this is "nightline." >> tonight -- ♪ gotta have faith >> remembering george michael. the singer/songwriter who always kept the faith with his fans. dead at 53. a straight sex symbol and a gay hero. >> women seem to ignore the fact that i'm gay. >> who always dared to be different. a look back at his inspirational life of freedom. ♪ i don't want your freedom >> and unfor-gettable music. >> eventually it's all gone but the songs are still there. plus life animated. one family's journey with autism. forging a new dialogue through the magic of movies. >> it's the first conversation we've ever had. >> the discovery that changed their lives. but first the "nightline 5." >> what's your dog food's first
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an artist who shaped our culture for decades, burning the boundaries of sexual acceptance, never apologizing for his unique life and spirit. ♪ wake me up before you go, go ♪ don't leave me hanging on like a yo-yo ♪ >> reporter: he woke us up in the '80s. ♪ i'm never gonna dance again ♪ guilty feeling i got no rhythm ♪ >> reporter: give us a sax riff in "careless whisper." ♪ the prolific hit writer -- ♪ there's no white light >> reporter: who told us to run away from the white light walked into it yesterday. at age 53, from what is initially being called heart failure, at his english country home. ♪ last christmas i gave you my heart ♪ >> reporter: he died at the time of year when one of his band wham's most famous songs "last christmas" was played on loop. ♪ i want your sex >> reporter: the pop music star
and gay hero pushed his listeners to embrace sexuality. ♪ i want your sex >> reporter: and let go of inhibitions with songs like "i want your sex." >> i've no idea how i'm able or almost immediately able to sing to thousands and thousands of people when i literally just used to shudder at the thought of talking to these few dilly dance people. ♪ baby i'm yours >> reporter: george michael rose to fame as one half of the '80s british pop sensation wham! ♪ do it do it right right >> reporter: with more than 100 million records sold over a career spanning three decades, there was one constant, his female fans loved him. >> what is it about me that women seem to ignore the fact that i'm gay? i do understand them, unfortunately. i write from the heart, you know. i write from the place where most straight men are. really a little too -- there's a little too much pride going on.
>> reporter: he broke ground politically, traveling to beijing in 1985 with his wham partner andrew ridgely. the first western pop act to play in china to a crowd of 15,000 strong. ♪ i gotta have faith >> reporter: two years later he'd trade in his slowing began t-shirts and jean shorts with his first solo album "faith." ♪ faith faith >> reporter: debuting a new, sexier look. tight torn jeans, mirrored aviator glasses, a 5:00 shadow that seemed to drive the women crazy. >> pop music particularly in the '80s, into the '90s, there were two images of a man's backside that helped define that decade and that era. one was bruce springsteen. the other was george michael shaking his butt in the video "faith." everyone remembers the riff, but no one can do the riff without the dance. >> reporter: "faith" gave michael five number one singles and a grammy for album of the year. ♪ freedom ♪ i won't let you down
>> reporter: "freedom" seemed to cement his sex symbol status with 90 supermodels like naomi campbell lip synching in the music video. >> talk about freedom and being the person he's got to be, being his true, authentic self. it sort of became an unofficial anthem for the lgbt community. >> reporter: michael was still in the closet with fans when "freedom" was released but he says he had his first gay relationship around the same time. >> i had my very first relationship at 27. because i really had not actually come to terms with my sexuality until i was 24. i lost my partner to hiv. even after that, i lost my mother. i felt like i was cursed. >> reporter: back-to-back losses threw him into a depression, lasting years, taking him almost entirely out of the public eye. >> the only thing that got through it was my music. it survived. i wrote very, very little. then of course i got myself arrested. >> reporter: it was the start of his public coming-out. >> i just want to start again. >> reporter: caught soliciting sex in a men's restroom in
benefitly hills in 1998. >> it took me about a year to admit to myself that i'd done it. deliberately. >> reporter: michael then went on cnn to dispel any remaining questions about his sexual orientation. >> i do want people to know that the songs that i wrote when i was with women were really about women, the songs that i've written since have been fairly obviously about men. >> reporter: even facing scandal, what was missing was any sense that he'd done something wrong. as shown in this bbc interview at the time. . the way that celebrities normally deal with scandal and shame, you know -- or supposed shame -- i react against it. >> reporter: and reacted with humor. >> one of my friends said his mother said, he's not the first, he won't be the last, he's just the biggest. and i thought, i like that. >> there really weren't a lot of openly gay artists of any note
at the time in which george michael came out. he sort of became an icon in the sense of the fearlessness that came to define not just a community but some of our great icons. >> reporter: george michael's struggle with drugs, in 2006 two drug-related arrests in england. 2010 he was charged with marijuana possession and driving under the influence. he pled guilty, serving four weeks of an eight-week sentence, paying a fine, losing his license for five years. >> when you know you've done something really stupid, then the punishment doesn't really feel inappropriate. and it's a weird thing because like i said, i think that i really learnt something from that. because i did something that i've never done in my life, which is take risks witho with people. >> reporter: abc news went behind the scenes with michael in 2008 as part of his "25 live" tour, marking his first 25 years in the business. ♪ i need someone to hold me but i wait for something more ♪ >> reporter: in a return to a
celebration of life. ♪ i gotta have faith >> reporter: despite the years out of the spotlight and the messy public dramas, his fans stuck with him. but he said he never let fame go to his head. >> i don't inhale any of that -- it's dangerous. because what i really am is a writer. and you know, i -- you know, i never thought much to begin with, but whatever they are they'll fade, my brain will go. eventually it will all go but the songs are still there. >> reporter: outside his london home george michael's fans gathered, lighting candles, some weeping. his death is treated as unexplained but not suspicious by police in oxfordshire, england, the town where he died. michael's peers remembering his tremendous talent. wham band mate, heartbroken at the loss of my beloved friend. and aretha franklin. together they won a grammy.
>> he was on the money. he made such a tremendous contribution musically. it's a huge loss. ♪ you told me to go up the back to get you extra time ♪ ♪ when i got back to the flat you had burned at the back ♪ >> my relationship with music was changed so much. you don't appreciate where you and are what you've got until you get older and watch your friends and how tough life is. suddenly you see the spit wa spirituality. not just the good fortune of being able to play good music. ♪ i will be the one who loves you till the end of ♪ ♪ i will be your father >> tune into "20/20" tomorrow at 10:00 p.m. for a full hour george michael special. up next, how these parents stumbled upon a remarkable breakthrough with the son who has autism. they say he came out of his shell through animated films like "aladdin."
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now the story of two parents who thought they'd lost their son to autism. they say he began talking again through the magic of movies. disney movies to be specific. disney of course is the parent company of abc news. abc's deborah roberts gives us another look. >> i'm peter pan. >> i'm captain hook, you're peter pan, okay. >> reporter: precious home video. make-believe between a 2-year-old and his dad. but this moment in time would later mean so much more. >> then we just watched it over and over. how could this be possible? here he is just a few months
ago. >> good-bye, peter pan! >> reporter: not long after filming this in 1993, owen's world halted. he stopped talking, showing affection, and engaging in the world around him. his parents, ron and cornelia, soon got a shattering diagnosis. regressive autism. >> must have been devastating. >> we just froze. you know -- and the doctors started to explain, okay, this is going to change your life. he may never get his speech back. many of the kids don't. >> reporter: ron, an award-winning "wall street journal" reporter, gifted with words, but now his own son has none. >> he started to vanish. couldn't look at you. walked around like someone with their eyes closed when you can't get them to smile when you say something or to respond when you say i love you -- that doesn't leave you with a lot. >> reporter: by 4 years old, owen's parents say his language is gibberish. one word sounds like "juice."
>> he's saying juicer vose. >> reporter: then notice he's comforted watching animated movies with big brother walt, who's also struggling to connect with owen. >> he would calm down during the movies. so that was our refuge. ♪ that was really the only time we would be together. >> reporter: a hallmark of autism, intense focus on a particular topic. for owen, disney movies. >> i want to be where the people are. >> reporter: one day as they're rewatching "the little mermaid," owen's strange phrase makes sense. >> it's the moment where ariel realizes she needs to become human. >> can you do that? >> she makes her deal with ursula, the sea witch. the key moment of the movie. >> reporter: now, at 25, owen still recalls the scene. >> what does ursula say? >> "it won't cost much, just your voice." >> i grab owen and say, just
your voice. he looks at me for the first time in a year and says, "juleser"jules "juicer vose." pandemonium breaks out. >> reporter: another epiphany retold with these illustrations in the film "life animated," short listed for an academy award this year. >> i go to the bedroom. then i see on the floor next to the bed is a puppet. it's yago, the evil sidekick to the villain jaffar in "aladdin." >> jaffar, get a grip. >> i crawl across the rug quietly as i can, i don't want him to look at me. i throw the bed spread over my head. i grab the puppet, push the puppet up through the bed spread. and i say to him in gilbert godfrey's voice, "owen, owen, how does it feel to be you?" owen turns to the puppet like he's bumping into an old friend. he goes, "not good, i'm lonely
and i have no friends." then we talk. it's yago and owen. it's our first conversation since he's 2 years old. >> reporter: the bedside discovery launches an experiment. they use dialogue from disney movies as the code breaker for communicating with owen. what did you feel watching those movies? >> felt like i was in a better safe place. >> there you see? >> reporter: for owen they were instructions about life. offering kinship with certain characters. it wasn't just the movies, it was the sidekicks? >> the sidekicks, yeah. >> what is it about the sidekicks, owen? >> they are so fun-loving, wacky, and entertaining. also help the heroes fulfill their destiny. >> most people think the sidekicks are important? no. >> no. >> the question is, who are you? >> did you feel a little like a sidekick yourself? >> i sure did. >> reporter: owen saw himself as the sidekick to his own hero, older brother walt. >> like any big brother, you
want to be his protector, you want to be his role model. >> reporter: when walt had a big moment, owen took notice. >> i never thought, okay, walter's having a bar mitzvah, owen will have a bar mitzvah. why would i put him through all this? we had enough trouble just getting through day to day. >> reporter: it would be life changing. >> shabat shalom. >> reporter: owen wrote his own serm sermon. >> sometimes people are scared of people who are not like them. they can be mean and ignore them sometimes. we should never take advantage of another person's weakness. >> i would say that owen's bar admits val mitzvah day was the proudest day of his life. >> strength, character, big heart -- >> reporter: the message of acceptance and understanding is one director roger ross williams would take to heart when signing on to tell owen's story. >> i was uncomfortable in the beginning around owen, i didn't know how to behave, like everyone else in the world. >> reporter: the oscar-winning director would ride the ups and
downs from owen's life, from school graduation to adulthood. >> many times i was in tears with him. he would go to his bedroom and watch the saddest scenes he could summon up from disney films. and he would watch them over and over again. and that's how he processed it. that's how he dealt with his pain. >> please welcome to the stage owen suskind. >> recently owen has gone from watching his favorite movies on screen to watching himself on screen, becoming a celebrity in his own right. >> the owen effect is extraordinary. as he takes the stage, people are in tears. they're screaming out his name. >> reporter: but life isn't all glitz and glamor. owen works two part-time jobs and is a regular at the local "y" where he has a fan club. >> cape cod's most eligible bachelor. >> reporter: it's a life of big possibilities for someone who once seemed to have so few. what do you want people to learn
about you, owen, and your life? by watching the film, what do you hope other people will learn? >> understand me. >> understand what? >> understand my way in the world. >> reporter: a world that he knows will one day be different when his parents grow older. >> i'm not always going to be here to do your tie. >> i know. >> reporter: of course, there's comfort for owen in a favorite scene. from "the lion king." >> the father says, simba, let me tell you what my father once told me. >> look at the stars. the great kings of the past look down upon us from those stars. so whenever you feel alone, just remember -- those kings will always be there to guide you, and so will i." >> there will be a time up ahead when we'll be gone. he will not only look at stars, he will hear in his head the voices of all the characters he's embraced. and he will remember us.
precisely. our voices, our faces, our words, and our love. >> reporter: for "nightline," i'm deborah roberts in new york. >> be right back with more "nightline." that's charmin ultra strong, dude. cleans so well, it keeps your underwear cleaner. so clean... you could wear them a second day. charmin ultra strong. it's 4 times stronger, and you can use less enjoy the go with charmin.
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tune into gma tomorrow morning for more on the life and death of george michael. don't miss the full hour george michael special tomorrow night on "20/20" at 10:00 p.m. thanks for watching abc news. as always we're online at abcnews.com and our "nightline" facebook page. thanks for the company, america. we leave you with george michael's popular anthem, "freedom." ♪ that i don't belong to you and you don't belong to me ♪ ♪ freedom i won't let you down ♪ freedom i won't give you up ♪ freedom remember what you say ♪ ♪ freedom