John Lennon Was 'So Happy' in His Final Days, Says Friend — but Faced Unsettling Premonitions (Exclusive)

John Lennon's collaborator Jack Douglas opens up to PEOPLE in this week's issue and in the new Apple TV+ docuseries 'John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial'

<p>Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris</p> Yoko Ono and John Lennon

Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris

Yoko Ono and John Lennon

The last time producer Jack Douglas saw John Lennon, the former Beatle was headed home after a hard day’s work in the studio. He and his wife, Yoko Ono, had been at Record Plant in New York City, recording what would become Ono’s 1981 single “Walking on Thin Ice.” As Lennon headed to the elevator, he smiled at Douglas, and told him he’d see him the next morning for their 9 a.m. studio call time.

“He was very positive,” Douglas tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue of the end of that session on Dec. 8, 1980. “They were both just so happy.”

It would be the last time Douglas saw his friend. As Lennon and Ono were about to enter the Dakota — the building where they lived with their son Sean — Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman, a young fan who’d sought the musician’s autograph earlier that day.

The shocking murder — which is being reexamined in John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial, a three-part Apple TV+ docuseries premiering Wednesday — cut short a legendary life that had in recent years evolved from that of a hard-partying rock star to devoted dad focused on revitalizing his music career.

“There’s a lot more to the story than a lone gunman suddenly turns up, squeezes the trigger, end of story,” says Nick Holt, a director of the series. “A lot of people obviously lost an idol, but first and foremost, he very much [was] a dad and husband.”

For Douglas, 78, his musical partnership with Lennon had come a long way since they first met in 1971, when Douglas engineered his landmark album Imagine. Just one month earlier, Lennon and Ono had released Double Fantasy, a comeback album coproduced by Douglas that went on to be a massive commercial success.

“He didn’t think we were going to set the world on fire with that record,” he says “But it didn’t matter to him. He just wanted to tell the truth about where he was in his life at 40 years old. And he felt really good about it.”

Douglas says Lennon was making plans for the future, eagerly plotting an upcoming tour and hoping for a reunion with “the boys,” as he was toying with an idea in which he and his fellow Beatles would serve as the backup band on a new Ringo Starr album.

“[Beatles engineer] Geoff Emerick used to say to me all the time, ‘I wish I knew the John that you knew,’ because he knew the very angry John,” he says. “And when I first started working with John, he was a bit angry and a bit impatient. He didn’t like to wait around for anything in the studio… When it came time to do Double Fantasy, I knew how he responded to everything.”

Related: John Lennon Worried How People Would Remember Him After He Died, Says Paul McCartney

He continues: “During that whole period, he was just so excited to be back and so happy to be with his family and how much he loved Sean and how things with Yoko were pretty good. It was a very different John, and that whole period was just lovely.”

Despite Lennon’s “jovial” nature (Douglas says he “always had jokes”), the star seemed plagued by unsettling premonitions in his final years.

“He spoke about death every once in a while. He would say things like, ‘I might be gone soon.’ He would say, ‘When I die, it’s going to be bigger than Elvis.’ And I’d say, ‘Stop talking like that.’ He insisted on journals being kept for every moment, everything being documented, me placing microphones all over the studio so that everything could be recorded. It felt like he had a feeling something was coming, and he was very intuitive about things. Extremely. Almost supernaturally about things.”

<p>Mediapunch/Shutterstock</p> Yoko Ono, Sean and John Lennon circa 1977


Yoko Ono, Sean and John Lennon circa 1977

On Dec. 8, Lennon’s ominous feeling came to a horrifying head. Before heading home after his session with Douglas, the musician told his friend he was soon traveling to Bermuda, and the two made plans for Lennon and Ono to return to the studio in the new year to finish working on the music that would become Milk and Honey (The album was eventually released in 1984, though the songs were recorded, but not finished, during the Double Fantasy era).

Douglas and Lennon lived just three blocks away from one another, and typically left the studio together. But that night, Douglas stayed behind to work on a Karen Lawrence & the Pinz record, having already pushed that work later in order to squeeze Lennon’s session in earlier that day.

“I would normally get out of the limo and just walk out Central Park West to our apartment. And that played very heavily on me for many years,” he says.

Related: John Lennon’s Ex Says He Wanted to Write with Paul McCartney Again After Beatles Split

Before long, tragedy had struck, and Douglas’s wife, having heard news over the radio that Lennon had been shot, ran to the studio to tell her husband. The couple made their way to Roosevelt Hospital, where they remained until 6 a.m.

The immediate aftermath was a blur for Douglas, who appeared on Tom Snyder’s late night show at Ono’s request to tell fans that Lennon would not want them to hurt themselves over news of his death. Two days later, Douglas and Ono held a private memorial service in the studio — the only service held for Lennon.

“We went to the studio, 11 or 12 at night, and I had an assistant bring out everything we could find in the vault,” he says. “It was talking, his music, anything. And we sat there until dawn just listening to different things that John had done. And that was the only service that there was. It was just Yoko and I.”

<p>Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty</p> Jack Douglas in Los Angeles in October 2010

Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Jack Douglas in Los Angeles in October 2010

For Douglas, Lennon’s death brought with it the death of a dream.

“There were a lot of plans,” he says. “I once asked [John], ‘What’s your secret of writing a really great song?’ And he said, ‘Tell the truth, and make it rhyme.’ The reason why so many people felt close to him was because they always felt they knew him, because he sang about what he was going through. There was just this great truth about his music.”

John Lennon: Murder Without Trial, narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, features eyewitness interviews and previously unseen crime photos that shed new light on Lennon’s murder and the investigation and conviction of Chapman, who never stood trial. The 68-year-old pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1981, as his attorneys and prosecutors debated his mental state. Sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, Chapman was denied parole for the 12th time in 2022.

The series includes interviews with Douglas, eyewitnesses to the murder like Dakota doorman Jay Hastings and cab driver Richard Peterson, plus Chapman’s defense lawyer David Suggs and Dr. Naomi Goldstein, the psychiatrist who first assessed Chapman.

For more on John Lennon, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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