Howdy! Where were you during the winter of ‘63? I was working in a play in Chicago—mighty cold in the Windy City—I’m talkin’ about the critics. But I was hot! MGM asked me to star in a TV pilot, “Take Me To Your Leader”, a blatant rip-off of “My Favorite Martian”. My Chicago bosses said, “Sure—we can use the publicity.” So every night for a week after the show I’d cab it to O’Hare and fly to L.A. The stewardi saved me three seats in the back to stretch out on. I’d catch a few more winks in a dusty Culver City motel before reporting to work pre-dawn. We’d stop shooting at noon to get me back to Big Chi for the night show. My understudy took over during matinees—unique, what? The CHICAGO TRIBUNE thought so and shot a full page photo lay-out of my big adventure. But I only made the early morning edition. The really big news that day was the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr… Well, the play closed in Detroit, and “Take Me To Your Leader” was consigned to the lost graveyard of fallen TV pilots.
Thanks to my crafty agent, MGM owed me another gig. Smiling Joe Pasternak kindly hired me for his flick, “Spinout”. I played a gourmet cop, Tracy Richards. (Get it? Dick Tracy backwards). One of my biggest thrills in Show Biz was leaving sepia-toned L. A. (that ain’t smog hovering over Hollywood; that’s fear!) and walking through Leo the Lion’s door into the three-strip Technicolor World of Oz which was “Spinout.”
Ah! On a platform above my very eyes was the Wiz himself, Elvis Aaron Presley, gyrating through yet another fantastic musical orgy, all body parts oiled and in high gear. Below were his undulating worshipers: scantily clad dancing girls, scantily clad starlets, scantily clad leading ladies—the gals adored Elvis, Elvis adored the gals—all of them—he was an equal opportunity adorer. I played a wee role in a dying species, the Hollywood musical, one of America’s great gifts to the world. I had the best seat in the house. I didn’t want to go home. Who wants to leave heaven?
Fate plays funny tricks. After a nightmare working on a flop TV sit-com, I was back in Dreamland cast in another Elvis epic, “Clambake”. I played his buddy. On set, Elvis was the ideal Southern gentleman, the perfect host of a wild five week stag party—shortly after the wrap, Elvis and Priscilla got hitched, but before that—Chaos! On his birthday, director Arthur Nadel got his cake smooshed into his face in lieu of a custard pie. Elvis and his cronies shot off firecrackers at will, but I escaped.
The astonishingly lovely Angelique Pettyjohn contributed to the utter joy of the workplace. In a night club scene she entered in a singularly diaphanous gown. Before you could say Elsa Schiaparelli, Bill Bixby pulled Miss Pettyjohn’s décolleté clear down to her knees, baring all for the next day’s rushes. I’ll bet the boys fell out of their suits! Just my luck—I was a bottle baby. Too bad the shot was for our eyes only, the critics might have given us, er, thumbs up! Such madness!
But I noted how the madness did light up the sky! When the decibel level got deafening, Elvis would cry, “He’p us out!” And all would be quiet for the nonce. That was our catch phrase, “He’p Us Out!” I had the honor of singing a duet with Elvis, “Who Needs Money?” Actually, I lip-synched to the voice of a Jordanaire. He didn’t much sound like me, and you’d figure they’d, at least, get someone who could sing on key. Where was Marni Nixon when we needed her? Hi Ho—“Who Needs Money?” is still my favorite “Clambake” moment.
The camera loved Elvis. I’m sure if the Colonel had allowed him to accept meatier roles, he’d have won an Oscar. He was the most talented fellow I ever worked with. Sometimes I’d feel a tad lost. One-take Elvis and twenty-take Hutchins. He’d give me a grin, a pat on the back, a comforting word—he’d make me feel like his salary! Behind his mischievous eyes I sensed an abiding melancholy. I figured he’d grown weary of making the same flick over and over and over. Sort of like the myth of Sisyphus—a guy pushes a huge boulder up a steep hill throughout eternity only to have the boulder elude him and roll down to the bottom. I figured Elvis was saddened by the emergence of the Beatles and their rise to the top.
One day Elvis invited me into his trailer. He put an LP on the turntable. I reckoned I was about to be the first kid on my block to hear his latest album. Instead, what issued forth was the mellow voice of the great French actor Charles Boyer reciting love poems. We’re all onions. No one ever came close to peeling away Elvis’ multi-layers to get to his rich core.
On “Clambake”, for one brief moment in time, I became a screen comedian. A fan letter from a farmer in Africa informed me that at his movie house I got huge guffaws and heavy mitts. Arthur Nadel and Elvis were very supportive, and a lot of the gags and dialogue that appeared on screen were nowhere to be found in the script. There was a deep feeling of teamwork and camaraderie on the set. We worked like the pioneer film makers, creating as we went, termite-like. Don’t believe there’s a better system.
On the last day at the cast party, Elvis gave me a huge picture of ‘himself’ in a red shirt. He signed it, “He’p Us Out, Will—Elvis.” The picture was so big I nailed it on the wall of my garage for all to see. There it remained for 12 years. When I returned to America after three years abroad, I was like a country-western record: no girlfriend, no dog, no job, no car, no house, no Elvis picture. But I’ll never lose my memories of “Spinout”, “Clambake” and The King and his red shirt.