Interview With Jan Shepard (Elvis' co-star in King Creole)
June 3, 2018
Can you tell me a little about yourself, where you were born and raised?
I was born in a little town called Quakertown, Pennsylvania, in Bucks County. It's about 40 miles north of Philadelphia. I had a wonderful time there growing up, it was a tiny little town and everybody knew everybody. You got to do everything when you were in high school. I was a cheerleader and a drum majorette. I was in drama. I loved growing up there.
Did you want to become an actress?
Ever since I was in second grade I was Miss Cleanliness, in a way. I got up on that stage and something happened. I saw all those people and it made me want to do something nice. So I did two class plays. I did junior high and senior class plays as the leading lady. I did summer stock when I got out of high school. I did that for quite a while and that was great fun.
Jan Shepard, Elvis Presley, 1958.
So did you go to Hollywood and say 'I want to be a star'?
I went to New York first and I got a terrible cold. I had gotten a reference from Samson Raferson, who did a lot of plays. He lived in our area. He sent me to Sherill Crawford doing Brigadoon. So I went there and I could barely talk. You think to yourself once they see you that you would be in Broadway by the weekend. You just think that they are waiting for you. But she said go back home and do summer stock. Do as much as you can of that. It was one of those things that you are so eager and you had no clue as of how to become an actor. So I went back home and then I had a chance to visit some relatives in California. So I never went back to New York.
Were you an Elvis fan?
Don't feel bad, a lot of people have said that to me.
It was so funny because I was sitting with Dan Duriah. I was doing a two-hour film. We were sitting on the set. I had the reporter in front of me and it said 'ELVIS PRESLEY'. 'What kind of a name is that?' He said, 'I don't know'. I said there's some kid in the south called Elvis Presley. I said he's never going to make it (laughing). That was the first time that I had ever heard of him. So I didn't know who he was. I happened to like his voice. I liked his voice but I am not the kind of person who is adoring movie stars. There was maybe one or two that I adored or would like to work with, but I was never like those type of people. But once I met him, I just adored him.
When did you find out that you were going to do an Elvis film?
I was doing a play at Paramount, with Dolores Hart, who is my goddaughter. She is now a nun.
Elvis Presley with Dolores Hart, Jan Shepard, Liliane Montevecchi, Carolyn Jones, 1958.
Oh, yes, I know who she is.
She used to be under contract with Hal Wallis. Dolores came up to me after work. She said, 'Jan, there is a part in this movie I am going to do with Elvis Presley you would be perfect for. The part would be playing his sister'. I said, 'Yeah, right, terrific'. I just let it go at that. But the next thing I know she calls me and says Hal Wallis wants to see you. 'I've talked to him about you'. So I went up there. He said to me, 'I would like you to make a test'. So they gave me the script. When I arrived at the studio, there was four other girls that were testing. I figured I would be the only one. I was in shock, I almost walked out. Peter Baldwin, who was playing the Elvis role, who was a friend of mine, he said, 'Stay, stay. These other girls are no way better than you'. So I was the last one to be tested. After I just went home and prayed that I would get this role. I got it!
And this was for?
'King Creole', that was Elvis' favourite movie. Plus it's the fans favourite movie.
It's also mine.
Yes, it's mine, too. But I have only seen two movies of his. I only saw them because I was in them. That's nothing to do with Elvis. It's just because I was working all the time. I was doing soap operas. Different scripts every day, learning new lines every day. You just don't have the time to go out and see movies. I had no social life at all. If you do have five minutes on a weekend, you want to sleep.
Can you tell me how you met Elvis?
When you're assigned a film role, you have to go to the doctor, because of the insurance company. They have to make sure you don't have a bad heart, any of that nonsense. They made my appointment for me at the studio, so I was there and I had on a white shirt and these slacks my mother had made for me that were like wine coloured. I went in the office and I was waiting to be called in. In walks Elvis with two of his buddies. I looked at him and he looked at me and we started to laugh. His jacket was the identical material and colour of my slacks. He looked at me and he said, 'Honey, I'm either going to have to give you my jacket or you're going to have to give me your pants' (laughing). That was my first meeting with Elvis.
Girl scout's honour.
Did you get along with Elvis?
Oh, wonderful. He said if he had a sister, he wished it would be me. We got along so great because we worked alone the two of us the whole first week of the show. I would come to work and I would find on the set a pair of earrings he put there for me that cost about ten cents that he had liberated from the set. I have a marvelous picture where we are waiting to perform and we were just sitting down at the dining room table. I handed him this jewelry and I said I can't take these from you, Elvis, you know it's too much. You're the last of the big spenders. He is there laughing so hard and they snapped this picture of the two of us. It's a fabulous picture of him. But he would do little things like that. And he would play music on his guitar. He would ask me what I wanted to hear. Elvis loved Danny Boy.
Did you ever date Elvis?
No, I was married (laughing).
Oh, sorry, I didn't know that.
No, I was married, honey. But the thing was: Dolores Hart gave me a surprise birthday party. All the kids from Paramount studio were there. It was a big surprise to me. I was there for about ten minutes and in walks Elvis with the boys. He had this huge stuffed tiger under his arm. He knew I loved cats, so he had this stuffed cat and he named it Danny Boy. He gave me this big box. For weeks I had been asking Elvis for pictures that I could give the kids in my neighbourhood when they had heard I was doing a picture with him. They all pleaded for photos of him. So I would always ask him for pictures for the kids. 'Come on, please, I need pictures'. So he hands me this box and I placed it off to the side. He said, 'Oh, no, you need to open that now'. So I opened it and it was a movie camera with a light bar and film. He said, 'Now you can take your pictures'. You know if Colonel Parker was there, he would not had allowed that.
Oh, you're right.
Dolores said the next day she ran into Elvis and she said, 'I was so surprised that you came'. He said I had to come, 'She's my sister. I wouldn't miss her birthday party' (laughing). I ran into him in the studio. He said to me, 'I hear Elvis was at your birthday party'. 'Yeah, he was'. He said, 'You know he never goes anywhere, people go to him, he never goes to other people's homes'.
That's very true.
I said I think we bonded a little bit.
Was Elvis a good actor?
Wonderful! Oh, just marvelous! I will never forget. You know every person that sings is a good actor. Because they have the sense of timing, the sense of rhythm, a sense of what words mean. He was a brilliant actor because he didn't need any advice. He knew automatically what to do and act, as the show was going on. I kept saying to him, 'Oh, Elvis, for God sake, you're doing such a great job'. So one day we went for lunch. We were sitting there at a table and in walks Marlon Brando. Elvis was sitting with his back towards him. There was a table right behind Elvis that was empty, so Brando saw Elvis as soon as he walked in. So Brando got into the chair right behind Elvis. I said to Elvis, 'Marlon Brando is sitting behind you'. Elvis said, 'Oh, my God' and his head sunk into his sandwich. I said, 'Look, he wants to meet you, I saw him looking at you, just say hi to him'. Well, that's exactly what happened. He got up and bumped his chair. Marlon stood up and the two of them shook hands. They did a little small talking. Elvis was very cool. Elvis then walked out of the café very cool. But the minute we got outside he leaped up. He couldn't believe he met Marlon Brando. He was so excited, we just danced all the way back to the studio. Then one day after the show had been released, someone sent me the review of 'King Creole'. The title was 'Bourbon Street Brando'. I raced over to Paramount and I grabbed Elvis and I said, 'Look at this'. I showed him the 'Bourbon Street Brando', he just couldn't believe it. I said, 'See, I told you, you were going to be great in this!' Joe, Elvis was!
Now you did another movie with Elvis.
Yes, Paradise Hawaiian Style.
Can you tell me about that movie and how you got the part?
I had gone over to Paramount to have lunch with Dolores Hart. She was getting a wardrobe fitting for some picture. I ran into Paul Mason. He said, 'Hi'. He asked what was I doing there. He said, 'Hey, we need a wife for Jimmie Sakita for a movie Elvis is doing. Would you be interested?' He said, 'It's not a huge part, but it's a good part.' I said, 'Yeah, ok'. He told me to go up and see Hal Wallis. 'I will give him a call and tell him you're coming'. So I went up there. Well, Hal Wallis's office is full of art. He has originals of Remington's and Chares Russell, all those wonderful western painters. I walked in and I said, 'Oh, my God, you have a Remington!' I knew art because my husband is an artist. Hal Wallis was very impressed, he asked me if I wanted that role? Yeah, fine, that would be wonderful! That's how I got the part.
Now what did Elvis say when he saw you?
Well, the minute he saw me he asked how was Dolores because now she has been a nun for the past year. And I said she was good, I've seen her, I've gone there. And Maria Cooper, Gary's daughter and I were the godmothers for her when she went into the monastery. And I said, 'I've been there and she's doing great and she, you know, I said you know if they let me wear eyelash mascara, I'd go in that place and say it's beautiful. She's home. This is where she wants to be and he wanted to see if she was okay and how you were doing. You know, and I noticed he was not the Elvis that was the little teddy bear that would run across the stage and pick up and swing you around. He was not that anymore.
He was never in his dressing room and you know 'King Creole'. He is always out with a group and having fun and playing the guitar and, you know, just a lot of fun. And he went to his dressing room and it was closed and I noticed he was drinking a lot of water. He had lot of glasses of water and he was drinking. Also, there was an attitude that was so different. He was kind of jaded and at the movies, he and I knew Charlie Afura who did all his choreography. Charlie was showing him something on stage, some dance moves or something, and he was just looking at Charlie, like 'Charlie, I've done this four or five times already. I know what you want,' because it was the same movie every time.
He was always doing the same movie and I know he was tired of it.
Yeah, something he loved to do he learned to hate.
He learned to hate what they gave him.
Uh-huh, but he still wanted to act.
Did he ever talk to you about that?
With Barbra Streisand.
But did he ever talk to you about it? About he hated it or, no, he wouldn't.
No, because the thing with Colonel Parker, he said no, and that was a stupid move. All Colonel Parker wanted was the money and he was stealing money from Elvis and so was RCA. I mean, they were just Elvis. He was getting 50% of Elvis and he didn't want to do anything that would take him to Japan. Elvis wanted to go to Japan. They adored him overseas. Colonel Parker always said no.
When was the last time you saw Elvis?
I saw him in Las Vegas. We went to a Casers Palace and I was so disappointed because he was into the karate stuff and he was turning his back to the audience all the time. And I just wanted to just go up there and spank him, you know.
Because he was just not him. You know. I think that when his mom died, that was just a terrible blow and that if she had lived Elvis would still be alive today.
Yeah. When you were working in the movies, did you have the chance to have one on one conversations?
Oh, yeah, all the time. Especially on the Creole, but not as much on 'Paradise Hawaiian Style'. Yeah, like on the weekend it had rained all weekend and on Monday morning when Elvis came into the makeup room and I said, 'Well, what did you do this weekend?' 'I was on the phone with my mom all day, I didn't go anywhere'. He told me one time they were on the road and they stopped at a diner, this was in the fifties. This big guy came over to him and picked him up by his shirt. He said, 'I don't like you'. Elvis said, 'What's wrong?' 'My wife carries your picture around in her wallet'. Elvis said, 'Hey, sir, I'm sorry, but that has nothing to do with me. I'm sorry, she should do that'. He let Elvis down and they took off. He had so much of that we had to fake people out when Elvis left the studio. We would send out a limo, the fans figured Elvis was in it. But Elvis was getting shoved into a taxi in the back of the studio. Elvis would be laying on the floor. Elvis said, 'I know they don't mean to do it, but sometimes they hurt me. They grab at me, pull my hair'. They have scratched his eye while trying to get some of that beautiful black hair. 'I've been hurt,' Elvis said. 'That's why I don't go anywhere'. We had a lot of conversations. One time I said to Elvis, 'Why don't you record Danny Boy?' He loved that song because he would sing it to his mom. Elvis said, 'They don't want that. They won't let me sing something like that'. It was so funny, one day Pat Boone came walking on the set. Elvis spotted him and he started singing April Love, just the way Pat would sing it. Pat just grinned from ear to ear, Pat then came over and they met. But he never had the chance to become apart of the young Hollywood scene, because he was afraid to go out with the other young people who were at the studio. If he went to go to a movie, he had to rent the whole theatre. You know, Elvis never had a dime on him, he would follow me to the apple machine. I said to him, 'You want an apple, right?' 'Yes, please' (laughing). He never had any money.
I know that to be true all the way up to the seventies. His men would carry his money and his keys.
When did you hear that Elvis had passed?
I was sitting with a friend at her business. The phone rang and they asked if I was there. They asked me if I had the radio on or had been watching television. I said no, why? 'Elvis died'. I just couldn't talk. When I was able to talk, I said I was so angry at him. I was so angry I could not even cry. Because he was doing all the wrong things and he knew he was, damn it! I could see that when I went to see him in Vegas. I said to myself, 'That's not my Elvis'.
But you know the man was the greatest entertainer of the 20th century.
There will never be another like him. In the Creole days he was just a big teddy bear. I asked him one time, 'Ok, Elvis, when did all this swinging your hips start? Why do you do that?' 'I do it for fun, I know just when to break it off'. I used to watch the little negro boys in his town, how they would sit on the curbs and sing. And they would stand up and dance. He said that's where he got that from. They would sing and move their hips.
How may movies did you do?
Six or seven. I did television. I came to the scene at the right time. My first part was a lead role! I got a call from the series Perry Mason. They said to me, 'We have been trying to get you for two years. You're always working!' Then I did a lot of shows for that series. I told them, 'You call me and I will come'.
Well, I would like to thank you for talking to me today.
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