In 1956, I got the chance to spend a few days with Elvis Presley while he was making his first movie. I was a reporter then, and my assignment was to interview this rock ’n’ roll sensation and find out what he was really like. Along with most American parents of that day, I was frankly prejudiced against the 21-year-old teen idol. He seemed a “delinquent” type with his sideburns, long hair, pegged pants and sultry expression.
I had my doubts about his music, too—was something that sent young girls into hysterics really worth encouraging? My attitude was shared by most of the actors waiting for Elvis to appear on the 20th Century-Fox set of Love Me Tender. They were prepared to snub the sneering, arrogant delinquent they expected to show up.
Later, as I watched Elvis shoot some early scenes with his co-star, Debra Paget, I was struck by the fact that he was far more handsome in real life than in his photos. And I was impressed that he played mumblety-peg between takes with members of the crew as if he were just one of them.
“The kid surprised us all,” one of the actors told me. “He turned out to be the nicest, most warmhearted, politest kid you ever saw. He behaved like a star-struck fan meeting actors he’s seen in movies. All of us who were prepared to give him a hard time instead began helping him with his lines and coaching him. The props, extras, doubles, stand-ins, crew—they’re all rooting for him to make good.”
During a break, I approached Elvis for the interview. Sizing me up with his brilliant blue eyes, he suggested having dinner in his hotel suite. When I showed up, Elvis greeted me warmly. “Mr. Archer,” he said hesitantly, “I hope you’re not going to make up a lot of things I never said. A lot of other writers have done that to me, and I don’t think it’s fair.”
“Elvis,” I assured him, “there won’t be a word in my story that you haven’t told me or agreed to.” I kept my word on that, and Elvis later showed his appreciation by giving me a copy of his album Elvis, inscribing it, “For Jules, one of the nicest guys I ever met.” I still have the album cover. I must confess I cared so little for rock ’n’ roll that I gave the record to my neighbor’s daughter.
For dinner that night, Elvis ordered a simple sandwich, a slice of melon, milk and crackers. As we conversed, I found him to be just an everyday boy from the Mississippi Delta. He was very polite and deferential to me as his elder, answering my questions with a bright “Yes, sir.” I learned that he didn’t drink or smoke, was bored by nightclubs and liked to relax by throwing baseballs at wooden milk bottles and winning teddy bears. Deeply religious, he was a home boy who frequently grew lonesome away from his parents.
After dinner, an elderly maid came to remove the dishes. She broke into our conversation to tell Elvis how much her grandchildren enjoyed his singing and asked for his autograph. Instead of being annoyed by the interruption, Elvis smiled. With great warmth, he told her, “Ma’am, it’s very nice of you to say all those kind things about me, and I greatly appreciate it.” He autographed a napkin for her.
That cinched it for me. Elvis was a nice kid, not at all a delinquent type. He truly was one of the nicest youths I’d ever met—certainly one of the most polite and most respectful.
Still, I never did learn to like rock ’n’ roll!
By Jules Archer
Scotts Valley, California