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Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit : Universal 1969 Printer Friendly Page

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By David English

The notice outside the big gray 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.

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.

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.

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 Change of Habit.

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. 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.

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.

'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.

In the dressing room Elvis shakes hands in a firm grip. 'This is Charlie, this is Doc'. Two small, burly men. in 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 ...' 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 go, 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.

[From Rolling Stone magazine, Issue 37 - July 12, 1969]

Elvis signing autographs in Magnolia Park
Elvis signing autographs in Magnolia Park.

Robert Deanda (Carlos in the football scene) : 'That was fun day with Elvis in the park and everybody watching him film. There were a lot of fans there that day. All these girls would yell 'Elvis!Elvis! ... take a picture with my baby!' Elvis said to me, 'I got to watch that, taking a picture with baby stuff, ten years down the road they will say ... see, he's the daddy ... he's holding my baby!' - Everything was roped off.

Every time they changed a shot, they moved the rope, to keep the crowd out of shot. They had the rope tied from tree to tree. Elvis had a great time. He was very friendly with everybody, shook everybody's hands, signed autographs, he was real good with people, very nice and very humble.

Mary Tyler Moore, Elvis and director William A. Graham share a joke between takes
Mary Tyler Moore, Elvis and director William A. Graham share a joke between takes.

Director William A. Graham : 'Well Mary Tyler Moore was wondering what she was doing in an Elvis Presley movie. It was not particularly her kinda movie that she would ordinarily appear in. And I remember that she was a little bit on the prissy side, but that was okay because she was playing a nun, so I would expect her to be a little bit reserved. She also was very concerned about how she looked on camera because she suffered from diabetes, which caused her skin to be prematurely wrinkled. And so Russ was always required to put a special light on her, a light that was right beside the camera that would wash out all the wrinkles. And so even if we had a three-shot, she would kinda stand out with a kind of a heavenly glow that was created by this light. On the other hand, you know, I don't wanna say anything derogatory about Mary Tyler because she's a wonderful actor and a wonderful person and she did a fine job in the movie'.

Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit
Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit.

Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit

Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit

Elvis Presley with a fan on the set of Change Of Habit
Elvis Presley with a fan on the set of Change Of Habit.

Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson visits at Universal Studios to meet Elvis

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley and co-star Barbara McNair
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, Elvis Presley and co-star Barbara McNair.

Barbara McNair recalls the visit of Mahalia Jackson : 'Elvis and I were sitting there together and Mahalia came on the set and she asked Elvis if he would participate in a fund-raiser that she was going to organize. Elvis was so gracious, 'Oh,Mrs Jackson, I am so happy to meet you, I would love to do it, but I still have to ask the Colonel'. So after she left, he said to me, 'I'll never do it, the Colonel won't let me', but he was so gracious to her, he knew all the time the Colonel would not let him do it.

Barbara McNair with Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit
Barbara McNair with Elvis Presley on the set of Change Of Habit.

Barbara McNair : I felt like everybody else felt about Elvis,you could never really get to be close to Elvis because he was always being guarded by his guys, but it really wasn't that way, he was very approacable.We talked all the time. He talked about his mother, he talked about religion.

For instance, if we were off for the weekend, he would come back on Monday and he would tell me everything he did over the weekend. It was just regular conversation. We would sing to his records in his dressing room.

He had just put out 'Suspicious Minds'and so he was practicing it.

Elvis Presley with Change Of Habit director William A. Graham
Elvis Presley with Change Of Habit director William A. Graham.

William A. Graham: I was kind of nervous about meeting Elvis.

I was in awe of him, like so many of us were. But to my surprise he turned out to be very approachable, very easy to talk to, and we got along just fine. He put me at ease. And of course he had the approval over the director and I guess he thought I was okay, so he said, 'Let's go ahead and use Billy'.

Colonel Parker and Elvis Presley
Colonel Parker and Elvis Presley.

Director William A. Graham describe's working with Colonel Parker on Change Of Habit 'I hear you've been going up to Elvis', Sonny'. And I said, 'Yeah, that's right. I've been working with him. We've been working on the acting and he's really coming along very well'. So he said, 'Well listen, Sonny', he said, 'Let me tell you something. We make these movies for a certain price and they make a certain amount of money, no less and no more'. So he said, 'Don't you be goin' for no Oscar, Sonny, because we ain't got no tuxedos'. And so that was my reprimand. And so I kept on going up to see Elvis, but the Colonel was a little bit suspicious of -- that we were gonna take the movie off in a little bit different direction from Elvis' normal stock in trade, and we did'.

*

the 'Let Us Pray' production number filmed on location at Saint Patrick's Catholic Church. There were problems while filming the Church scene. An extra objected to the shoot taking place in a Catholic Church.

The film crew had agreement from the priest, and the permission from the Arch Diocese.

The 'Have A Happy' production number was filmed on the Universal back lot park
The 'Have A Happy' production number was filmed on the Universal back lot park.

The 'Have A Happy' production number was filmed on the Universal back lot park

The above 'Have A Happy' production number was filmed on the Universal back lot park.

The scene was in fact shot three times. The first shoot used a small old merry-go-round, which looked out of place. The second shoot had technical problems with the sync and the camera, (The playback system had just been used on 'Sweet Charity' using quarter inch tape) then after a third attempt, some pick ups were still needed because Amanda wasn't smiling at the end of the number.

Cynnie Troup (assistant trainee script supervisor): To get that little girl to smile, oh my god!!

They had a day of re-takes, after the whole movie was over, after the wrap party, which Elvis was certainly involved. It was not a very good song, that scene was awful.

It was tough to match, who sitting on what horse, it wasn't fun scene at all.

Director William A. Graham : We were shooting this musical number on a merry-go-round where he's taken this little girl to the park and he takes her on the merry-go-round and she's riding around and Elvis is singing to her. Well, she was a very young girl and she could only work for a few hours a day with us getting into all kinds of penalties and overtime. So when it came time to do Elvis' close up the little girl wasn't available to do the offstage. Also, you know, her attention span was not that great. So Elvis said to me, 'I always feel better when I'm singing a song if I can look at somebody and if I can sing to somebody'. He says, 'I wonder if you would mind standing beside the camera and let me sing to you when I do my close ups'.

So I had Elvis Presley sing a song directly to me in a movie, and that was quite a thrill

Elvis on the Universal Studios back lot
Elvis on the Universal Studios back lot.

Elvis Presley

Ed Asner :

What was Elvis Presley like to work with?

Ed Asner: He was very nice to work with. I worked with him twice. I worked with him on 'Kid Galahad', and I worked with him on 'Change of Habit'. In 'Kid Galahad', his hands were all bandaged and broken up because he was in his karate stage at that time, breaking bricks. But he was a delightful young man to be around, never offensive, always seemed to work hard. Then in 'Change of Habit', he was a different young man at that point and seeming to be concentrating very seriously on being an actor.

Elvis Presley with a fan on the set of Change Of Habit
Elvis Presley with a fan on the set of Change Of Habit.

Elvis Presley and Jane Elliot (Sister Barbara Bennett ) - On location for the Ajax Market scene
Elvis Presley and Jane Elliot (Sister Barbara Bennett ) - On location for the Ajax Market scene.

On location for the Ajax Market scene at Western Avenue, south of Santa Monica Blvd.
On location for the Ajax Market scene at Western Avenue, south of Santa Monica Blvd.

On location for the Ajax Market scene at Western Avenue, south of Santa Monica Blvd.

On location for the Ajax Market scene at Western Avenue, south of Santa Monica Blvd.

Sister Barbara Bennett (Jane Elliot) Dr. John Carpenter (Elvis) and the LT Moretti (Ed Asner)

Walt Gilmore: (assistant trainee director) 'Well it is a big deal to stock a set. It is much cheaper to go down and rent a place like that. We only had it for half a day,they didn't loose a lot of business'.

*

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Mary Tyler Moore talks about Elvis Presley
Interviews with or about Elvis Presley Interview with William A. Graham Change Of Habit Director

Elvis Presleys Movies Change Of Habit - Universal 1969

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