Legends: Hal Kanter.
Interview with Hal Kanter, screenwriter and director for the Elvis
Presley movie Loving You. Previously Hal had written for
variety shows, graduating to screenplays and specializing in
comedies. He wrote for Bob Hope as well as the comedy team of Dean
Martin and Jerry Lewis. Over the years, Hal Kanter received six Emmy
Award nominations, winning the last two for his writing on the
annual Academy Awards telecast. He also wrote the script for Elvis
Presley's 1961 hit film, Blue Hawaii, which garnered him a
'Best Written American Musical' nomination from the Writers Guild of
Tell us how you first met Elvis.
asked by a producer named Hal Wallis to come and see a screen test
that he had made of a young man named Elvis Presley. And I had heard
of Elvis Presley, but I had never seen him work. He was a great
favourite among young children. And I was, at the time, not a young
child myself, but I did have three daughters. And they were so
excited about the fact that I was going to go to a screen test,
because they had never seen a screen test themselves. Anyway I went
to Paramount and saw a screen test of a young man. And I had great
trepidation about seeing that because I didn't think that from what
I had known of Elvis that he was screen material. I thought he was a
passing fancy for young children, especially young girls. But I was
very pleasantly surprised by what I saw on the screen. As a matter
of fact, pleasantly surprised is sort of… that might be a euphemism.
I was actually knocked on my socks. My socks were knocked off seeing
what I saw on the screen.
So, I went into see Wallis after and said, "I think it's
terrific. I'd love to do a picture with him". And then he handed
me a script that had been written from a short story. And the script
was not very good. And he said, "That's your first chore is to
make this a better script, something we can shoot. You wouldn't
shoot what I had been given." After I did a first draft of the
script that both he and I approved, then he sent me to Memphis,
Tennessee to meet Elvis in person and to talk about the show that we
were going to do together. I think it was Elvis's second picture.
He'd made only one film before. And that was a
little western he made at 20th Century Fox. Elvis met me at the
airport and drove me on a tour of Memphis, which took up the better
part of 15 minutes. And then we checked into a hotel. And he came by
later and picked me up and took me to his house to meet his family
and to have dinner. Now, that was my first exposure to Elvis and
probably one of the most refreshing afternoons I ever spent in
How long were you in Memphis visiting
a day-and-a-half. That's why it was so pleasant.
Tell us about working with Elvis once he
came back to Hollywood.
of all, while we were having dinner at Elvis's house, a rather
boisterous gentleman came barging into the living room. That was
Colonel Tom Parker. That's when I had met him for the first time. He
was on his way to Shreveport where I was going to accompany Elvis
for his farewell concert on the Louisiana Hayride. It was
supposed to be his farewell concert on the Louisiana Hayride.
And that was one of the primary reasons that I went to Memphis, not
only to meet Elvis himself, but also see him in action and to learn
as much about his method of operation as I possibly could and
eventually to incorporate some of what I'd learned in the film
itself. Because I had not only written the screen play, I was now to
direct it. And Elvis was very proud of me, because I was his
Hollywood director. He kept introducing me to people as my director
from Hollywood, overlooking completely the fact that I was the
writer which I was more proud of than being a director, and still
am, as a matter of fact. Anyway, as I said, I was able to meet the
Colonel and some of his associates. Then I met the group of people
who were going to Shreveport with us in the car, in two cars, as a
matter of fact. Elvis was driving one. And Bill Black was driving
the other one with Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana. And we drove at
night through Tennessee and into Louisiana and arrived very, very
early in the morning at the Shreveport Hotel and tried go get some
And I was awakened about maybe 7:30 by hoards of children shouting
Elvis' name trying to waking him up. And he finally opened the
window in his hotel room and leaned out and said, "Please, let me
get some sleep, folks. I'll see you all later." And they quieted
down. And I was amazed at that. I never saw anybody control a crowd
so effortlessly as he did. Anyway, early in the next morning, I went
to the Shreveport Fairgrounds where he was to perform that evening.
And Bill Black had drove me there. And I picked up a couple of
things that I had made notes of and later incorporated into the film
of the things that really impressed me was the fact that we arrived
in a Cadillac. Bill was driving. And thousands of kids evidently
recognized it as Elvis' car. And they swarmed around the car. And I
was sitting in the back seat. They were all trying to see who I was.
And of course they had no idea who I was. They all recognized Bill.
But they didn't know me. And they were rocking the car. It was a
frightening experience. Till finally he was able to get out and say,
"Just relax, kids. That's Elvis' director from Hollywood. We're
going to go to make a movie." We all knew we were going to make
a movie. But they all stood around just staring at me and nothing I
could do about it. Because I couldn't even get out of the car at
that point. There was just a mass of people. And finally when Bill
got rid of them, one little girl stood behind. And she took a piece
of Kleenex out of her bodice, and she opened it up, and she took her
hand and scraped the dust off the car and put it in this Kleenex and
wrapped it up and put it back in her bodice. And she walked away
smiling, happy that she had achieved a trophy. I couldn't believe
that, the hero worship that existed among that crowd.
The evening of the concert was another eye opener to me. I had never
seen so many flash bulbs in my life. The place was jammed. And the
audience itself was making so much noise that they couldn't even
hear what the man was singing, I thought. It was absolutely
spectacular even for me. And, as a matter of fact, I think I did get
a lot of it on the screen in Loving You. But there are many
little instances in connection with that little trip that we took
which I won't go into now. But if you really wanted to know more
about it, you can read it in my book called So Far, So Funny.
There's a chapter about Elvis in there that explains some of the
things that I'm loath to explain to you now at the moment.
Anyway, I was wearing a shirt, a black velour shirt that my wife had
given me just before I left to go to Memphis. And Elvis admired the
shirt. He said, "Where did you get that?" And I said, "Do
you like it?" And he says, "Oh, I like it very much." I
said, "I'll give you this one." So we changed shirts. I took
my shirt off and gave it to him. He couldn't believe that I had
given him that shirt. He was so proud of that black velour shirt.
And so I got another shirt and went about our business. When he
showed up in Hollywood several weeks later to start rehearsing the
show, he was wearing that shirt. And I said to him, "That's a
good looking shirt you're wearing there, Elvis". I said, "Where
did you get that?" He said, "Well, some fan gave it to me."
I said, "Okay." But the last time I saw that shirt, his
cousin Gene was wearing it.
You met Elvis' mother and father.
Elvis's father and mother. Vernon and Gladys.
Did his mother say how she felt about
Elvis' acting to you?
didn't say anything to me about it except she was obviously very
pleased and very proud. And she and Vernon came out to Hollywood to
spend some time with Elvis. And he asked if they could come on the
set. And I said, "Of course they could." And they showed up with
another couple, friends of theirs from Memphis whom Vernon
introduced as their decorator. It turns out this man was a house
painter. And I remember him because he was wearing a brand new hat.
And it had no creases in it at all, a hat just taken out of a hat
box. And he wore that. And he had a white shirt buttoned at the
collar but no tie. And I'd seen very few people dressed that way.
And he fascinated me. I never heard the man say one word. But Gladys
and Vernon both were rather quiet people.
And after one take... On the back lot we were working one night. And
we'd finished the scene, and we were shooting night for night. And I
said, "As long as you're, you know, Gladys while you're here,"
I said, "Why don't you stand in front of the camera, and we'll
run a few feet off of you, and you and your son and your husband.
And you'll see it tomorrow in the dailies." And she said, "Oh,
I don't -- I don't know..." And Elvis said, "Come on, Mom.
Come on. Come on." And they finally all got in front of the
camera. And they did a little something. Whatever it was escapes me.
And when I said, "Cut," she said, "Oh." She was so
grateful. She was very embarrassed to be in front to the camera. She
wanted her friends to be on the camera too. But I said, "That's
enough. No more." The next day, they saw the dailies, and she
was just embarrassed just to see herself. She thought that she
looked heavy which she was. But Vernon seemed to be very pleased
with it. Vernon had the feeling that he probably could be an actor
himself, you know. But that little piece of film is probably a very
valuable piece of film, you know, to aficionados and Elvis freaks.
But nobody’s ever able to find it. I think that he, himself, got a
hold of that film sometime later and had it destroyed. Because
nobody could find it anywhere.
Legends: Elvis, with his
parents, during filming breaks of
Loving You, and with
Dolores Hart, his co-star.
The scene that I remember she's applauding
Yeah, I finally used them in the picture itself. And if you have a
sharp eye, you can see that Gladys and then Vernon and there were
two people sitting next to them. And that was the house painter and
his wife. They went everywhere. They seemed to be moral support of
body or body guards or what... I don't know. I never saw the
Presleys without those two people with them.
What were your impressions about Colonel
impression about Colonel Parker is that he was much more interesting
man than Elvis was. I found him absolutely fascinating. And I would
trust him across the room on anything. He was one of the sharpest
con men that I've ever run across. And he was remarkable. I can, you
know, I can talk about him for two or three hours which you would
enjoy hearing about. But I'm not going to. Because actually I
thought that he was a contributor to downfall of Elvis himself, in
my view. Anyway, we shouldn't do that. Let's destroy all that.
Don't, don't... Colonel Parker was a man who had Elvis' best
interests at heart. But he had Tom Parker's best interest even
closer to heart than he did Elvis, I had a feeling.
On the last day of shooting, I decided to give a cast party. And I
made all the arrangements to get one of the sets of a picture that
Cornell Wilde was doing at the time. And he had finished with his
set, a nightclub set. And I asked them, "Please, leave that set
alone, so we can have our cast party there." And I had paid for
everything. The last shot was with Elvis and Liz Scott. And early
on, little by little, as the cast was being dismissed, everybody go
across the lot to the party near the commissary. When finally the
show was wrapped, Elvis and Liz and I walked across to the stage.
And the party was in full swing. And there was a big boot there with
a great big sign saying, "Elvis and the Colonel, thank you all." And
he was standing there giving out autographed pictures of Elvis
printed, you know, little 4 x 5's. He was also giving out lottery
tickets, because he was going to raffle off an Elvis album and also
a phonograph which had been donated by RCA, I guess. And that cast
party which cost me several thousand dollars out of my own pocket
became his farewell party to the cast and crew. That's typical of
Now, seven years later, my wife and I went to Palm Springs. And we
had a dinner date. And while she was preparing, getting ready, I
said, "I'll meet you downstairs at the bar. I want to have a
drink before we go meet out friends.” And while I was sitting
there, I see a man I thought was Tom Parker and Tom Disken, his
cohort, I don't know exactly what Tom's job was. But he was his
assistant, let's say. Anyway, it was Disken and Tom and two women
whom I didn't recognize. And Tom then was walking on a cane which he
hadn't walked on before. And he'd gained a lot of weight. And they
stopped at the maître’d and went inside to have dinner. So, I called
the maître’d over to the bar, and I said, "Is that Tom Parker?"
He said, "Yes." I said, "Would you send him a bottle of a
wine, of Lancer's Rose wine, with the compliments of Hal Kanter. And
put it on my bill." And said, "Here's my room number." He
said, "Yes, sir." And he left. My wife came down and said, "Well,
let's go. We're late." I said, "Just a minute." I told
her what I did. I said, "I want to get some reaction, to see what
the Colonel said." Finally the maître’d just ignored me
completely. And I went over to him, and I said, "Excuse me."
I said, "Did you send that bottle of wine to the Colonel?"
He said, "Yes." He said, "Not the Lancer's Rose. He does
not drink that. He drinks so and so and so, whatever. A much more
expensive wine, incidentally." And he said, "I sent it to...
It's on your bill, sir." I said, "Well, what did he say?
Didn't he say anything?" He said, "Yes, he said, 'This man is
obviously an impostor.' He said, 'The real Hal Kanter would have
sent me a case of wine.'" That's Tom Parker. Now, you want more
about him? We'll talk more about him some other time.
Do you have any memories of
have very little, very few memories of
Blue Hawaii, because I
didn't direct the picture. I wrote the picture. I re-wrote the
picture again. I never did hear from Elvis about that. I think I saw
him one day. I went on the set. Oh, Michael Curtiz, I think, was
directing that picture. Mike Curtiz or Norman Taurog. Anyway I was
on the set one time. And we said, "Hello, how are you?" "How
things are going?" "Fine." "How's the army?" "Okay."
"How is it?" "Okay." "Nice to see you." "Nice
to see you, too." "Take care." "Will do." "Bye-bye."
That's about it. He was a different boy by that time. He wasn't the
same fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, sweet, young country boy that I'd
met when I first went there.
Do you think it was possibly because he had
lost his mother and had been in the army?
Possibly. That could have been. It could be. I really have not paid
too much attention to what happened to him after because I had other
interests, and obviously, so did he.
Was that the last time you saw Elvis?
not sure. I really don't recall the last time I saw him. I did see
Tom Parker on several occasions. And he was always trying to get me
to do something for him for free. He wanted me to write his
autobiography, or his biography. I said, "Well, if I write it,
it's not an autobiography. Well, it could be, as told to." And
anyway he said, "If you'll do my biography," he said, "you're
going to make a lot of money. It's going to be an automatic best
seller." He said he knew it was going to be a best seller. I
said, "How do you know that?" He said, "Because I'm going
to sell advertising in the book." I said, "What?" He
said, "Yeah, the book is going to..." He said, "I've
already sold the back cover to RCA." And he says, "I'll sell
the front cover to Paramount Pictures." He said, "So, the
book is paid for immediately. So every dime that comes in now is
pure profit." And he said, "And also I've got a title for it."
I said, "What's the title?" He said, "The title is 'How
Much Does It Cost If It's For Free?'" I said, "Pretty good
title." And I said, "And I think, let's talk about making a
movie out of your life." And he says, "All right, then do
that." And I said, "I've got the ideal guy to play your part."
He said, "Who's that?" I said, "W.C. Fields." He said,
"Thank you very much" and never mentioned it again to me.
He worked every angle, didn't he?
sure did. He sure did. But he was a character. I think that some day
somebody's going to do a wonderful study of him, and it's going to
make a great movie.
Is there anything else that comes to mind
that the Colonel wanted you to do?
wanted me to write something for Elvis. And I've forgotten what it
was now. He had some idea that Elvis could do something spiritual.
And I said, "You've got the wrong fellow." I said, "I
can't write spiritual." He wanted some kind of a spiritual
lyric. I said, "I don't write lyrics. That's somebody else."
He says, "Well, I don't want it to be lyrics. I just want it to
be lyrical, but not lyrics, but something we can say in the middle
of his act." And I said, "I'll think about it." Again, he
never mentioned that to me after that. First of all, I said, "We'll
have to discuss money." And I said, "And I hate to discuss
money, so you'll have to talk to my agent. How about that?" He
said, "I'd rather talk to you." I said, "I know you would,
but I'd rather you talk to my agent." So I don't know if he ever
did or not. It was some way… that was forgotten. But it was
something I had no intention of doing in the first place.
What do you think it is about Elvis that
keeps fans loving him?
think that, first of all, he was a very unique talent. I had
completely misjudged him at first. I think most people my age
misjudged him. He was an uniquely original talent, because he
combined all of the best of Black music and all of the best of
Country music. And as a result, he was unique. He was just unusual.
You can't forget him. Once you are exposed to his music, it's very
hard to forget the man himself. I found his music was unique, unique
and original. He was an original man, even though a lot of his
originality is eclectic because he took from here and took from this
and took from that. I don't think that he was aware of the fact that
it was taken from other people. It was something inborn, something
so genuinely lyrical about the man that once you hear him and once
you pay attention to him, you're not going to forget him. And I
think that also here's a good actor. And I think that given time and
given better scripts and more retention and less reliance on money
and on lyrics and on singing, he could have been a superb motion
picture actor. He could have done a lot of other things that he was
never able to do under the thumbs of Tom Parker.
Is there anything else you can say to
Anything else I can say to Elvis's fans is God bless your hearts and
any other of your organs that still report for duty.