Elvis’ movie co-stars to mark 30th anniversary of his death

Published 7:09 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2007

His movies weren’t exactly works of art, but for the fans there was something magical about Elvis Presley on the big screen, dancing and flirting with one starlet after another.

Presley has been dead nearly 30 years, but many of the Mississippi native’s on-screen girlfriends are still around — and they’re still ready for their close-ups.

Suzanna Leigh, who played Presley’s love interest in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” in 1966, has organized an event next month to offer Elvis fans a rare chance to rub shoulders with up to two dozen of his movie-set buddies.

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“It’s sort of an Elvis reunion,” Leigh said. “I’m bringing in a lot of co-stars, directors, people who worked with Elvis.”

The three-day bash, with tickets ranging from $75 to $150, is scheduled to begin Aug. 16, the anniversary of Presley’s death in 1977 at his Memphis residence, Graceland. It will be one of more than 30 Elvis Week events in Memphis from Aug. 11-18.

Annual festivities for Elvis Week, the highlight of the year for the Presley faithful, include concerts, fan-club get-togethers, teary eyed memorials, and, of course, screenings of his movies.

This year, many of his former on-screen playmates will be in town for a gala, billed as “Night of a Thousand Stars,” that will include a garden party, storytelling sessions, panel discussions, autograph-signing and a “glittering finale.”

“It will be magical on the last night,” said Leigh, a British actress who starred in several B-grade vampire-and-horror flicks after her role with Elvis.

Presley made 31 feature films, in most of them playing — what else? — a good-looking, ultra-cool chick magnet. The films can hardly be confused with Academy Award contenders, but the Elvis faithful can’t get enough of them.

“The usual question they’ll ask me is what was it like to kiss Elvis,” said Leigh, setting up an obviously well-used line. “They’ll ask was he good, and I often say, ‘I think he had some practice.’”

For many of Presley’s co-stars, his films were career highlights. Leigh’s autobiography, billed as a behind-the-scenes look into London’s “swinging sixties in-crowd,” plays on her Elvis connection in its title, “Paradise, Suzanna Style.”

“I tell stories about his sense of humor and how much fun we had on the set and how difficult the Colonel was,” Leigh said, referring to Presley’s longtime manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker.

In 1958, actress Jan Shepard played Mimi Fisher, the sister of Presley’s leading character in “King Creole,” his most critically acclaimed movie.

“You knew if you got in that movie, it was going to be seen all over the world,” said Shepard, who is also scheduled to take part in the Memphis event.

Though she described Presley as a brilliant actor, Shepard agreed with critics who say most of his movies were nothing to brag about.

“You know what those movies were done for? To sell records,” she said from her home in Hollywood. “Every movie had an album.”

Shepard, whose non-Elvis movies included the “Attack of the Giant Leeches,” spent most of her career in television, with parts in numerous Westerns like “Gunsmoke” and “The Virginian.”

Presley was held back from developing his acting talent to make quick-profit, formula movies, Shepard said, and his fans should hear from those who worked with him that he could have been a serious actor.

“He was like part of their lives,” she said. “It’s 30 years since he’s been gone, and I just think this (gathering of co-stars) is for the people.”

Other Elvis-movie cohorts expected for the Memphis event include Pat Priest (“Easy Come, Easy Go”), Sue Ane Langdon (“Roustabout,” “Frankie and Johnny”), Gloria Pall and Jennifer Holden (“Jailhouse Rock”), Gail Gilmore (“Girl Happy” “Harum Scarum”) and Celeste Yarnall (“Live a Little, Love a Little).

Some of Presley’s better-known co-stars, like true-life love interest Ann-Margret, Nancy Sinatra and Mary Tyler Moore aren’t scheduled to attend.

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