Filmed in June 1968 and aired later that year in December, the Elvis special on NBC would in later years be referred to as “The Comeback” special. After a 7-year hiatus from live performing and an 8-year gap from his last appearance on television, Elvis starred in his first TV special reminding everyone why he was the King of Rock and Roll.
His unplugged performance while dressed in black leather from head to toe brought Elvis back to his rock and roll roots singing many of his 1950s hits with a raw, sexy energy. This “in-the-round” jam session, a last-minute addition to the show, turned out to be the highlight among the other more contemporary numbers Presley performed including “Trouble” and “If I Can Dream.”
Even though this program received outstanding ratings, the TV special, which had been filmed six months earlier, did not immediately change things for Elvis. Contrary to what is suggested in Elvis’ lore, Presley did not immediately quit movies and start the next phase of his career performing in Las Vegas. Just the opposite — things kept proceeding as normal, with the Elvis movie machine churning along.
In fact, at the time when Elvis was filming the TV special in June 1968, his film Speedway co-starring Nancy Sinatra was pulling in box office earnings that rivaled many of his earlier movies. Speedway ranks 14th in box office earnings of all 31 Elvis Presley feature films. Therefore, the perception that all of Presley’s films at this time were box-office failures is a myth.
Four months after the Elvis special aired, in April 1969, Presley was wrapping up his 31st movie, Change of Habit, although he had no idea or intention that Habit would be his last feature film.
In a press conference a few months after the airing of his Elvis special, Presley talked about his hopes for his film career: “I would like to do more [movies], but only if the script is good. I don’t want to sing in them anymore. I’d still like to develop into a serious actor, while there is still time.”
While Elvis was excited to return to live performing as a result of his television special, he did not like that the show was referred to as his “comeback.” According to Presley’s friend and Memphis DJ, George Klein, Elvis expressed in private that he hadn’t gone anywhere, so why would people think he needed a comeback?
In the spring of 1969, Presley was originally booked for only a four-week run in Las Vegas beginning July 31. He had no idea that his life would evolve into year-round touring without any time for making movies.
Contrary to popular myth, Presley’s movie career was not perceived as washed up or a failure. Each year from 1960 to 1966, Presley was among the top ten most popular stars at the box office. Overall, Elvis was ranked as the 6th top box office star of the 1960s.
During his career, Elvis’ feature films grossed an estimated $185 million at the box office in the United States and Canada – an average of about $6 million per film at the time. Only five of his 31 feature films (including Presley’s favorite of his own films, King Creole) did not make Variety’s annual list of top-grossing films. (For a complete list of box office earnings of all Elvis Presley movies, see Appendix B in ELVIS: Behind The Legend.)
For the decade following his first film in 1956, Elvis was in high demand by all the movie studios. Even though The Beatles had invaded in 1964, their success in America did not take away from Presley’s popularity at the box office. In January 1966, it was announced that Elvis had been signed for six more films with MGM through 1969.
“He’s the only star in the business who doesn’t need an all-star cast and a $10 million epic,” said Hollywood columnist, Hedda Hopper.
However, it was also around this time that Elvis was getting fed up with his acting roles and recycled storylines.
“I wouldn’t be honest with you if I said I wasn’t ashamed of some of the movies and the songs I’ve had to sing in them,” Elvis admitted in a 1969 interview. “I would like to say they were good, but I can’t. I’ve been extremely unhappy with that side of my career for some time. But how can you find twelve good songs for every film when you’re making three films a year? I knew a lot of them were bad songs and they used to bother the heck out of me. But I had to do them. They fitted the situation.”
When Elvis returned to the stage in Las Vegas in July 1969, his final two films had not yet even been released. As far as Presley was concerned, in the future, his time would alternate between making more films and live performing.
In an interview which took place during the last week of shooting for Change of Habit, Elvis talked about his future plans: “I don’t plan too far ahead, but I’m real busy for a while now. I’ve got a date in Vegas, and maybe another film after that. Then I’m going to try to get to Europe, because I’ve always promised I would and I’ve got some good, faithful fans over there.”
The one thing the 1968 special did for Elvis personally was give him the courage to believe he could fight for his artistic freedom. After hearing the song W. Earl Brown wrote specifically for the special called “If I Can Dream,” Elvis told producer/director Steve Binder: “I’m never going to sing another song I don’t believe in. I’m never going to make another picture I don’t believe in.”
Elvis still had high hopes for a career as a dramatic actor even though the public generally did not support him at the box office in these type of roles. When asked about his films in 1969, Elvis replied: “I really enjoyed making Charro. It was the best film I’ve done since Flaming Star. The story was good and so was the cast. I would like to do more films like this in the future.”
[Note: This article is an excerpt from the book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music.
Read a free excerpt here: http://amzn.to/1grwhfd
Note: The 50th Anniversary Box Set for the Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special is released on November 30, 2018. This 5CD/2 Blu-ray box set includes all the audio and newly-restored video from the recording of the special. Click for more info: