Mark Lester — who as a child starred in the 1968 movie musical "Oliver!" — spent New Year's Eve with Michael Jackson at the singer's rented Beverly Hills mansion.
Once Jackson put his three kids to sleep, it was just the two 45-year-old men, lifelong friends, who sat up and watched Dick Clark's "Rockin' New Year's" on TV.
Lester, if you don't know, was the Macaulay Culkin of his day: tousled blond hair, a cute kid. His performance as Oliver Twist, uttering the now famous request for more porridge — "Please, sir, may I have some more?" — made him a huge star at the age of 10. When Jackson and his brothers performed in the U.K. in the early 1970s, Michael asked to meet Lester. "He wanted to meet someone who had a similar background, a child star," Lester told me.
The result has been a lifelong friendship.
Lester was at Neverland last February several days after the Martin Bashir interview aired and he was with him this past October in Las Vegas when Jackson signed memorabilia at a bookstore. The father of three girls and one boy told me he completely supports Jackson and believes him innocent of the charges of child molestation.
He did get to see Jackson in his new habitat, with the Nation of Islam surrounding him. "One of their members picked me up at the airport," he said. "And I did meet Leonard Muhammad briefly. But there was no sense of tension in the house. In fact, I've seen Michael at Neverland and in hotels with security, and I thought it was much more relaxed at this house."
Lester told me that Jackson is "angry. And he feels betrayed" by the family whom he took in. He said that while he was visiting, little mention was made of the charges pending against Jackson, and that the star had limited interest in news accounts of his predicament.
"He's not cut off. He chooses not to watch it. He doesn't care what they say in the media. He says, America is a free country."
Lester told me he was surprised as everyone else in the world when word came down that Neverland had been raided with search warrants by the police. "I was completed shocked. I'd just been with Michael in Las Vegas in October." Last February, Lester met the boy at the center of the controversy at Neverland. "He and his family were just guests. There were a lot of kids, a lot of people staying there."
Despite their 30-year friendship, Lester has never met Debbie Rowe, the mother of Jackson's children. He never met Lisa Marie Presley, either, he said, but spoke to her once on the phone. He said that in all this time he has not questioned Jackson about his plastic surgery, but acknowledges that a skin disease has caused Jackson's skin color to change.
"His melanin is gone," Lester said, "and it's very painful for him to be in the sun. He has vast depigmentation. He takes medicine to fill in the blotches where he's turned white."
Lester's children have spent a lot of time at Neverland, but they've never stayed in Jackson's bedroom. "We've been in there and all through the house, eating ice cream and watching TV." But he says he wishes Jackson would not make his ideas about children sleeping in his bed public. "He needs someone to tell him to put a sock in his mouth," he said. "He can be his own worst enemy."
He said that Jackson understands the public criticism of the statements he's made, and "doesn't care" what people think.
"He can switch between being a 12-year-old and being a 45-year-old," Lester said. "He's told me that when he writes, he's like a 12-year-old. That's where he gets his inspiration. And he's always been that way, like a Peter Pan, since he was 15."
For New Year's Eve, the pair of friends watched TV after Jackson's three kids went to sleep. Lester said they too turned in before the midnight hour. "There was no one else around," said Lester, who left his wife and kids at home for this visit. The temporary house, for which Jackson is said to be paying between $70,000 and $100,000 a month, is "beautiful." Will Michael ever return to Neverland? "I think he will eventually," said Lester, who gave up show business and is an osteopath outside of London. "But he doesn't miss it right now. He feels like he's been violated."
Famed photographer Francesco Scavullo took a lot of amazing pictures over the years. But somehow back in the day he missed Bebe Buell when she was a Ford model and a Playboy playmate.
A few weeks ago the pair rectified this error in their careers when Scavullo shot Buell for the cover of a new magazine, Ceslie Style, which hits newsstands in March.
Sadly, Scavullo died this week at age 81. For Buell, it was bittersweet news. She will now be remembered as the last cover portrait taken by this remarkable and gifted artist. "He was my friend, and that was the most important thing," said Buell.
Buell told me: "Frank made all women look just gorgeous. His light, his energy and his love of women in general was his special combination. I am honored that I worked with him so recently. I will miss him so much."
Jesse Friedman (no relation to this writer), the central character in Andrew Jarecki's documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans," is taking action. He's filed a motion to overturn his 1988 conviction on charges that he and his father sexually abused children. Jesse served thirteen years for his crimes; his father died in prison.
"The exhaustive investigation done by the filmmakers in the course of making the film uncovered a tremendous amount of exonerating material. The prosecution had an obligation to share this information with me at the time they became aware of it, but they kept it secret from me and my lawyer. Had I known of this information before, I would have been able to use it at trial and prove my innocence. It is my hope that by presenting this information now, I will be able to overturn my conviction and clear my name."
In his 1000-page filing, Friedman alleges that the majority of the computer students interviewed by the police had no recollection of any abuse despite being visited by the police many times.
He also claims that the students who did provide testimony that they had been abused "had no recollection of such abuse until they had been subjected to up to five kinds of manipulative and suggestive questioning by the police — questioning methods now proven to cause false memories in children. For example:
— One of the computer students who became a key witness in the case, admitted that he did not remember any of the abuse he alleged, until after he was hypnotized, a technique proven to lead to false memories.
— Police detectives admit to having provided the students with incentives to encourage them to provide testimony, including in one case having pizza parties, and offering to deputize cooperative children.
— One detective admits to visiting a student 15 separate times in order to finally procure incriminating testimony despite the child's consistent statement that he had not been abused.
— A number of computer students admit to having provided false testimony in order to end the questioning and that they actually did not experience the abuse to which they had testified to.
— One team of detectives, in a tape-recorded interview, told one of the computer students who was adamantly insisting that he had not been abused, that he might become a homosexual if he did not admit to the abuse."