dressed as a college grad), we remember June 25, 2009, as a day of celebrity death like no other – and tip our collective hat to advance planning.

-- Valerie J. Nelson

Left photo: Farrah Fawcett meets television critics at a 1999 news conference in Pasadena. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

Right photo: Michael Jackson is shown during his 1996 "HIStory" tour in the photograph that ran with his obituary on the front page of The Times. Credit: Simon Kwong / Reuters

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