William A. Graham Interview
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.
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 service man 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.