I met him, for one glorious half-hour, face to face, one to one, in the rarest interview I ever got as an eager-beaver young showbiz reporter for the broadsheet London Evening News, in its heyday the world’s biggest evening paper.
I’m talking the Sixties. Things happened in Hollywood that don’t happen now to scribes seeking out the famous. But when I suddenly found myself sitting across from ‘the King’in his luxury trailer on Sound Stage D at Universal Studios – now, that was a surprise.
He was making what turned out to be his last film: Change of Habit, with Mary Tyler Moore playing (yes) a nun. I had gone through all the usual motions from London, making phone calls to people who knew people. But the barriers had gone up.
The way in to the Elvis camp was via his mentor and manager, the legendary Colonel Parker. On an earlier trip to Hollywood I had met someone who knew the colonel’s personal assistant. Friendly persuasion worked. I was given the green light to watch Elvis filming on the set. ‘But no interview, feller. That’s the deal.”
That was fine by me. It was still a scoop. Fewer than 100 Brits ever really met the King throughout his entire career: Tom Jones, Petula Clark and the Beatles when he worked Las Vegas. Yes, a few fans. But not a single interview in the files.
A finger-snapping black dude in a white suit welcomed me to the set. ‘I’m surprised you got this far. Elvis is strictly off limits,’he said. But I had been given the secret password known only by its brand name of ‘Colonel Parker’s OK”.
Inside, the set was a seedy hotel room in a New York ghetto. I watched Elvis doing his best to give a realistic performance of a doctor working among poverty-stricken kids. Someone called: ‘Cut, print!’and Elvis vanished into his luxury trailer moored against one wall, as a protective group of his hillbilly friends, known as the Memphis Mafia, closed around him.
Then the dude was at my elbow. ‘Hey, you’re in,’he said, radiating disbelief. ‘You got Colonel Parker’s OK. There must be a good breeze blowing today.’He added anxiously: ‘You won’t probe too deep, will you? Keep it light and airy, OK?”
OK. The good breeze continued to blow as far as the trailer. The Memphis Mafia sat around the steps, strumming guitars.
They had names like Charlie, Doc and Steve. And inside the King rose to his feet, extended a hand in a firm grip, and called me ‘sir”! He was so polite!
He spoke carefully, putting a lot of space between his words: ‘You tell the folks back
there in England that I’m coming out to see them real soon.’
He never did, of course. He got as far as Prestwick Airport on his way to army service in Germany, and that was it.
But now he talked to me about women (‘Your girls are real sexy”), the weather (‘You had snow there lately?”) and his career (‘I don’t plan too far ahead. I just keep going.”). No, nothing too deep.
It didn’t matter. Elvis picked up his guitar and sang Heartbreak Hotel for me. From the doorway, the Memphis Mafia joined in. Elvis cracked a gag. Charlie cracked a gag. I cracked a gag. After half an hour we were the best of friends for life. Then he was called back to the set.
I could have stayed for the day, but the dude in white was at my elbow. ‘Don’t let’s push our luck any more,’he said. ‘Time to go.’