Elvis Presley would have celebrated his 80th birthday on Jan. 8, 2015.
Although best known as the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis also lives on through a phenomenal number of appearances in scripted motion pictures — 31 in all — beginning with “Love Me Tender” in 1956 and ending 13 years later with “Change of Habit” in 1969. His movies provide a glimpse into another dimension of one the 20th century’s greatest entertainers.
Although his films were often dismissed due to weak and predictable scripts, critics generally regarded Elvis as a surprisingly good actor. But what did costars think about working with Elvis?
In 1966, 10-year-old Donna Butterworth costarred in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style,” the second Elvis film set in Hawaii.
“My mom and dad took me to see ‘Blue Hawaii’ when I was just a little girl, and I fell in love with him right then and there,” Butterworth says.
She recalls filming her first scene on the cliffs of Makapuu, on Oahu.
“I had to run up into his Elvis’s arms and call out ‘Uncle Rick, Uncle Rick,’ ” she says. “But I had only met him a few minutes before that. So when the director called, ‘Action,’ I ran up and got in his arms, and his face was about four inches from my face. After all the anticipation of meeting Elvis Presley and working with him, I just froze. I couldn’t believe I was so close to this beautiful man! All the crew cracked up because they knew I was so enamored. In fact, Elvis laughed the hardest — he just loved to laugh.”
Unlike Butterworth, 7-year-old Susan Olsen wasn’t an Elvis fan when she briefly appeared in the talent contest audition scene in Elvis’s second-to-last film, “The Trouble with Girls” (1969).
“I didn’t even think he was good-looking!” says Susan, who went on to play youngest daughter Cindy on the popular ’60s TV show “The Brady Bunch.”
That changed after their first brief encounter.
“I remember that a bunch of the kids’ mothers suddenly started screaming,” Olsen says. “Elvis had come out of his dressing room, and they crowded around him for autographs. So I thought, ‘What the heck! I’ll get one too.’ So I went up to him — and I’m not making this up — when he looked at me, I thought: ‘Oh, I get it! I see why they like him so much.’ He had this special aura about him. I was just dumbstruck; I couldn’t say anything. He signed the photo, handed it to me, and said ‘Here ya go, darling.’ ”
Elvis’s leading lady in “The Trouble with Girls” came away with more than just an autograph. Marlyn Mason snagged an on-screen kiss, albeit a comedic one. She took an unusual approach to get the required reaction from Elvis. The kiss came just after a fireworks scene: Elvis comes up behind her and starts rubbing her shoulders.
“I just turned around, off camera, and started undoing Elvis’s belt and trousers!” Mason recalls. “Well, I didn’t get very far because it wasn’t a long scene. Elvis got this funny look on his face, which you can see in the film. He was great fun to work with because I could throw anything at him and he’d just throw it right back.”
She also recalls a private moment when Elvis shared thoughts about his acting.
“The saddest thing Elvis said to me was, ‘I’d like to make one good film because I know people in this town laugh at me.’ But he was always down-to-earth and comfortable with himself. Some of that dialogue was so corny, but he managed to bring a realness to it. And I think that’s just how he was in real life. He was a natural comedian, and his timing was just impeccable. I just found him to be a very genuine person.”
Will Hutchins, who first worked with Elvis in “Spinout” (1966), says Elvis didn’t play the celebrity, although he was usually accompanied on most of his films by pals — the so-called Memphis Mafia.
“On the set, Elvis was like a host — a Southern gentleman — making sure everyone was having a good time,” Hutchins says.
Hutchins also costarred with Elvis in “Clambake” (1967), which featured a lot of ad-libbing and fooling around on the set.
“It was more-or-less a de facto stag party because Elvis was getting married soon after the filming was finished,” Hutchins says. “Elvis and his buddies would set off firecrackers. It was pretty wild but a lot of fun. For the director’s birthday, they had a cake and pushed it right in his face!”
Wilda Taylor appeared in three Elvis Presley films, strutting into Elvis movie history as exotic dancer Little Egypt in “Roustabout” (1964).
“[Elvis] knew his material and music well, and I grew to admire him a great deal,” she says. “Oddly enough, I really didn’t know much about Elvis before we worked together, but I found him to be a lovely, darling person, and I was just pleased to be a small part of his life.”
With each passing decade since his death at age 42 in 1977, the Elvis legend and legacy continue to expand, and the memories he gave grow ever more cherished.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 450 magazines and newspapers.