It almost looked like Australians Brett Barnes and Wade Robson were going to save Michael Jackson yesterday.
His old pals showed up in the Santa Maria courtroom to refute testimony that they'd been molested by him. Starting with Robson, a 22-year-old choreographer for boy band *NSYNC, it all seemed promising.
As expected, Robson completely denied anything bad or inappropriate had ever happened between him and the pop star roughly 10 to 15 years ago, when Jackson discovered him. Robson was a regular visitor to Neverland and often a guest in Jackson's bed.
But then defense attorney Tom Mesereau, a superstar on most days, made a huge mistake.
Mesereau responded to a challenge from Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen, who asked Robson, on cross-examination, what he thought of a person — meaning Jackson — who was obsessed with sexually explicit material.
Mesereau countered by offering that Jackson merely had copies of Playboy and Penthouse magazines. And that's when things slipped out of control.
Zonen, looking like Monte Hall from "Let's Make a Deal," rushed to the clerk's desk and began opening brown paper bags filled with magazines and books that had been confiscated from Neverland, Jackson's home. They were graphic and of a homosexual nature.
With Robson on the stand, the usually mild-mannered Zonen started a rapid-fire presentation that was exhausting and exhilarating.
He kept bringing more and more material to the witness stand, asking Robson, in effect, over and over: "Would you let your 12-year-old son sleep with a man who owned this material?"
All of the books and magazines featured naked boys with exposed genitalia, with Zonen emphasizing the words "naked" and "genitalia."
One book, Zonen said, "depicted a series of photos of sodomy," which he then defined for the room. He handed Robson a book and said, "Strum through it."
Robson, to his credit, held his own for most of the time.
Of one publication, he said, "It's not a pornographic book," but his resolve was shaken as the examples got worse.
One book was called "Boys Will Be Boys," another "Men: A Sexual Study." There was also "Hard Rock Affair" and "Before the Hand of Man."
While Robson, with no objections from Mesereau, paged through these things, he tried to minimize the idea of Jackson, a modern Peter Pan, as a hoarder of male-oriented pornography.
Things got so bad that when the questioning returned to Mesereau, the defense lawyer actually pointed out Robson's fiancée and said, "You're straight, aren't you?"
By then, all of Robson's good intentions to help Jackson seemed like they'd faded.
Shaking his head, Robson said, "I can't imagine people around the world are watching me do this."
Mesereau did his best to correct the many negative impressions the jury was now suddenly saddled with.
"When you were a child, did Mr. Jackson ever show you sexually explicit material?" he asked.
The answer was no.
Had he seen any depictions in all the books Zonen had shown him of an adult having sex with a child?
Again, Robson said no.
Knowing all this, had Robson changed his mind about Jackson?
Barnes, long a sought-after interview subject in the world of Jackson lure, fared less well.
Now 23 and living with his parents in Brisbane, he said he'd quit his job at a casino to come testify for Jackson.
Initially, Barnes seemed like he knew what he was doing, but in short order his testimony became a series of "I don't recall" and "I can't remember."
All he could say was that though he'd stayed in Jackson's bed countless times, nothing had ever happened.
"I can tell you right now, I wouldn't stand for it," Barnes said.
"I'm very mad about it," he said of the allegations that had been offered by former Neverland employees. "I'm really, really, really mad about it."
But Barnes proved to have an exceptionally poor memory when the questioning from Zonen became more specific.
He couldn't remember how old he was when he first flew from Australia to California to be with Jackson (likely about 10). He also couldn't recall where he traveled with Jackson, the number of visits he made, who else was there on those visits, where pictures of himself and Jackson had been taken, who took them, what age he was in them, if others traveled with him and Jackson or if he had ever attended Jackson's concerts.
Zonen chided him by prefacing a question, "Based on your familiarity with yourself."
Barnes presented himself as not the hottest shrimp on the barbie, especially when he revealed that he, his family and Robson and his family were all staying at Neverland during the trial.
But what Robson and Barnes did testify to may come back to haunt the defense.
Like Jackson's 1993 accuser who got a $20 million settlement, and like the pop star's current accuser, Robson and Barnes recalled that while they were Jackson's constant companions in bed, the pop star told them they were family, to trust him and that he was like a father to them.
The idea that Jackson had made the same offers to so many young boys resonated through the courtroom.
It was the first time that the prosecution, which generally doesn't draw conclusions, left a lingering indelible impression in the Santa Maria courthouse.
Someone on "The Sopranos" is going to get sick in episode two of the sixth season.
And if not sick (as in Uncle Junior, don't get excited) it certainly seems a doctor will be showing up along with a medical team.
The other day a casting call went out for a recurring character named "Dr. Lior Plepler," described as "45, head of trauma surgery, Israeli-born, movie-star handsome."
Of course, the inside joke is that the doctor is likely named for HBO's well-known and -liked head of corporate PR, Richard Plepler.
Meantime, Uncle Junior is getting a new lawyer named "Larry Benedek," who is probably named for super-agent Peter Benedek of United Talent Agency. The real-life Benedek counts series creator and writer David Chase among his clients.
And that's not all: Episode two looks like it has a lot of extras and bit parts, with scenes set in hospitals and hotels.
Don't worry, though: Casting directors Georgianne Walken and Sheila Jaffe are also looking for patrons of the Bada Bing.
Getting "The Sopranos" off the ground this season hasn't been so easy. The whole show, especially Chase, is mourning the untimely passing of its award-winning director, John Patterson.
Chase's close friend, Patterson directed 10 episodes of the series. He died in early February from cancer at age 64.
His other credits include episodes of "Carnivàle," "Six Feet Under," "CSI" and "Hill Street Blues."
On Wednesday, I told you the Rolling Stones would unveil their new album and tour next week.
Here's an update: The big event, which will undoubtedly include a performance of some kind, is set to take place near Lincoln Center in front of Julliard Music School at 65th and Broadway in New York City.
The press call is for noon, but you can guess there will be crowds arriving earlier.
While the Stones await the new album release, there's lot of good news about their catalog.
Virgin just released re-mastered versions of two greatest-hits collections, "Sucking in the Seventies" and "Made in the Shade."
The former is a terrific item and sounds great in my rented Camry. It includes the rare, wonderful, "If I Was A Dancer (Pt. 2)." My only complaint: no track information. But you can't have everything.
And ABKCO, Allen Klein's label, is about to release two box sets of Stones singles from the '60s.