By Nick Thomas
For many, the title “King of Rock and Roll” is reserved for one man: Elvis Presley. Had he lived, Elvis would have celebrated his 80th birthday Jan. 8.
In addition to his music, Elvis 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.
Although his films are often dismissed as a result of weak and predictable scripts, critics generally regarded Elvis as a surprisingly good actor. But what did his co-stars think?
In 1966, 10-year-old Donna Butterworth appeared 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,” said Butterworth. “I couldn’t get enough Elvis.”
She recalls filming her first scene on the cliffs of Makapuu, on Oahu, running into Elvis’ arms.
“I had only met him a few minutes before that,” Butterworth recalled. “So when the director called ‘action,’ I ran up and got in his arms, and his face was about 4 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 Donna, 7-year-old Susan Olsen wasn’t an Elvis fan when she briefly appeared in the talent contest audition scene in Elvis’ second to last film, The Trouble with Girls (1969).
“I couldn’t understand all the hype over him, and I didn’t even think he was good-looking!” said Olsen, who went on to play youngest daughter Cindy on the popular 1970s TV show The Brady Bunch.
That changed after their first brief encounter.
“I remember that a bunch of the kids’ mothers suddenly started screaming,” said Olsen. “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’ leading lady in The Trouble with Girls came away with more than just an autograph. Marlyn Mason snagged an on-screen kiss.
“It was a comedy kiss,” said Mason, indicating that the only fireworks were the real ones in the movie scene.
She took an unusual approach to get the required reaction from Elvis. Just after the fireworks scene, Elvis comes up behind her and starts rubbing her shoulders.
“I just turned around, off camera, and started undoing Elvis’ belt and trousers!” Mason recalled. “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.’ I’ll never forget that,” she said. “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.”
Wilda Taylor appeared in three Elvis Presley films, but strutted into Elvis movie history as exotic dancer Little Egypt in Roustabout (1964).
“We rehearsed for about two weeks,” said Taylor. “Elvis was in and out of rehearsal hall every so often between his other busy filming days for the other scenes. He knew his material and music well, and I grew to admire him a great deal. It’s amazing, through the years, how many people know about me and Little Egypt from that film. 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.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for more than 500 magazines and newspapers.
From the Jan. 7-13, 2015, issue