Interview with Steve Binder, director of Elvis' 68 Comeback Special
July 8, 2005 - 8:56:00 AM
Elvis Articles, Elvis Interviews
A : Sure. My name is Steve Binder. It's B I N D E R. Some people pronounce it Binder (short I), some Binder (long I), but it's Binder (short I).
Q : Tell us how you were approached to do the 68 special with Elvis.
A : Well I think I was approached because I was so naive in 68, that I had had a very passionate feeling about television and all, it could do to educate America and the world. And I had gotten a break early in my life and had directed a show in New York called 'Hullabaloo'. And from there I decided to get into the specials business. And I did put together a lot of the team from 'Hullabaloo' behind the scenes to do a Leslie Uggams special. Then the next one we did was with Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte. And that became a shot heard around the world when it was the first incident of a black and a white person touching physically on prime time television. And it created a kind of a furor among very bigoted advertising representatives from Chrysler Motors. They wanted the scene taken out of the show and it became very controversial in Newsweek and Time Magazine.
Q : Tell us about the first meeting with Elvis.
A : Well to be honest with you I had no passion for Elvis Presley's music. I was amused by him being a west coast kid, and I was into the Beach Boys and all the Jimmy Webb and 'McArthur Park' and so forth. And my partner at the time was a very prolific, well-established record producer. So we joined forces on the Petula Clark special as partners. And, Bones Howe did the recordings for the Fifth Dimension and the Association, Laura Nyro, etc. while we were a company. And Bones, when he heard I got the phone call said 'Hey, man, you got to meet him because you guys are gonna be great together. I used to engineer for Elvis. And I just know he's gonna like you a lot and vice versa'. So I agreed to a meeting at our offices on Sunset Boulevard next to Tower Records.
And, we talked about him going to Hawaii on vacation for a week, and so forth and so on. I remember asking him 'If I gave you 'McArthur Park' to record, would you have recorded it?' And he said, 'Absolutely'. And I knew that Elvis wasn't just a guy living in the past but he was up on things and really wanted to join the real world, the contemporary world. Cause I remember telling him that in my opinion if he didn't mind my bluntness, but to me he hadn't had a hit record in years. He wasn't makin' any movies so what was really making him this superstar was just Colonel Parker and his publicity machine. But television was a way to either instantly the next day become the biggest star in the world, or vice versa. You might do the television special and fall on your ass and that would be the end of your career other than the memory of what you used to do. And I think he respected my honesty and we just hit it off. Then Elvis said he was going to Hawaii and I said 'Okay we're all gonna work on the show and when you get back, we'll talk about the 68 special'. Which is exactly what he did. He left and we put the show together and he came back and heard what we had to say.
A : Yeah I believe in the subconscious and I think when he was nervous and he was doing the special, a lot of the pre conversations and the conversations that went on with us was in the back of his mind from the very beginning. And I think he sang 'McArthur Park' in the improv sections specifically because of that conversation when we first met.
Q : Did Colonel Parker ever say he wanted the special to be a certain way?
A : The first time I met Colonel Parker, Bones and I went out to MGM Studios and the Colonel was showing off his office space. And he was bragging about his contract with MGM that was one-page long. And, I remember him telling me that, if they had any dispute with the studio they could be packed and out in a moving van in about two hours. And, then he presented me with a Snowmans Club membership which was, for those that don't know, the Snowmans Club was a fictitious club that the Colonel was president of. And, he was strictly for anybody who was great at knowing how to BS, you became a member of Colonel Parker's Snowmans Club. And I never considered myself much in that arena but it was fun to get the certificate and the little cards that went with it and the booklet and so forth.
Q : A lot of stories say that the Colonel wanted Elvis to come out in a tux and sing Christmas songs.
A : Well, Colonel Parker had a lot of preconceived ideas but my experience from the very beginning of my career to the present is that, you know, let creative people create and let business people do their business. And it's business people are very creative but they should keep in the business world not the creative world. And Colonel Parker gave me a audio tape, the old-fashioned kind that used to play on reel to reel. And it was Elvis Christmas present to radio. And it was an hour of recorded Christmas songs. And then there was this fake DJ stuff where, you know, the local DJ could insert himself asking Elvis questions and Elvis would answer, even though the two were never in the studio at the same time. It goes on to this day. And I took it and I just heard all of the talk of this is going to be a Christmas special. This is gonna have 26 Christmas songs in it. And to be really honest with you, it never phased me and it never entered my mind that that was what we were gonna do. It just wasn't part of my psyche.
Q : When did you and Elvis sit down to discuss how the show was gonna be done?
A : Well, when Elvis came back from vacation in Hawaii, and he was awesome looking. I mean, I'm heterosexual. I'm straight as an arrow and I got to tell ya, you stop, whether you're male or female, to look at him. He was that good looking. And if you never knew he was a superstar, it wouldn't make any difference if he'd walked in the room you'd know somebody special was in your presence. So he came back from Hawaii and he was all tanned and he was in great physical shape and he was in a real good mood. And, they came to our offices again. And we took him into the back room. And Chris Beard, Allen Blye, myself, I think Bones might've been in the room. And basically speaking we had a whole stack of his albums, every movie he ever made, every recording he ever made, etc., which is how we basically tailor made the show. What I told Elvis when he went to Hawaii is that we would make him a show that nobody else could do. Only him. We would--- it was like making a tailor made suit. It would be made for him. And that's the way that I like working and I like working with all the talented people that I've surrounded myself with. Where we'd go into a think tank, and we'd never had titles. There was no Mister anybody in the room. There was no director, producer, star, whatever. We just sat there and we just all pitched equally, and I love working that way.
And so we decided that what would be better than taking a theme, a main theme, which is here's this dirt poor basically country boy who's a singer, who starts in life with nothing. And he works his way to fame and fortune. And goes full cycle where after he's got all this fame and adulation, he realizes that happiness is home. It's where he all--- you know, he's a musician and it's all where he began. And with that thread through the show, we then weaved a lot of different segments. But they all related to music he had either recorded or he liked or whatever. It was a special that we could not have, if he dropped out, we couldn't have run to another artist and said do this show. It was impossible. It was Elvis show. And we ran into a great conflict with NBC, who wasn't used to having one star in prime time. It was unheard of. You had a star and a bunch of guest stars. I think NBC at one time asked if we'd put Milton Berle on the show or something.
And, it was a case of when Elvis came back and we pitched him the concept, and we had broken it all out in terms of, we're gonna do this sort of miniseries within a segment where you're gonna go to a pier. First thing was the bordello sequence where he leaves his hometown and he goes and the first encounter he has is he walks into a bordello. And then there's this virgin innocent girl who's never even worked one day and she looks Elvis and he looks at her, and just as they were about to get together the place gets raided and they jump out the window, and he's on the road again. And then he goes to an amusement park and he has a confrontation with Big Daddy, who's this mean carnival barker who breaks his guitar and so forth. And we just did this sequencing. He goes to a little tiny dive to sing. He goes to a more upscale club. And pretty soon he's a superstar in concert. And then it tags with, you know, where his real happiness is his roots, being home and being an artist. And that was one segment.
Then we knew how much Elvis loved the gospel. I was blown away with the fact that here's a man to this day that's never won a Grammy for rock 'n' roll. The only Grammys he picked up were in the gospel area. I think he won two in that category. So we put a gospel segment together. I wanted the whole show to be live Elvis, even though we had an orchestra. In some segments, I wanted him to sing live in everything. The only regret I have about the special is in the gospel segment, he did a lot of lip synching. And to this day I regret the fact that, I caved in and let him lip synch cause I think his forte was live performance, even on television.
Q : Did the sponsor give you a hard time about the bordello segment?
A : Well the show was presold to Singer Sewing Center and that was a deal before I walked in with Colonel Parker and NBC. And Singer was doing other specials at the time. I think they did A Don Ho special. They had a package deal at NBC. And, but they were thrown the Elvis special and they picked it up. And at the time, the phones were ringing off the hook when people realized Elvis Presley was gonna do a television special. I remember Colonel Sanders was dying to get involved and sponsor the show, with their Kentucky Fried Chicken. It led to a really good experience after that because, Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks was really wanting to sponsor the show and I'm sure NBC would've got a lot more money from these sponsors who really wanted to be involved with Elvis. And instead they said it was already a done deal. So when Singer was in a sense thrown into the pie, they were obviously concerned with little old ladies who would go to Singer Sewing Centers and buy sewing machines. So there was no real generic relationship with Elvis Presley and his music. But as long as they stayed out of the loop in the creative process I was happy.
And they did for a long time until we reached this scene, which now is called for years the Bordello scene. It never was a bordello scene to begin with. It was all part of that, you know, life cycle story of a musician trying to become famous. And, what happened is that we did scenically put a brass bed in the room of all these women. And somebody from NBC all of a sudden labeled it the bordello. And that's what started the ball rolling in terms of the negativity of shooting that scene. So when I got the buzz that, you know, the cleavage on the ladies was too low, I went to the costume department and I say 'Okay, let's have the NBC standards and practice person standing there,' and let's get some net and, you know, sort of work on their dresses and their cleavage to make sure it met NBC standards. And we went through that and everybody was happy.
And then the next thing that happened is I heard a rumor. Nobody came to me and said, 'We're gonna cut this out of the show'. So I went to the sponsors and I went to NBC and I said 'Look, I want to know before I shoot it, not after. Is it gonna stay in the show or is it going out?' And then somebody, even though I never said it, somebody said 'Binder's gonna walk out of the show if we tell him it's gonna be cut out of the show. So we better tell him it's okay'. So I got them to give their word of honor that this piece would not be taken out of the show. And then as soon as I shot it, word came down that they were gonna take it out of the show, and I threw a big tantrum I guess at the point.
And, nobody at NBC in the programming department wanted to confront me or face me on this issue. So they decided to bring somebody from New York who was making toasters for, you know, General Electric or somebody. It was probably before General Electric owned NBC. But whoever it was high up in the RCA world came down, and he had no knowledge of show business that I knew of. And, I met him down in the videotape editing room, and he was looking at the monitor at a Dean Martin Show. Dean Martin had this girl in a bikini who, you know, our girls were very conservative compared to what this girl looked like in prime time on NBC. And I think he had Phil Harris, the bandleader, and they were basically telling a dirty joke without the punch line. This guy was laughing his head off and I said 'This is gonna be a piece of cake'. He's gonna look at our thing and say 'Fine'. So I bring him over to our tape machine and I play the sequence. He looks up and I can see his face go from smile to frown. And, he looked at me and he said, 'Out'. So, that was a battle that I really fought and I lost it for awhile. But years later, somebody said 'Hey that was a really good scene. We got to put that back into the special' and they did.
Q : So now it's on home video?
A : And it broadcasted on NBC with it in. That's the irony of the whole thing. The first time out they wouldn't let it, you know, they were afraid of--- and by our standards today, it was nothing believe me.
Q : You and Elvis went for a walk on Sunset Boulevard?
A : Not a walk necessarily. I was always kinda probing and, you know, we had a really good behind the scenes one on one relationship. And I said 'What do you think would happen if you walked out on the street today?' And he said 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Well what do you think would happen?' And he looked at me curiously and he said 'Well, I don't know what do you think would happen?' And I said 'Nothing. This is 1968. You walk down on the street on Sunset Boulevard, and I almost promise you, guarantee you, nobody's gonna tear your clothes off. Nobody's gonna hound you for autographs or whatever, you know, they're gonna just accept you. These are different times, you know'. And that was the end of the conversation, and it was a few days later, we rehearsed the show at our offices in the piano room before we ever went to NBC with the full orchestra and the staff and so forth. And every day Elvis would come to our office and we would rehearse the show on piano, and teach him the arrangements and so forth. And up until this time Elvis had never recorded in his life with anything bigger than a rhythm section. Drums, bass guitar, sometimes he'd even have a bass and that was it. And now we're asking him to, you know, appear before 50 musicians and sing. He was nervous about that. And then when I fired Billy Strange and brought in Billy Goldenberg, Elvis didn't even know who Billy Goldenberg was, to do all the arrangements and conduct the special. It truly changed his musical direction. After that he loved big bands and full orchestras and what have you.
Anyway, the story, I'm digressing. But the story on Sunset is a few days later while we were rehearsing, Elvis came to me and said 'Let's go'. I didn't even know what he was talking about and I said 'Lets go where?' He said 'Downstairs'. So everybody grabbed their hats or coats or whatever and they said 'Let's go' and Elvis said 'No, no. Only Steve and I are going down there. You all, you can watch from the window,' cause we were on like the third floor. And he said 'But we're goin' down there, you know, to see what it's like on Sunset Boulevard'. We went down at the peak of traffic, like 5:00 in the evening. And we got down in front of our building. And then, we stood out there for a few minutes, and we were chatting small talk. I don't even remember what we were talking about. But what I was observing, and what he was observing, was that nobody was paying any attention to us. And after awhile it got uncomfortable. And Elvis pretty soon was trying to draw attention to himself. He was kinda waving at cars driving by and some kids were coming from Tower Records and they bumped into us and didn't even lift their heads up to see they had bumped into Elvis and so forth. And, we stood out there for like 10, almost embarrassing minutes, trying to draw attention to hey this is really Elvis Presley.
And after it was all over I could tell a real change of attitude in him. He was loose, he was really fun, and he really trusted me. And then, the irony of the thing is I was convinced if anybody had a sign out on Sunset Boulevard saying, this is Elvis Presley not some Hollywood impersonator or character or whatever, he would've been mobbed and they would've torn his clothes off and so forth but he never knew that and I never mentioned it to him.
Q : How did 'If I Can Dream' come about?
A : Well the Colonel obviously had a lot of problems as the special was progressing. But I do want to say, in all honesty, that Colonel Parker at any given time in my opinion, could've pulled the plug and gotten rid of me. He could've fired me in a minute. I truly believe that and I think as much as he hated the fact that I had gotten in between him and Elvis, he respected the fact that he thought something--- he didn't know what but something was happening with this special that was different. So you know, all he would do basically is have these personal confrontations. When he liked me my name was Bindel, B I N D E L. And when I knew it was serious it was always Binder. And he called a meeting every once in awhile with Elvis and myself, where he had a problem with the show.
And one of the things is that he knew there was no Christmas song in the show. And he had lost the battle long before of this was not gonna be a Christmas show with 'I Believe,' which Frankie Laine and Perry Como were singing at the end of their shows and so forth, which is what he wanted, as the closing number of the show. And so he called me in one day and, with Elvis, and the three of us were in this little water closet that he had called an office. He always loved playing these games. He had two William Morris agents, dressed in uniforms, standing out this little tiny literally broom closet which they had cleaned out for him. And he insisted upon that to be his office. And we walked in there and, he said, 'Binder it's been called to my attention that you don't plan on having a Christmas song in the show at the end'. And I said, 'Yes'. And he said 'Well, Elvis wants a Christmas song in the show. Don't you, Elvis?' And Elvis sort of had his head down and his eyes lowered and he said 'Yes sir'. And I said 'Fine. If Elvis wants a Christmas song in the show we'll put a Christmas song in the show'. And, I won't use an expletive but we walked out of the Colonels office, thinking it was resolved and, Elvis jabbed me in the ribs and he said, you know, 'Blank him. We're not gonna worry about that'. So, I had gotten to know Elvis pretty well in terms of his philosophy.
One night when we were rehearsing, the television set was on the other room and all of a sudden there was this moment of silence. And I said, 'I think Bobby Kennedys just been shot'. And we all rushed into the other office and that's exactly what happened. They had live at the Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy making his speech. We were in the piano room at the time, but there was just something weird that evening and I just sensed something had gone wrong. Then we spent the whole night basically talking about the Kennedy assassination, of both Bobby and John.
And I really liked him. I thought Elvis was one of the nicest, kindest, funny guys I had ever been exposed to. He may not have been college educated but he was sure street smart and well read. And, Elvis basically had in those moments of pure honesty, had been saying things that I felt we should say on the air in the special. So I went to Earl Brown, our special material writer and choral director, and to Billy Goldenberg and I asked them to disguise. I had read an article that in World War Two all the German artists were disguising their art work so, you know, the Nazis would never know what they were saying cause it was too abstract for them. And I said, 'We're gonna get it passed the Colonel if we just write a speech. But if we can put it in the lyrics of a song, he's never gonna know what we did'. So I asked them go home and write a song about the philosophy of what I was hearing from Elvis personally. That, you know, we're all created equal. We're all deserve to walk hand in hand with our brothers, and all that stuff.
And, one morning, very early in the morning, I got a phone call from Earl Brown saying 'I think we did it. I think you've got your song'. And so we rushed down to the studio to hear it and Billy Goldenberg played piano and Earl sang 'If I Can Dream'. And the lead sheet that I was handed had Earl Brown and Billy Goldenberg as the writers of it. And I said 'Well let's wait till Elvis shows up and we'll play it for him'. In the meantime Colonel Parker was saying over my dead body 'Are we gonna play that as the last song of the show?' And I waited for Elvis and Elvis came into the dressing room. And I ushered him into the piano room and Colonel Parker was in the outer room with Tom Diskin and a few of the RCA people and so forth. And I could hear them mumbling, you know, their discomfort and not wanting us to do what we were doing.
And we played 'If I Can Dream' for Elvis and Elvis listened to it. He said 'Play it again'. So we went through it again and Elvis said, 'Which I had become accustomed to'. When Elvis was really making decisions he didn't just want to make rash fast decisions. He wanted to, you know, absorb it and hear it over and over. He had Billy and Earl play this song I would say three or four times. And he looked at me and said, 'Okay I'll do it'. I said 'You'll do it' and immediately the door burst open, and contracts were in hand to give away the publishing and so forth for RCA and Elvis publishing company. Once they realized this is going in the show whether they like it or not.
And the really great story about this is that when Billy Goldenberg knew that Elvis was gonna sing it, he walked over to the piano. He took out a pencil and eraser, and he erased his name from the lead sheet, because in reality, Earl Brown had written that song all by himself. That probably cost Billy Goldenberg a zillion dollars, you know, in songwriter fees and what have you. But the integrity of that staff was second to none. I mean, I love these guys to this day I'm very, very close to all of 'em.
Q : What did Elvis tell you about the show?
A : Well when we finished the show and I had gone down into the catacombs of NBC. In those days we recorded the show on two-inch videotape. And then when you ever made edits you had to use a razor blade to cut the tape physically and so forth. So it was a very, very laborious system. And, because I was allowed to recreate. I never was allowed to do the real thing but I was allowed to recreate the improvisational acoustic session. I had tons of footage beyond the show that we originally prepared, which was a well organized written affair. But when I saw the improv I said, 'This is what the world wants to see. This is Elvis with his hair mussed up and sweat under his arm pits,' which NBC objected to when I showed 'em the show. They wanted that taken out of the show cause this is prime time.
And then, when Elvis passed away, some genius at NBC said 'Okay, we got to rush out a Elvis Presley tribute and we'll take the Hawaii special and we'll take the 68 special and we'll put em together and we'll make a big show out of this. We'll get Ann-Margret to host it'. Well, whoever went down into the dungeon and into the library, not knowing anything, pulled the 90 minute tape out. And they ended up doing three hours, as a tribute, and played the 90 minute special. Well there was technically no 90 minutes on tape. I thought they had erased it or destroyed it or whatever but they obviously didn't. And that ended up restoring and getting back the full 90 minutes, which had a lot of the improv segments in it.
And then eventually, the outtake reels became more important than the show itself. And HBO calling it 'One Night With You' aired the entire unedited improv sections which were, you know, which I had nothing to do with, I mean, is Elvis Presley and that proved he wasn't just a myth of the Colonels PR machine. And it even proved to Elvis himself that he was that special and that fantastic. Cause I think in the very beginning and the reason that Elvis bought that doing the special in the first place is because I thought he had lost confidence, which most artists do at one time in their life. And I thought he was afraid. In fact I think he expressed it to me. He didn't think he had it any more for the audience cause he had been taken away from that live audience for so many years making those movies. And I could visually see him gain his energy, excitement, confidence. You could just tell if you're behind the scenes, just by his facial expressions.
At first he didn't even want to go out there and do it. In fact I was called into the dressing room. I think Joe Esposito came and got me. Said 'We got a crisis'. I said 'Whats the crisis?' He said 'Elvis doesn't want to go out there and do this improv'. So I had to go into the makeup room, and he cleared the makeup lady out of the room. He said 'Steve I can't do it'. I said 'What do you mean you can't do it?' And he said, 'I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do'. And I said 'Elvis, go out there. I mean, if you go out there and say hello and good bye, I'm happy. But you've got to go out there. You're not gonna cop out at this point. We got an audience waiting for you. And all your friends are here and you've got to go out'. And when he went out there, he was scared to death. And he went out there and the opening number he was shaky. His throat was dry. And you could see all these things. Then little by little boy, this just, you know, amazing urge of confidence just flowed through his body and we had this cue at the end of the improvs, of playing Memories, which was a recorded track. And he sang live to the track. And the cue was, Elvis let me know when you've finished all the improv, and then I'll play the track. So we had this little hand signal between us. But the reality is when he did both of the improvs, both of them, he never gave me the cue. I kinda had to just sense the moment when I felt it was time to play the track.
Q : He was like a caged tiger on stage.
A : Well I think he was. I mean, the great thing about Elvis was his natural instinct and he never gave himself credit for being a great musician, though most musicians really feel he was. He was always sort of down playing himself, as strange as that may sound. And, when we did the improv, you know, I think he really had so much curiosity and fear in him as to whether he really had it that when he walked out there and realized, you know, 'Hey. They not only are loving it but, you know, my guys are loving it and I'm loving it'. I mean, this is what it's all about.
Q : How did Colonel Parker feel about it?
A : Well, the whole idea of the improv came--- it was inspiration cause Elvis had physically moved into NBC. He was living in the dressing room, and that was kinda unheard of, for the whole period that we filmed this.
Q : Was he in Dean Martins dressing room?
A : Exactly. Well it was the Dean Martin stage. And, so Elvis had basically by moving in, he'd go get up and we'd start rehearsals early in the morning and, you know, there was a cast of hundreds. And, at the end of the day when everybody was wiped out and going home to rest up for the next day, Elvis went into the dressing room, and all the guys went in there, and they started to unwind. And how they unwound was to just jam. These are those moments where'd you get to look through keyholes and see things that you're just in awe of because you're not supposed to be seeing this stuff. I said I got to get a camera in there and got to film this. This is better than anything we're doin out on the stage. And Colonel Parker said 'No he wouldn't allow it, no cameras, no still photography'. And so I was trying to figure out how to do it. And Colonel said 'Okay I'll tell you what I'll do. Providing that I have total control and it won't go into the show unless I say it's okay to go into the show, I'll let you recreate it out on the stage,' which is how the whole improv began. And, that's exactly what I did but it never was as great as it is, it never was the real thing that I saw in the dressing room.
Q : Was there a mix-up of tickets where no one showed up and you had to get people from Bob's Big Boy?
A : The incident with the tickets was --- I went to Colonel Parker and when I was told it was okay to do this and I decided we'd have two audiences and we were inviting 250, 300 people to come to each one of these sessions. And so I had NBC guest relations print up the Elvis Presley tickets. And believe me, we could've sold those tickets for $1000 apiece or something, even in those days. I mean, to see Elvis Presley for an hour or two, you know, improvisationally singing and talking and everything was just unheard of. And so I went to the Colonel and I said 'How many tickets do you want for your friends or your family or RCA or whatever?' And he said, 'Bindel, said you don't understand how the Colonel works'. He said, 'I don't want any tickets. But, if you want all of Elvis fans with the bouffant hairdos and all the screaming and yelling and everything from Memphis,' he said, 'I want all the tickets. And if you give me all the tickets, that means all of 'em. You can't have any, NBC can't have any, Singer can't have 'em, nobody gets 'em'.
So I went to NBC and I went to Bob Finkel, and I went to the sponsors and I said 'This is the deal. And for me there's no contest, let's give 'em to the Colonel and let's get this, cull this audience'. Not taking into consideration that my real feelings were, in all honesty, is I didn't trust what the Colonel said. I mean, I just didn't feel 100 percent confident when he said he was gonna do something it was really gonna happen. And I usually try and protect my backside all the time by anticipating whether things are gonna happen. In this case I didn't. I convinced everybody to give the Colonel all of the tickets for both shows, which I did. He got out his briefcase and all the tickets went into the briefcase. And I'm expecting these airplanes to fly in from Memphis, and all these screaming women coming out and all the Elvis hard core fans and so forth.
And about two days after the tickets were given to the Colonel, the guard at NBC while I was driving out one evening, said 'Hey Steve, do you need any tickets for Elvis?' And I said 'What are you talking about?' And there on his desk in the guard booth was a stack of Elvis Presley tickets. That was my first indication we're in trouble in River City, you know, we're in deep trouble if this doesn't come off. So the next morning I got there extra specially early, expecting to see the Johnny Carson, Jay Leno fans lined up outside of NBC but, you know, tenfold. I just expected there'd be fans taking over all of Burbank wanting to see Elvis Presley. There was nobody and I drove into the gate and we're gettin ready to organize the staff and the stage to shoot this sequence and all of a sudden the head of the guest relations comes to me and said 'Steve we're in big trouble'. There's just a few people standing outside. Those tickets weren't distributed. They didn't go to anybody. So we panicked. I mean, we called some friends of ours at some local radio stations and asked them to promote it on the air. We sent somebody over to Bob's Big Boy to ask customers eating hamburgers and malts to come over to see Elvis Presley and we somehow pulled together with enough people at NBC who were there, calling their friends and families and what have you to get these audiences in there.
Q : Did the special change your own life?
A : Well I certainly am flattered over the years of people saying 'Oh you're the guy that produced and directed the Elvis 68 special'. But in reality it hasn't. I've tried to live my life, you know, if somebody asks me what's my favorite project it's always the next one. And I'm better for having done Elvis Presley, to be honest with you. I never thought it was going to be what it became in terms of folk legend or whatever. I was just doing 100 percent the best I could at doing a special.
Q : Is there a lot of unreleased footage for the 68 special and is there a chance for future specials? (This interview was done in 2001)
A : As far as any unreleased material, I think the Elvis Presley estate has probably gone over material with a fine tooth and comb. They have been acquiring anything and everything that could ever be connected with him. The only thing is, that when I shot the improvisation segments I actually shot two hours. And I believe that only one of those two hours has ever been broadcast. The funny story behind it is that I got a phone call from the people who owned the RCA specials in New York and a gentleman named Jose Razkoff who was the business manager of the Elvis Presley estate for awhile. And they said, 'We just worked out a deal with RCA and we're going to do another Elvis Presley tribute show. Do you have any ideas?' And I said, 'Absolutely'. I said 'You don't even have to pay a penny for it. In the vault at Beacons, is two hours of the most incredible Elvis Presley outtake footage that exists'. So they didn't know what I was talking about and I went over to Beacons and got a letter from them authorizing me and I yanked out the two masters.
And I brought 'em to them and evidently they viewed it and they called me up and said, 'Do you think anybody cares about this stuff?' I mean, it blew my mind. And I said, 'Just play it in front of an Elvis Presley fan and there's your answer'. And they went ahead and sold it to HBO for I heard a million dollars. Just for the right to air it and it became one of HBO's biggest successful specials ever run to this day on their cable network. And, you know, it was retitled 'One Night With You'. And I know that--- all they ran I believe was take one. I think there's take two which had a repeat of a lot of the same songs, but certainly it was totally different because it was all improvisational. So even if he did the same songs he would've done 'em a different way.
Q : Where were you when you found out Elvis had passed away?
A : I can't even tell ya. I think I was doing another special at the time and was very involved in work and, I was very sad to hear that because my last conversation with Elvis, when we were alone at NBC just viewing the special, was that I had hoped--- because he told me how much he passionately loved the special. He really did, which is very rare hearing an artist tell you to your face how much they love what they see of themselves on the screen. A lot of artists don't even want to look at themselves after they finish a movie or a special. And he said how much he loved it, and he expressed to me that he was never ever going to record a song again that he didn't believe in and he wasn't gonna make a movie that he didn't passionately feel something about the script. And I said 'I hear you and I hope you're strong enough to live up to that' because, the reality is having observed Elvis in his relationship with the Colonel, is that I didn't know if he had a lot of real close personal friends. I equated him to Hamlet, who was afraid to go out into the real world because he was sort of insulated and isolated.
And, I did go to see Elvis in Las Vegas when he performed the first time there and I was really excited about him exploring new worlds for himself. And then the next time I went to see him, he had his back to the audience and I knew he was bored. And I think that was the big danger of Elvis future was to prevent boredom. And I think he overstayed his welcome mat in Las Vegas as a Las Vegas entertainer. I would've loved to see him make movies, go around the world and do concerts and so forth and so on. For whatever reasons, he chose not to.
Q : It's a shame you weren't able to contact Elvis and do another special.
A : I don't know if you could--- I mean, my experience in my career has been, and I think the reason I got into the specials business so heavily is the fact that it was a one and only. It had it's own beginning, it's own middle, it's own end and when it ended it was over. And I'm not sure if Elvis and I hooked up again and did another special or whatever it would've ever matched what we did the first time. Because, we were both experimenting. I mean, I didn't care about ratings. I didn't care about my relationships with the network or with Colonel Parker. I cared about doing the greatest special I could possibly do. And, I think he had the attitude of, this is our little window of opportunity to do something that he'd been yearning to do for a long time, and never had the opportunity to do it.
Q : Were there any celebrities who visited Elvis on the set?
A : The only thing I remember regarding celebrities is that, I remember there were lots of phone calls from the Beatles trying to talk to him but he never took the phone calls, to my knowledge. There were certain people who claimed to be very close friends of Elvis and they tried to get in the rehearsal rooms. And they were immediately person non grata and told to leave and, I never saw him one on one with any celebrity.
I do have a great story, which is the first time I took Elvis out to NBC to see where he was gonna shoot the special. I think part of the success is, the first time I met Elvis, he said he was basically afraid of television. It was not his turf quote unquote. And I said then, you know, 'Your turf is makin' records so why don't you make a record and I'll put the pictures to it'. And he told me later on that that's the line that relaxed him, because he never thought about him doing a television special. He was makin' a record and they were puttin' pictures to it.
But the really funny story is the first time I took him out to see the stage, there was a group of tourists, who were going out on a tour of NBC. They were gonna see the shoe shine guy in front of the Johnny Carson stage. They were gonna see where Dean Martin did his special and so forth and so on and there was like eight little old ladies kind of huddled as we walked in. And the two of us stood waiting for the NBC person to come and greet us and take us to the stage. And while we were standing there and Elvis had his sunglasses on. And we're just standing and chatting and all of a sudden this little woman came up and she said 'Excuse me boys, but are there any celebrities here today?' To this day she never knew, nor does she probably know now if she's alive, that that was Elvis Presley that she walked up to and asked that question.
Q : Were there any other funny incidences on the set?
A : Well every day was fun. I mean, it truly was. We had a great group of people. There was a great energy about wanting to do the show. Elvis was always in a good mood. The only time ever that I remember him being in a bad mood, I think was when Bob Finkel told him that he was using too much hair dye in his hair. He like freaked out over that and came to me and said 'Do you think my hair's too dark?' I said 'No, I think it looks fabulous'. But, other than that, there were a lot of laughs. You know, Joe Esposito and the gang were around and they were always filled with laughs. We just had a great time with all of them, you know, Elvis had this little bubble around him and nobody was allowed to penetrate it. But we all got along great together and we all had a lot of fun and I had a lot of respect for everybody.
Q : I had a lot of fun interviewing you, too. Thanks a lot.Elvis 1968 Comeback Special : Press Conference : June 28, 1968
An In-depth look at the Elvis : '68 Comeback Special
Review : 68 Comeback Special Deluxe Edition DVD
Buy Elvis '68 Comeback Special DVD
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