Interview with William A. Graham Change Of Habit Director

By: David Adams
Source: Elvis Australia
April 19, 2020

Change Of HabitWilliam A. Graham was an American television and film director. Graham directed episodes of many TV series including The Fugitive, Twelve O'Clock High, The Big Valley, Batman and Ironside. He also produced and directed the romance adventure sequel Return to the Blue Lagoon. Graham was the director of Elvis Presley's final acting role in a motion picture, Change of Habit, in 1969.

Q: Tell us how you were approached to direct Elvis in Change Of Habit.

A: I was under contract to Universal at the time and they'd been throwing different things at me and I'd been saying that I wanted to do a feature and they'd promised to give me a feature. But so far I'd done just television movies and episodes of some of the series. Then along came the Elvis picture, which kind of surprised me, 'cause I didn't think that Elvis was exactly the right casting for that movie. But I read the script and I thought, with a little rewrite we could make something nice out of it. So I said, 'Okay, here we go'. I met Elvis and we got along, and so that's how I got on the movie.

Q: How was your first meeting with Elvis like?

A: 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.

Q: So Elvis really put you at ease.

A: 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, and use Billy'.

Q: You changed a few things about Elvis, like his hair.

A: At the time, Elvis had the hairdo that he was famous for. He had a kind of a pompadour in front and his hair was full of grease. And although because this was a movie about a doctor working in the ghetto it just didn't seem to be quite the right hairstyle. So I talked to him and I said, 'Elvis, how would you feel about changing your hair a little bit?' Well, he said he would be open to the idea, and so then we talked about who would do it. And I said, 'Well, do you like the way my hair is done?' I had a Japanese lady in Beverly Hills who was cutting my hair at the time, and he said, 'Yes'. So we went to see Jan and she washed all the grease out of his hair and modified the styling and it was quite a landmark achievement. It was pretty unusual to get that done. And Elvis actually liked it very much.

Priscilla liked it even more. Priscilla got down on her knees and said, 'Billy Graham, thank you, thank you, thank you'. Said, 'You don't know what it's like living with all this grease all over everything'. They lived in a house up in Trousdale and everything was white. The rugs were white, the furniture was white, everything was white. So Elvis would lean back against a chair or a couch and it would leave a great big grease spot. You know, the pillows in the bedroom. So Priscilla was extremely pleased to see this change.

Q: Were you a little nervous when you asked Elvis to change his hair somewhat?

A: Oh, yeah. You know, I mean Elvis was an icon and you don't mess with icons, so I felt pretty good about that. Another thing that I was responsible for was working with Elvis on his acting. When I first started directing I had gone to the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, which was a famous acting school. You know, along with the Actors' Studio it was the most famous acting school in the country and the head of the school was Sandy Meisner. So I'd learned certain things, not because I wanted to be an actor, but because I thought I would be able to work with the actors better if I knew something about acting.

So I started working with Elvis. I went up to his house and we were running some scenes in the movie and I found that he could handle humor quite well and he could also handle a fight scene. He could do an argument very well, very believably. But in certain other areas, like if it was a love scene or if there was some subtlety that was called for he was a little self-conscious. So I decided that we could do some work in that area. So I started teaching him some of the elements of what they called The Method, some of the things that I'd learned at the Neighborhood Playhouse. For example, acting is reacting. You know you don't just think up how you're gonna read your line, you listen to what the other actor is saying, and you react from that. Acting is real behavior in imaginary circumstances. And it's very useful when you're preparing a scene to do some improvisation where you take the situation in the scene, but instead of using the scripted dialogue, you play the scene as if it's a scene in your own life. And this opens you up to giving a more believable performance.

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

Well, Elvis really enjoyed that and he responded to the input he was getting from me and we did all kinds of things. We did improvisations. We did what they call simple action problems. An example of this would be Priscilla would be in the bedroom taking a nap. Now Elvis' assignment in this scene would be to sneak into the bedroom, to crawl on his hands and knees around the foot of the bed and go up and see if he could steal her gold Rolex off the bedside table without her waking up. So we didn't things like that. Well, the Colonel got wind of it and one day he called me into his office and he said, '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.

Q: So do you think that Colonel Parker didn't really want Elvis to really expand as an actor, to get more serious roles, then?

A: Oh, I don't know. It's just that he had something going that Elvis was doing and doing successfully and I think he didn't wanna mess with success. You know, he didn't wanna alter the formula.

Q: What do you think of Elvis as an actor?

A: I think he had some real potential. I think that if he could have worked some more on it and if he could have gotten better scripts, I think he could have been a perfectly good actor.

Q: What was the tone on the set with Elvis and the other cast?

A: The tone was very comfortable. Elvis was wonderful to work with. Elvis was the nicest man I ever met in my life. He was the politest man I ever met. He called everyone sir or ma'am, you know, starting with the crafts serviceman with the guard at the gate, all the way up to the head of the studio. Everyone was sir. He was very responsive to direction. He didn't show any of the kind of ego, the kind of temperament that you would expect from a big star -- and he was a big star. He was wonderful with the crew. He didn't like to go into the commissary at lunchtime because people would pester him for autographs, so very often he would eat in his trailer. And then quite often he'd come out and sit around on the set and bring out his guitar and he would sing and play for us. You know, he'd play some of the old favorites like 'Hound Dog', or 'Blue Suede Shoes' and this was wonderful for us. This was really a thrill.

I'll tell you something else that happened to him shooting. 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.

Q: Any practical jokes on the set?

A: We were having practical jokes and we were having all kinds of fun. There was a very lighthearted atmosphere on the set. Everyone was having a good time. And we had a wonderful cameraman who was very fast, so we were able to stay on schedule without any problems. We had Russ Metty as the cameraman. Russ Metty I guess is most famous for having done 'Touch Of Evil', the Orson Welles film with Charlton Heston, that has become kind of a cult film. And Russ was so fast that we hardly had time to go to the bathroom before he was ready. He was just amazing and he did really nice work.

Q: The little girl had a problem and was mistreated by a doctor on the set?

A: Well, no, there wasn't a doctor on the set, and I don't think she was actually autistic, but that was what she was playing. And we had gone up to see a doctor up in San Jose who had way of treating autism that he called rage reduction and it was very controversial. Not everybody believed in it. I mean people still believe that there is no treatment for autism. Mary Tyler Moore was very concerned about the way we were doing this. It involved Elvis holding the child in his arms and letting the child struggle because she felt contained, you know, and going into a rage, but he would still hold her and continue to hold her until finally, she would quiet down. And this doctor up in San Jose said he had treated many children successfully and had them recover from autism using this technique.

Q: What do you remember of Mary Tyler Moore on the set?

A: 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.

Q: At the end of the movie, did she go to the church or did she go with Elvis?

A: Well, we were trying to make it ambivalent. We were trying not to say which way she went, but she definitely had a strong pull in the direction of Elvis. But so I guess it was up to the audience to decide which she went. I felt that she went off with Elvis at the end, but who knows? I guess we never will.

Q: Do you want to make a comment on Barbara McNair and Jane Elliott in the film?

A: Jane Elliott was having a little romance with Elvis, and sometimes she'd go off in the trailer with Elvis between setups and come out with her wimple askew and her habit looking a little messed up. Barbara McNair was wonderful. I can't think of any humorous anecdotes involving her, but she was great fun to have around and we were lucky to have her.

Q: Do you recall Mahalia Jackson coming to the set?

A: Yes, as a matter of fact, and I had worked with Mahalia Jackson when I did 'Sounder, Part 2', Mahalia Jackson appeared on that show singing. But yes, we were very excited to have her come to the set.

Q: Did any fans from the Universal tours get a chance to meet Elvis while he was shooting?

A: Well, we try and keep the fans at a distance, you know, and but sometimes Elvis would make himself available. You know, he was very good about things like that. He understood the importance of fans and the fact that you have to -- he wasn't standoffish in any way. So once in a while, he would sign autographs or talk to the fans, when they would come around. But the tours, in general, didn't come through our set.

Q: Were you aware that Elvis used his character name John Carpenter as an alias?

A: No. No.

Q: Where were you when you found out Elvis had passed away?

A: I don't remember, but I was really shocked and very sad about it and still am.

Q: Elvis only sang I believe four songs in the film. How were those set up? Did you do that purposely?

A: We tried not to make musical numbers out of them. We tried to integrate them into the scenes. And the songs I believe were all pre-recorded. We had a session with Billy Goldenberg, the composer before we started shooting.

Q: Thank you for taking the time out to remember it.

A: Well it was a favorite, what a favorite of mine, and I'm very proud of the fact that in the Elvis Encyclopedia there's a picture of me and Elvis with his new haircut. And it also mentions in the caption that I was one of Elvis' favorite directors. And the article says that if Elvis had met me earlier in his career that it might have taken a different turn. So I feel good about that.

Q: Do you have anything you'd like to tell the fans?

A: Only that of all the people I've ever worked with in my entire life, and I've been a director for 47 years, Elvis was the nicest man I've ever worked with.

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