R.I.P. William Graham

elvis_director_william_a_graham

“Of all the people I’ve ever worked with in my entire life, and I’ve been a director for 47 years, Elvis was the nicest man I’ve ever worked with.” – William Graham.

William Graham, film and television director, recently passed away at the age of 87. He was nominated for an Emmy for his television movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. On the flip-side, he was nominated for a Razzie for Return to the Blue Lagoon. He directed a couple of X-files episodes which were amazing. With all of the things he did, what he was most asked about throughout his career was: “What was it like to work with Elvis?”

Graham directed Change of Habit, which was Elvis’ final narrative film in 1969. It’s a different type of film than Elvis was normally in, and shows how the Elvis Formula started to crack apart in very interesting ways in those final films of the 60s as Elvis finished out his contract. In Change of Habit, Elvis plays an inner-city doctor who runs a neighborhood clinic. Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair and Jane Elliot play three nuns who come to work in his clinic, sans habits. It’s the 60s, remember. Vatican II. Regis Toomey (whom I love, The Big Sleep!), plays a judgmental Catholic priest who is shocked at the changes in his organization and totes judgey about the nuns wearing regular civilian clothes. I am strangely pleased that Elvis would be in a film that tries to address the realities of Vatican II. How bizarre and great is that? Meanwhile, of course, Elvis’ character develops a crush on Mary Tyler Moore’s character (he doesn’t know she’s a nun). The neighborhood (which was shot in Los Angeles but is clearly meant as a stand-in for Spanish Harlem) is dangerous, with racial clashes, and gangster activity. There’s also an autistic girl Elvis’ character is treating, with some degrees of success (and controversy). If you know the Elvis Formula Pics, like Girl Happy, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Blue Hawaii, then you know that Change of Habit doesn’t feel like any of them. The outside world is in this picture. The 60s, the “winds of change”, the evolving position of women, the late-60s race riots, all that, is influencing the film. Elvis is fitting into a larger picture. He is not the entire solar system, the way he is in the Formula Pics. He’s wonderful in Change of Habit. Jeremy Richey discussed a moment of Elvis’ in the film during our discussion about Elvis as an actor.

habit7

habit6

William Graham was very interesting in interviews about his working with Elvis. Elvis was a pro, and could do anything and would try anything – he had a professional attitude, knew his lines and everyone else’s, could do fight scenes, sing/dance, make it look easy – but wasn’t used to trying new things, since “new things” were not required of him in the Formula Pics. But Graham sensed some hesitation from Elvis in some scenes, particularly small conversation scenes, he felt a sort of selfconsciousness. He also sensed Elvis’ hunger to be a good actor, to devote himself to his work in a way that had meaning for him. So Graham took the time to work privately with Elvis, explaining the Meisner technique to him and doing some of the Neighborhood Playhouse exercises with Elvis at his house. (Oh, to be a fly on the wall.) Elvis dug it. He ate knowledge UP. The whole concept of acting being reacting, and acting being about listening is something Elvis knew intuitively – his idols being Clift and Brando and Dean – but not something he felt he knew how to do in his own work. Graham worked with Elvis, coaching him privately. Elvis loved it. The Colonel didn’t like it at ALL, but they kept working together anyway.

William Graham said in an interview:

“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.”

William Graham’s career spanned 50 years.

This entry was posted in Directors, RIP and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.