Author’s Note: The following is–unfortunately–a work of speculative fiction, using the names of real people and semi-real movies. Please don’t look for any of the films described below because—except for Change of Habit—they do not exist in this form. Click here for information on Elvis’s actual body of work.
It’s one of downtown Memphis’s biggest annual events: the Christmas Day charity dinner and impromptu concert by the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, at 3 Kings 3, the Beale Street restaurant/nightclub he co-owns with two other local “monarchs,” legendary bluesman B.B. King and pro wrestling icon Jerry “the King” Lawler. Last month’s gathering was one of the more significant in recent memory, however, as a tanned and fit Presley announced that, in light of his upcoming 75th birthday, he was retiring from acting on TV and the big screen in order to spend more time with his family. With Elvis’s 50-year film career coming to a (permanent?) close, let’s take a look at what he dubbed his “second chapter,” the period since 1973. It began in the wake of personal turmoil and an unexpected death, and it led to renewed box office success, critical acclaim…and derision, and a trio of Academy Award nominations.
The month of January, 1973 was certainly a rocky one for the 38-year-old superstar, from the high of his Aloha from Hawaii concert, broadcast live by satellite to over a billion viewers worldwide, to the news that he and wife Priscilla were filing for divorce. Amid all this, and during negotiations with RCA for a new recording contract, came word in mid-February that Presley’s manager/financial advisor “Colonel” Tom Parker had died from a stroke at age 63. Devastated over his failing marriage and the loss of his longtime mentor, Elvis retreated from the public eye for over a year, rarely venturing outside his Graceland estate. Rumors of weight gain, alcoholism, and addictions to Demerol and other prescription drugs filled the tabloids, until the singer took the then-bold step of checking into a private facility for rehabilitation (the Southern California clinic would later be purchased by him and evolve into the Elvis Presley Center, the “hot spot” for celebrity rehab).
It was shortly after Elvis returned to Memphis that he received a life-changing offer from Barbra Streisand and her boyfriend/producer Jon Peters, who were planning to shoot a music-based updating of A Star Is Born and wanted him to play opposite her. Had Parker still been overseeing the business dealings, an insistence on top billing and salary haggling would have probably squashed the deal. But now Elvis was eager to prove to Hollywood—which left him in the lurch after the disappointing performance of 1969’s Change of Habit—that he could succeed as a dramatic actor, even if it meant taking a backseat to Babs. Released in December of 1976, A Star Is Born would go on to earn over $70 million at the U.S. box office and garner five Oscar nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Presley as the aging rock star who takes neophyte singer Streisand under his wing and into his bed, only to watch as she eclipses his success. Audiences were taken with the stars’ on-screen chemistry, and Elvis found himself a desirable screen commodity again.
Desirable to moviegoers, perhaps, but the studios weren’t quite sure what to do with the returning King. Elvis turned trucker for his follow-up project, teaming with director Sam Peckinpah and co-stars Ali MacGraw and Ernest Borgnine for 1978’s Convoy, a popular crash-‘n-smash big rig actioner loosely based on the CB novelty song of a few years earlier. Burning Love, a 1979 romantic comedy that paired Presley with Sally Field as a small-town fire chief and city councilwoman, respectively, failed to generate much heat from critics or fans, and he made a brief appearance as a prison guard, leading inmates John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in a performance of Jailhouse Rock, in 1980’s The Blues Brothers.
The next hit for Presley would come from another unlikely source: Australian-born director Fred Schepisi, who cast him as a bearded (!) veteran outlaw who becomes a teacher and father figure to farm boy Gary Busey in the 1981 art-house western Barbarosa. The off-camera friendship that developed between the ‘50s pop idol and the actor who shot to fame portraying Buddy Holly was evident in the frontier tale, and would continue between the pair for years to come. A devoted karate practitioner, Elvis finally got the opportunity to show off his moves on the screen when Chuck Norris convinced him to play the bad guy in his 1983 martial arts thriller, The Octagon, Part II. He also got a chance to spoof his ‘60s film turns as race car drivers when he appeared as Clint Tupelo, a demolition derby reject who thinks he’s the King, opposite Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise and company in 1984’s Cannonball Run II, and later that year played a relatively convincing younger version of himself in the final episode of TV’s Happy Days.
It was a big day for stunt casting when Presley saddled up with fellow country heroes Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson (whom he apparently beat out for both the A Star Is Born and Convoy roles), and Willie Nelson in a 1986 TV version of Stagecoach, which was a ratings success if not a particularly well-done remake of the John Ford classic. Slightly better received that year was the Yuletide family comedy Blue Christmas, with Elvis and Shirley MacLaine as a recently divorced couple whose grown children hatch a scheme to reunite them over the holidays. 1987, however, would see Presley joining Tom Selleck and Steve Guttenberg as hapless bachelors who wind up caring for an infant in the surprise hit Three Men and a Baby. It would be his biggest grossing film ever, taking in over $175 million domestically, yet he would turn down the chance to appear in the 1990 sequel and was replaced by, of all people, Cheers star Ted Danson.
That decision is is now considered a mistake on Elvis’s part, because what followed were not the choicest of roles. A 1989 musical version of To Sir, with Love, set in the East L.A. barrio and co-starring pop singer Selena, proved that—as in Goodbye. Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon—adding songs to remakes isn’t always a good idea. Another role as a racer, in the 1990 Tom Cruise drama Days of Thunder, didn’t help matters. But the worst reception came later that year, when Presley played the part of a former country crooner and convict who teaches new cellmate Vanilla Ice how to play the guitar, in an updating of his 1957 smash Jailhouse Rock. Intended to do for the rapper what the original did for Presley, the film earned a Golden Raspberry Award as the year’s worst and was renamed “Jailhouse Flop” in Esquire Magazine’s Dubious Achievement Awards.
With his screen career in the doldrums, Elvis took a break from acting and went back to the recording studio, lining up an all-star array of guest performers that included Tony Bennett, Jon Bon Jovi, Bono, Amy Grant, Whitney Houston, and his old friend Streisand for the Grammy-winning 1991 duets album All the King’s Friends. The next year, he signed an exclusive Las Vegas performing deal with hotel mogul Steve Wynn at the recently opened Mirage casino. While he was packing in tourists and high rollers on the Strip, Presley found the perfect comeback film role: a satirical version of himself in the 1992 comedy Honeymoon in Vegas, in which he sets up a deal to have Nicolas Cage’s $65,000 gambling debt erased if he gets to spend the weekend with Cage’s fiancee, Sarah Jessica Parker. The scene where Presley is surrounded by a squad of skydiving Elvis impersonators, with Cage clad in one of his early ’70s-styled jumpsuits, had audiences howling.
Many of those same moviegoers were moved to tears by his surprising next role, a National Geographic photographer in ’50s Iowa who has a brief but passionate affair with Italian farmwife Meryl Streep, in director Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film version of the best-selling novel The Bridges of Madison County. Eastwood had planned to play the male lead himself, but a broken leg suffered during the first week of shooting left him scrambling to find a replacement, and it was while listening to Presley’s music that Clint got the idea to cast him. It was a decision that paid off to the tune of over $150 million worldwide, and got the King his second Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Ironically, he would lose to his Honeymoon co-star Cage for a film called (of all things) Leaving Las Vegas. After serving as the narrator for I Was the One, a 2000 concert retrospective film that served as a 65th birthday salute, Elvis slowed up his movie and TV work–which included guest turns on pal Norris’s Walker, Texas Ranger and the hit drama Touched by an Angel–to concentrate on country and gospel albums as well as his 2001 follow-up All the King’s Friends 2.
One filmmaker that wasn’t going to miss out on the chance to work with Presley, however, was action cinema enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino, who–after considering choices as diverse as Warren Beatty and David Carradine–drove from L.A. to Memphis to convince Elvis to appear as the title crime boss and martial arts expert in his 2003/2004 revenge sagas Kill Bill, Vol.1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2. While his face was never shown in the first movie, Elvis made the most of his on-screen time with Uma Thurman in part two, waxing philosophic on the dual nature of Captain Marvel (Tarantino had written the lines about Superman, but the Captain and his sidekick Captain Marvel, Jr. were childhood favorites of Presley) before literally having his heart broken by assassin and former lover Thurman in a kung fu fight to the death.
Offered the role of Uncle Jesse in 2005’s big-screen translation of The Dukes of Hazzard, Elvis declined, stating that he wouldn’t like to play a character that shared the name of his stillborn twin brother (maybe it was a polite way of saying he read the script). A part tailor-made for him that he couldn’t turn down, however, was as the voice of country-crooning penguin Memphis in the 2006 animated feature Happy Feet, which gave Presley the chance to sing in a film for the first time in years and impressed a new generation of moviegoers…among them his own grandchildren. The next year saw him garner his third Oscar nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actor, for his performance as a lonely Alaskan retiree who befriends young wanderer Emile Hersch, on a doomed quest for self-fulfillment, in writer/director Sean Penn’s true-life drama Into the Wild.
That, along with a very brief cameo in the ninth-season finale of C.S.I. last year, would appear to be the coda to the showbiz legend’s acting resumé. Whether or not Elvis ever steps in front of the cameras again, his legions of fans around the world are grateful for a half-century of movie and TV memories, and wish him all the best in the future. Truly, the King will never die.