Elvis Presley On Set: You Won’t ask Elvis Anything Too Deep?
HOLLYWOOD – The notice outisde the big grey double-doors was simple and to the point. SET CLOSED, ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE. You find notices like this outside a lot of film studios, and they tend to have a certain elasticity. This one, outside what looked like an aircraft hangar but was actually Stage D at Universal Studios, meant it.
Inside, Elvis Presley was filming. And where Elvis goes, the barriers go up as if some sinister germ warfare experiment were being carried on within. Like a suckling infant, he is swathed and coddled against the realities of the world outside, as if he were made of rare porcelain rather than hewn from good old-fashioned Tennessee stock.
But this day he was on show. I had been given the magic formula. The secret open-sesame known only by its brand name of “Colonel Parker’s Okay” had been handed me. The doors swung wide, and I was in.
They say Colonel Parker is the man who built Elvis from the erotic gyrating days of the swivelling Pelvis through 14 long and fruitful summers to his present status, by pushing and pulling his protege through the tricky cross-currents of pop music taste. I wouldn’t know. I had asked to see him, this onetime Texas fairground barker, to thank him for the green light. But he was always somewhere else. In his office at Universal, over at Metro, down in Palm Springs, in Las Vegas to lay the trail for the next live show . . . always somewhere else.
No matter. Who needed Colonel Parker when Elvis himself was alive and well and filming? The Publicity Man who escorted me as close as if he were handcuffed said proudly: “I’d like to work with him again, he’s so sweet and uncomplicated. I was surprised you got through – no one’s talked to him yet, you know. There must have been a good breeze blowing.”
The good breeze continued to blow as far as the set. A mauve-walled pad with kitchen adjacent and a king-size bed visible through half-drawn yellow curtains. Elvis sat at a table, staring at his hands, while three mini-skirted girls, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair and Jane Elliott, scurried around with trays of food.
The film is about three nuns who pose as nurses to “identify with the people” in a Negro ghetto in New York. The title is Change of Habit (yes, it is) and stars Elvis as a medic who falls for one of the nuns.
Elvis is wearing a paint-stained blue denim shirt and tight blue jeans. He looks relaxed and affable and rather meatier around the jaw-line than one remembers from previous films. Marriage (back in May 1967 to Priscilla Beaulieu) is obviously agreeing with him.
His eyes have that smoky slow-burn of the old-time movie vamp. He siezes a guitar and strums a few chords. It’s the last week of shooting, and like the good days between exams and the end of term.
The atmosphere on the set is hip and loose, full of leather-clad youth and clever in-talk. The director is thin and intense, wears a check shirt and gym shoes, and is called Billy Graham, which is going to look interesting on the posters of a swinging nun.
Elvis produces some dialogue. He is never likely to win an award as an actor, but he knows what the kids want and he gives it to them. The girls are talking about a party. The cameras turn. Elvis says: “You get a lot of people down here on a Saturday night, and all the old hates come out. Before you know it they’re bombed out of their skulls and you’ve got World War III on your hands.”
Earth-quaking stuff. But this simple homespun philosophy is off-key. “Bombed out of their skulls” wasn’t in the script. And the director isn’t too happy about it. “It’s a good line,” says Elvis. “Okay, okay,” says Billy Graham. The line stays. Maybe it will come out in the cutting room, but it’s there for now.
“The whole thing is downhill,” says a technician. “He don’t talk to anyone, except his own friends.” There is no sign of tension, but then Elvis has nothing to be tense about. He can go on churning out the same thing for another decade, and they’ll still queue to see it. If he’s over the top, as some unkindly souls occasionally try to make out, he doesn’t seem bothered.
He is 34 . . . Raised in Memphis . . . Once a truck-driver, stumbled into records, took the world by storm as the original snake-hips . . . Now lives in cloistered seclusion in a colonial mansion near Nashville, with a Rolls, a solid gold Cadillac, a wife, a daughter (Lisa Marie, aged one) and several bodyguards for company . . . Has made 29 films, grossing 220 million dollars at the box office, and sold more than 200 million records.
Elvis heads for his trailer in the far corner. A group of friends (known in some quarters as the Memphis Mafia) close around him like a football scrum after a loose ball. The code-word is given. I am beckoned over. The good breeze was still blowing.
“You won’t probe too deep, will you?” The Publicity Man asks anxiously. “This is just an informal chat, that’s the deal. So keep it light and airy, okay?”
Well . . . okay. I checked my notes. Does Elvis fly high on acid trips? Does he see himself as a prophet for the new generation? Does he think his style is too square? Does he have any sexual hang-ups? His marriage altered his attitude to life in any way? Does he kick his cat? Does he have a cat to kick? What are his views on pop, religion, hippies, demonstrators, Vietnam? Stuff like that. No, I wasn’t going to probe too deep.
In the dressing room Elvis shakes hands in a firm grip. “This is Charlie, this is Doc.” Two small, burly men light leather jackets and open-neck shirts rise and shine briefly and subside again. The trailer feels a bit crowded.
Elvis talks. He speaks slowly and carefully, and puts a lot of space between his words. “The film? Uh, well . . . it’s a change of pace for me, yeah. It’s more serious than my usual movies, but it don’t mean I’m aiming for a big dramatic acting scene, no sir. The way I’m headed, I want to try something different now, but not too different. I did this film because the script was good, and I guess I know by now what the public goes for.
“Most of the scripts that come my way are all the same. They’ve all got a load of songs in them, but I just did a Western called Charro, which hasn’t any songs ‘cepting the title tune. It did have a couple of nude scenes, but they’ve been cut. Anyhow, can you imagine a dramatic Western where the hero breaks out into song all the time?”
He has said plenty, and now he leaps to his feet, hands flashing to imaginary holsters, and sings in a deep drawl: “Go for your guns . . . you’ve got ’til sundown to get outa town . . . ” It could be the start of a promising sketch. The others follow suit, singing, clowning, all on their feet. If this is the Memphis Mafia, they’re a friendly bunch.
Elvis sits down, and everyone stops singing. He eyes himself in the dressing room mirror. “I don’t plan too far ahead, but I’m real busy for a while now. I’ve got a date in Vegas, and maybe another film after that. Then I’m going to try to get to Europe, because I’ve always promised I would and I’ve got some good, faithful fans over there.”
Slow-talking Elvis may be. But he certainly isn’t the slow-witted hick from the backwoods his detractors make out. If he is, then he’s a better actor than they give him credit for. Get through to him, and you find a pleasant, honest, not-too-articulate hometown boy who has been protected for his own good from the hysterical periphery of his present world.
The party was warming up. Elvis cracked a gag. Charlie cracked a gag. There was a call from the door. Elvis was wanted, and the good breeze was still blowing as he made for the set, one hand on my shoulder. Charlie and Doc were all smiles.
“Okay?” said the P.M. “You did real fine.”
Well . . . not quite. I said. This Colonel Parker, would he be around for a word later? Elvis stopped in his tracks. The P.M. went a whiter shade of pale, and whispered something to a friend. The friend nodded in sympathy. “I must tell you about an experience I had like that once,” he said, eyeing me as if I’d just crawled out of the woodwork. Elvis said: “I think he’s in Palm Springs. I’m not sure . . . ” He hurried off.
The P.M. said: “Don’t let’s push our luck any more. We never trouble him for too long a time. You should be very happy. You had more than anyone’s had in years.”
Somewhere along the line, unaccountably, the good breeze had dropped.
This story is from the July 12th, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.