A conversation with game-changing television director behind the Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special
Steve Binder had already made television history before he worked with Elvis, when his television special Petula provoked controversy due to a moment when its star, white British singer Petula Clark, took African-American performer Harry Belafonte by the arm, while they sang together. A sponsor demanded the sequence be cut; Binder refused.
It was good training for his next assignment, dealing with Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, while making the landmark Elvis television special; among other things, Parker tried to nix an “improv” sequence, where Elvis appeared before a live audience for the first time in seven years, with his original backing musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana. The show, first broadcast in December 1968, pulled Elvis’ career out of a slump, and has remained one of the peaks of his career.
Binder’s credits also include one of the first rock concert films, The T.A.M.I. Show (for “Teenage Music International”), the rock TV series Hullabaloo, Diana Ross Live in Central Park and The Star Wars Holiday Special. “I did have a ball doing it,” he says of the latter production. “My neighbor is John Dykstra, who won the Academy Award for special effects on the movie. And John always jokes and says, ‘You realize you’re the second director of Star Wars?’”
But “Elvis will always rank as very very special to me,” he adds, having just published a book about the show, Comeback ’68 Elvis: The Story of the Elvis Special. “Because I’m constantly bombarded with questions about it,” he says. “So I wrote a definitive book that, first person, I lived.”
Here are more of his memories about the show:
When producer Bob Finkel first asked you to work on the Elvis show, you said no. What made you change your mind?
It was really a case of two things. After Petula, I thought I would leave television and go into the movie business. Walter Wanger, an iconic producer in movies, hired me to do a feature film. But Bones [Howe, Binder’s business partner] said, “Steve, you and Elvis would hit it off. Why are you picking one over the other? Why don’t you ask Walter if he’ll let you do a television special and not lose the movie?” And while I’m in the midst of this, Walter dies of a heart attack. So the movie’s cancelled and now I’m really free to do it.
So I called Finkel and said, “I would like you to reconsider me if the job’s still open, on one condition.” And he laughed and said, “Okay, what’s the condition?” Because I had kind of a rebel reputation at that time. I said, “I want to meet Elvis alone; I just want to see if the two of us hit it off.” And that’s what really opened the door. I instantly liked Elvis. And instantly he was calling me “Steve,” whereas he was calling Bob Finkel, “Mr. Finkel.”
Elvis’ career fell into a slump because he kept making those mediocre movies. Why didn’t he stand up to his manager about things like that?
I think in his own way Elvis was very loyal. I think his father, Vernon, had bonded with Parker, and Parker, in his inimitable way, played Vernon like a Stradivarius; he could get him to make Elvis do anything. Even Elvis’ movie career, from what I gather, if the Colonel got his million dollars — and with no back end incidentally, Elvis didn’t own any of his movies when he passed, and his estate had to try and buy the rights back, including the ’68 special. But if Parker got the fee, then it was really a case of where Elvis showed up on a movie set and you owned him from 9 to 5. And if a screenwriter who never wrote a song in his or her life wrote a song, he’d sing it, whether he liked it or didn’t like it.
So I think it was the same mentality; he didn’t challenge the Colonel when he told him to do something. And Elvis never said no to anything. I was shocked when the show’s writers read him our rundown of the show and I asked Elvis, “What do you like, what don’t you like?” And he said, “I like everything.” I’d never heard a star say that about any show I ever did. It bothered me that he didn’t comment, that he didn’t want to change anything, all the way through.
And Elvis never challenged the Colonel when I was there. He’d always agree with him. Then he’d turn to me when we left him and say, “Screw the Colonel, let’s just do it our way.” But it was the first time, certainly in television, where the estate didn’t have their hands in it at all. And I always wondered why. I kept thinking on the set, at any moment, I’m going to get fired, because of all my confrontations. And Priscilla [Presley, Elvis’ wife at the time] told me that when Elvis came home from the first meeting with me, he told her, “I don’t give a damn what the Colonel says. I’ve got a gut feeling about this guy Binder, and I’m going to listen to him and do whatever he wants.” I never knew that.
One of the confrontations was about a scene in a production number that appeared to be set in a brothel.
Oh, there was a big confrontation before I taped that! There was a rumor I was going to quit the show if they took it out, which was not true. But I got everybody on stage, the sponsors, representatives, executives at NBC, and I listened to everything they wanted me to do, including covering up the ladies’ cleavage with black net in their costumes. And they swore to me if I taped it it would definitely be in the show. But after the show was taped, somebody mentioned that the bordello sequence was not to be seen by America’s youth! And at the time NBC had sold their company to General Electric, and they sent a guy out from New York to reject it. Because the programming department was afraid it would look like they were going back on their word, after they promised me they wouldn’t take it out. So they didn’t want the heat on them. [Though cut from the original broadcast, the sequence has since been restored]
The show’s legendary for the “improv” sequence, where Elvis sits down and jams with Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. How did that come together?
If Elvis didn’t decide to put a bed in his dressing room, and live out there because he didn’t want to commute from Burbank to Beverly Hills where he was renting a home, the improv would’ve never happened. Because after rehearsals and tapings he’d go into his dressing room and jam until 2, 3 in the morning, and that’s what I wanted to film, with cameras in the dressing room. And the Colonel said over his dead body — which was his favorite expression with me! So finally I broke him down where he said, “Well, you can recreate it if you want onstage but I won’t guarantee any of it can be used in the actual show.” And I jumped on it.
And you write that Elvis almost backed out of it at the last minute.
In the make-up room before the taping, we were one on one and he told me he couldn’t remember anything that he did in the dressing room. So I took an 8-by-10 piece of paper and scribbled what I remembered, the songs and the stories, and he actually took that paper onstage with him to refer to it.
All I cared about was getting the improv session into the show. There was no room to put much of it in in the 60-minute version. So I edited a long version, at least a 90-minute version of it. I went to Singer [the sewing machine company, the show’s sponsor], and I went to NBC, and I begged them to buy another half hour of airtime so that my version could be shown. And they turned me down cold.
Then, when Elvis dies, they decide to do a tribute, showing my show and the Aloha From Hawaii show, and they get Ann-Margret to host it. And they sent a gofer to go down to the basement and pull the Elvis master, and they pulled the long version. If not for that, they would’ve aired the 60-minute show, and more of the improv would never have been seen. And NBC didn’t even know that they pulled something that they technically didn’t even own. Because they had rejected my edit.
And there have been numerous edits of the show since then. They showed the 2006 “Special Edition” edit last summer in movie theaters.
I could never keep up. And how they ever got my audiotape of the dressing room rehearsals is beyond me, because I didn’t give it to anybody. So somebody else was recording my recording. I didn’t get involved in the edit they just showed, though I approved it and was happy about it.
You never talked to Elvis after the special, though you did see him perform in Vegas.
The first time I saw him he was brilliant. And the second time I saw him I felt sorry for him. I don’t think he died of drugs; I think he died of boredom.
You also write in your book about not receiving any album royalties.
I got $15,000 to do the show, and I gave half of it to Bones. And I am still pissed off about the album royalties; I was told there was going to be no album by the Colonel and my agent at William Morris. What I found out in the last ten years is that the day they made the phone call to me, telling me there wasn’t going to be a soundtrack, Colonel Parker closed his deal with RCA for it. But that’s spilled milk, that’s the past. I’m really happy with what’s going on the Elvis world right now.
I’m just proud that I was able to be there and do it. And that Bones talked me into it. I loved working with Elvis. And the metamorphosis of thinking he was a redneck, and discovering he was completely the opposite. At least in our experience. And this was unanimous from my whole staff, that he really cared about people, and he was very liberal. He did not care anything when it came to the color of your skin, or your religion, or anything. He accepted everybody. And I think the special kind of proved it. I really ended up totally believing in him. I loved his music, and I think he had one of the great voices in history.
People ask me why has Elvis sustained for so long, and do you think he’ll be here for another 50 years? It’s pure, indefinable charisma that keeps him different. When he sang a lyric to a song, the difference is, in my opinion, he somehow penetrated people’s souls. He got inside of them. It’s like he’s living in these people’s hearts. When I watched audience’s reactions to the special [when it was screened recently], they almost made him alive again. It was like he was performing on the road today. He just reached, and still reaches, people to where they just keep him alive.