LOS ANGELES -- When ABC wanted to make a miniseries about the Jackson family's life in 1992, Michael Jackson had one major requirement before he would give his blessing: Someone beautiful had to play his mother.
The superstar adored Katherine Jackson, who ended up being portrayed by Angela Bassett in the miniseries. Not only does Jackson's will designate her as the guardian of his three children, but she is the only person other than his kids to inherit a share of his fortune. Katherine Jackson has also sought to retain control of her son's estate, and was appointed the estate's administrator when no will was presented.
Jackson had a fractious relationship at times with various family members and other confidants, but friends say Jackson saw his mother as the one flawless, angelic constant in his life.
A Jehovah's Witness, Katherine Jackson, 79, is universally described as a gentle, loving matriarch who has doted on her family and fought to keep them united through tough times.
Born Katherine Scruse, she was reared in Chicago and overcame polio as a child (she still walks with a slight limp). She married Joe Jackson at age 19, and they had 10 children (Marlon Jackson had a twin who died shortly after birth) in nearby Gary, Ind.
Katherine and Joe Jackson are still married and recently marked their 60th anniversary. But their relationship has long been difficult and they have not lived together for years, according to a close friend of the singer who did not want to be identified because the person was not authorized to discuss the family.
Though it was Joe Jackson who managed Michael Jackson and his brothers to early stardom, Michael credited his mother with giving him his vocal gifts. He described her as a pianist and singer in her own right who was the first to identify and encourage her children's musical talents.
"Every child thinks their mother is the greatest mother in the world, but we Jacksons never lost that feeling," Jackson wrote in "Moonwalk," his 1988 autobiography. "Because of Katherine's gentleness, warmth and attention, I can't imagine what it's like to grow up without a mother's love."
Michael Jackson's three children have not had their biological mothers in their lives. But people close to the Jacksons say Katherine Jackson has an incredibly close relationship with her grandchildren, perhaps more than anyone else in her late son's life.
"She was never out of favor (with Michael), so she was able to spend a lot more time with the kids than anybody else," said J. Randy Taraborrelli, a friend of Jackson and author of the biography "The Magic and the Madness."
Katherine Jackson was by her son's side through some of his greatest triumphs and tragedies, from his stunning "Thriller" success to his 2005 acquittal of child molestation charges.
"They just loved each other unconditionally," said Taraborrelli. "Even when he was illogical in some of his decisions ... she didn't care, she just defended him and supported him without reservation his entire life."
Michael Jackson lived with his mother, along with siblings Joe, Janet and LaToya, at the family's Encino, Calif., compound until he was almost 30. After he moved to his vast Neverland estate, his mother remained part of his inner circle.
L. Londell McMillan, who is part of the legal team representing Katherine Jackson in her bid to control Jackson's estate, said Jackson trusted his mother completely and wanted to make sure she was always well provided.
"Michael would often say to those of us in his life, 'Please make sure you help me to protect and take care of my children and my mother Katherine,'" McMillan said.
Rob Goldstone, a former Jackson publicist who spent time on the road with him during his 1989 "Bad" tour, described him as "a momma's boy. He loved his mom."
"The one thing that was very apparent that everywhere we went, he would want to go shopping and buy something, and his mom was the one he wanted to buy something special for," he recalled.
Jackson's relationship with his mother was the opposite of what he had with his father, who managed Michael and his children's careers until they reached adulthood and business ties were severed.
Michael Jackson had a complicated relationship with Joe Jackson. He had described his father as physically and emotionally abusive. Even the sight of Joe Jackson would sometimes make Michael so nervous he would vomit, the son had said.
Joe Jackson was the parental figure who spent the most time with Jackson during his formative years. Katherine Jackson didn't go out on the road with the Jackson 5, staying at home to raise LaToya, Janet and Randy.
But the mild-mannered mother would stand up to her husband and defend their children when she thought things were getting out of control, Taraborrelli said.
"She's very strong, and a very powerful woman who would stand up to Joe," he said. "That's the only reason why it worked. ... She had the tenacity to defy him when it really mattered."
Though the pair do not live together, their lives are still intertwined. Ten years ago, they filed for bankruptcy, listing nearly $24 million in debts that included court judgments, auto loans and credit cards. Court records show the only valuable asset listed was a house in Las Vegas then valued at $290,000.
Now that Katherine Jackson has been granted temporary guardianship of her grandchildren, some wonder what influence Joe Jackson might play in the grandchildren's lives. A person with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified because the person was not authorized to talk about the relationship, said the children have a loving relationship with their grandfather, but said that Katherine Jackson would be their primary caregiver.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said she has already assumed that role, shopping for clothes for her grandchildren over the weekend.
"She's doing very well," he said Sunday. "She is the matriarch of this family. She is so deep in her religion. She has a real insulation, not an isolation, kind of a spiritual, so she sees her family in the broader sense and all of them kind of gravitating a certain way to mom as they were."