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On the Memphis Streets Presley Once Ruled, TV's Elvis Reincarnates the Young King

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The citizens of another city might have turned cartwheels to accommodate the President, but when George Bush visited Memphis last November, there was already a bigger hero in town. Down on Beale Street, home of the blues, actor Michael St. Gerard was re-creating for TV the musical birth of Elvis Presley, Memphis’s eternal favorite son. When the Elvis crew was ordered to clear out for the President’s motorcade, which would have caused irreparable shooting delays, Memphians sprang into action. Calls were made, strings were pulled—and within 48 hours the Secret Service had agreed to reroute. “The police had said, ‘Nobody ever changes a President’s motorcade,’ ” remembers Linn Sitler, head of the local film commission. “But Elvis did. That’s what I call clout!”

In fact, ABC’s new Elvis has been getting a lot of people all shook up. TV reviewers in particular have been rhapsodic. “A promise of greatness,” declared the Los Angeles Times. “Groundbreaking television,” trumpeted the New York Times, adding, “Mr. St. Gerard’s performance as Elvis is little short of astonishing.” Such raves have left St. Gerard somewhat stunned. “I had thought this would be a show they’d be dying to hate,” he says.

What has instead charmed the critics is the show’s poignant—and ostensibly true-to-life—portrayal of Presley from 1954-58, just as his dream of stardom begins to come true and way before it runs amok. Humble as pie, the hero of Elvis nervously runs out of the house the first time one of his songs, “That’s All Right (Mama),” is played on the radio. “The uniqueness is that this part of the story has not been documented,” says co-producer Jerry Schilling, a member of Presley’s Memphis Mafia for 11 years. “It’s the most exciting part of his life, when life starts changing and people start treating him differently.”

To document this period, the executive producers, including Elvis’s former wife, Priscilla Presley, and his longtime friend Rick Husky, turned to scores of other friends and relatives, such as Sam Phillips, Elvis’s first record producer, and Scotty Moore, his first backup guitarist. “Oh, it moved me back in time,” says Priscilla, who met Elvis in 1959, while he was in West Germany with the Army. “In those earlier years Elvis was very innocent, very vulnerable, very naive.”

Priscilla, who produced the 1988 hit TV movie Elvis and Me, based on her autobiography, says she was initially reluctant to approve another production, mostly because of the difficulty of casting Elvis. Because she didn’t want to hire an impersonator, “we really went to great lengths to try to find an actor in his own right with his own personality. Michael was just a dream come true.”

A shy, stage-trained actor best known as Ricki Lake’s boyfriend in 1988’s Hairspray, St. Gerard, 27, had already portrayed Elvis in Heart of Dixie and Great Balls of Fire. But he swears, as does Priscilla, that he bears little physical likeness to the singer. Many viewers, disagreeing, have found him to be a dead ringer, which St. Gerard attributes to his intensive preparation: buying every Elvis movie and reading every Elvis book (“even the trashy ones”). “I can just fall into it,” he says. “I find every-thing about Elvis is rhythmic. His hair moves, the clothes move, the legs move, everything is fluid and working.”

The show’s other stars include Billy Green Bush as Presley’s father, Vernon (a role Bush also played in Elvis and Me), and Millie Perkins as Elvis’s mother, Gladys. In 1961 Perkins had starred with the real Elvis in Wild in the Country. “I was married to Dean Stockwell at the time,” she says, “and we considered ourselves to be artists. I was not looking forward to working with Elvis. But he treated me like a princess, and I loved him.” As much as Elvish a revealing character study, it is also a minilesson in the origins of rock and roll. Upcoming episodes will show Elvis hanging out with black musicians on Beale Street, to the taunts of other whites. “Elvis came up at a time where on the radio songs were being played like ‘(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window’ by Patti Page,” says Steve Tyrell, Elvis’s music director. “He was really the first pop artist to take black music and introduce it to contemporary America.”

According to co-producer Schilling, the series will include songs that Elvis performed but never recorded. The voice on these tunes, as well as on most others (Elvis’s own recordings are used only occasionally), is that of country singer Ronnie McDowell, who has imitated Elvis for several other shows, including Elvis and Me. Tyrell notes that at times “even Priscilla didn’t know that it wasn’t Elvis, so we thought that’s pretty good.”

ABC went deep in the wallet in its quest for authenticity, shelling out nearly $800,000 per episode, about $250,000 more than the budget of the average half-hour show. At various locations in or near Memphis, set designers painstakingly reconstructed Lansky’s, where Elvis bought his flashy duds, and a black night spot called the Kit Kat Club. They also dragged period furniture into Sun Studios, the reactivated facility where Elvis cut his first commercial record.

The locals helped lend verisimilitude, responding enthusiastically to calls for extras. For the scene of Elvis’s first billed concert, in 1954, at the Overton Park Shell, “more than 2,000 showed up and shivered through the night,” says Linn Sitler. “The hardest part for the crowd was to follow instructions and act bored when St. Gerard did his first number. That’s the way it was, and that’s the way the producers wanted it.”

Besides realism, the network is also banking heavily on the appeal of St. Gerard, a soft-spoken, exceedingly self-effacing performer who grew up in New Hartford, N.Y., the son of a homemaker and a businessman. With a few Japanese commercials and a teensploitation flick, Senior Week, to his credit, St. Gerard has a résumé as modest as his personality. Yet he has already sparked an Elvis-like hysteria. Several weeks ago he arrived at a Manhattan TV studio for a talk show appearance that had been announced only the night before. “There was already this crowd of people,” says St. Gerard, who lives in a small, cluttered apartment on New York City’s west side. “They were all holding stuff—my picture even—to sign. It was the weirdest thing.” The tabloids, too, have been trailing him and touting stories of supposed romances with Priscilla and/or her daughter, Lisa Marie. St. Gerard’s reply: “Are you kidding?”

All of which has given the actor a deeper appreciation for the burden of Elvis’s unprecedented fame. “It’s hard to have all these people screaming for you,” he says. “I don’t know how he got through those things in real life. I wasn’t the biggest fan, and now I find myself defending him all the time. The more I know, the more I see him as an American hero.”

—Jeannie Park, Alan Carter in New York, Jane Sanderson in Memphis, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles