He has directed some of the biggest names in the music history, from Petula Clark to Diana Ross, but Steve Binder knows there's only one musician that everyone wants to talk to him about. "Somebody said to me years ago, 'Steve, no matter how many shows you do, you'll always be remembered for Elvis Presley's show,'" Binder tells Yahoo Entertainment with a knowing laugh. "And they were right! Ninety-nine percent of the time, everybody who approaches me wants to hear about Elvis."
Consider it both the blessing and the curse of helming what's not only the greatest televised concert that the late singer ever shot, but also one of the greatest televised concerts of all time. That would be 1968's Singer Presents... Elvis, better known as the '68 Comeback Special, which revived Presley's then-moribund singing career after a lengthy stint cranking out increasingly silly Hollywood movies.
With the special poised to celebrate its 55th anniversary this December, Binder lends his firsthand knowledge of how it all came together to the new documentary Reinventing Elvis: The '68 Comeback Special. Directed by John Scheinfeld and produced by Spencer Proffer's Meteor 17.
Considering the plethora of Elvis projects working their way through Hollywood in the wake of Baz Luhrmann's Oscar-nominated movie, the director admits that he required a little extra convincing to participate in Reinventing Elvis. (Binder was a creative consultant on Luhrmann's Elvis, with breakout Stranger Things star Dacre Montgomery playing Binder in the film's recreation of the '68 special) "I was approached by Spencer and John and told them, 'Look, guys, why should I do another [project] about this special?'" Binder recalls. "And they said, 'Because you're the only guy that was there from the very beginning to the very end.' That was their pitch and I loved it, so I said, 'I'm in.'"
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2018 for the special's 50th anniversary, Binder shared the broad outline for how the program came together. Originally pitched to NBC by Presley's notoriously controlling manager, Col. Tom Parker, as a Christmas special, the telecast instead morphed into a celebration of the singer's influences and early years as a rock 'n' roll firebrand. Although that shift in direction made Parker furious, Binder and Presley remained true to their shared vision and successfully sidelined the manager during the months-long production process.
"We were mirrors of each other," Binder muses now. "We had the same internal fire, and were willing to put in the work. My whole experience with Elvis was positive, from the very first day I met him to the very last day we said goodbye, and I never saw or talked with him again. You're constantly hearing this yin and yang about him, that he was a great guy and he was also a womanizer. But I just want to live with my experience from '68 where I really loved the guy."
Reinventing Elvis takes a deeper dive into the making of the Comeback Special, featuring interviews from some of the surviving performers and audience members, as well as Presley experts placing it in the context of the times and the singer's career. But as the filmmakers knew, Binder remains the final authority on this particular slice of rock history. The now-90-year-old director shares some new stories from his one-on-one collaboration with Presley, and why he thinks that Tom Hanks should have gotten an Oscar nomination for his divisive portrayal of Parker in Elvis.
Girls, Girls, Girls
By his own admission, Presley had a steady string of on-set affairs with his leading ladies. (The one exception? Mary Tyler Moore.) And there were certainly plenty of women on the set of the Comeback Special, both in the audience and sharing the stage with Elvis, who Binder says lived on the NBC studio lot during the shoot while his wife, Priscilla Presley, and their then-newborn daughter, Lisa Marie, were living elsewhere. "Elvis had rented a home for Priscilla and the baby in Beverly Hills, and didn't want to waste time traveling back and forth," the director recalls, adding that he wasn't personally aware about whether or not his star got up to any hanky-panky on set.
"I'm the most naive person in the world," Binder says, chuckling. "If he was doing anything, I was oblivious of it! I was focused on doing the best special I possibly could. But I'm sure somebody in his shoes, and there aren't very many — were magnets to women."
Binder also doesn't recall any personal set visits from Presley's wife and daughter during the months-long shoot. In fact, he didn't have his first meeting with Lisa Marie - who passed away in January - until decades later and even then it was over the phone. "Lisa called me up one day and said she was very disturbed with all these rumors going around that Elvis may still be alive," he says. "This was when she was still married to Michael Jackson. She wanted to take on the press, but I advised her not to do that. I said, 'That's what they want you to do. Just let it happen and it'll eventually burn out.' Which it did."
That call was Binder's only contact with Presley's daughter, but he says that he's a big fan of the singer's granddaughter, Riley Keough. "She's sensational: I've never met her, but she's a terrific actress. I think it might almost be a detriment that she's so tied to her grandfather, because she can make it on her own. She's that talented."
Too Hot to Handle
One of the women who got extra close to Elvis on the set of the Comeback Special was Susan Henning — a 20-year-old dancer and actress who landed the role of a virginal innocent that Presley's "Guitar Man" persona encounters in what's become known as the "bordello scene," although that's not how Binder thinks of it. "It was NBC executives who labeled it the 'bordello scene,'" he says now. "For me, it was meant to be part of the journey of a kid who goes to seek fame and fortune and becomes Guitar Man."
Henning, now 76, is interviewed in Revisiting Elvis and remembers her "chemistry" with Presley, which is still felt in the duo's sensual dance. It proved too sensual for NBC, which reneged on its promise to Binder that the sequence would remain in the special. "I had demanded that from everybody connected with the show that the scene would air," he remembers, adding that he even made adjustments to the costumes worn by the female dancers to keep the sponsors, including Singer Sewing Machines and General Electric, happy. "Somebody said that too much cleavage was showing, so I had the costuming department cover up their chests with black netting."
Ultimately, a GE executive pushed the network to excise the scene, despite giving a pass to a similarly risqué moment on The Dean Martin Show. "There was a scene on that show with a 6-foot blonde in a bikini and he was laughing his head off," Binder says. "I'm thinking, 'This'll be a piece of cake.' But then he comes over to our monitor and goes, 'This can never air.' I was so pissed off that they lied to me."
But this story has a happy ending: Binder made a 90-minute cut of the '68 Comeback Special - which initially aired as an hour-long program - that ended up preserved in NBC's archives. Following Presley's death in 1977, the network rushed to re-air the special and the tape that was pulled happened to be the longer cut with the bordello scene intact. "From that day forward, they never played the 60-minute version again," Binder says, happily. "But it was a total fluke! I never expected that to happen."
Bonding with Baz
Binder had the slightly surreal experience of watching his own history repeat itself as drama during the production of Luhrmann's film, which features a stellar recreation of the Comeback Special. "Baz and I became very close during the making of the film," he says, while also acknowledging that Elvis takes some "creative license" with how things went down.
"For instance, I was never at the Hollywood sign," he says, referring to the scene in the film where Montgomery's Steve pitches Butler's Elvis on participating in the special. "The only times I ever saw Elvis during the entire production was at my offices on the Sunset Strip, at NBC and at United Western Recorders where we did the orchestra soundtracks. But that was it — otherwise we never went anywhere."
Despite those liberties, Binder counts himself as a big fan of Luhrmann's film and has nothing but praise for both Montgomery and Butler. "Austin was brilliant, and Dacre is going to be a major star. Overall, I was really pleased with it, and I thought it served its purpose. People have seen it over and over again, and those who were never exposed to Elvis before got to see him."
While Butler's Oscar-nominated performance was universally acclaimed, not everyone loved how Tom Hanks approached the role of Col. Tom Parker — who comes across as a comic book supervillain with an outrageous accent straight out of a James Bond movie. But as someone who personally tangled with Presley's bully of a manager, Binder says that the Cast Away star did the role justice.
"I think people were kind of shocked that Tom didn't play him as a colonel from the South," Binder says. "Parker was actually born in the Netherlands and had a Dutch name [Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk] originally. Tom wanted to be authentic, and went to that speech pattern. I think he took a big hit from fans because of that, but I thought he was excellent and was disappointed that he didn't get nominated along with everybody else."
The Fame Game
It may sound strange, but Binder initially won Presley's trust by telling the singer that his career was all but over. "He sensed this was a make-or-break situation," the director says. "One of the first things he asked me was, 'What do you think happens if I do this special and it bombs?' And I said, 'They'll still remember your movies and your early hits, but that'll be the end of your career in in rock 'n' roll.'"
And Binder was later able to demonstrate to Presley just how far he had fallen in the fame rankings. One day, he happened upon the singer staring out an office window at passersbys strolling up and down Sunset Boulevard, clearly contemplating how they might react if he were to suddenly step out on the street. "I said to him, 'What do you think will happen if you go out there?'" Binder recalls his - not-so-subtle - suggestion to Presley that his appearance might not generate Beatlemania levels of cheers and screams.
Naturally, the singer seemed reluctant to acknowledge the dimming of his star power. But a few days later, Presley took Binder up on his challenge. "He and I went out there alone," Binder remembers. "He was trying to get noticed, but nobody was running up to him trying to tear his clothes off or anything. It was kind of embarrassing! After five minutes of trying to get attention, he said, 'OK, you've proved your point.'"
Reflecting on that moment now, Binder thinks that the lack of Elvis-mania had more to do with the fact that plenty of Presley imitators were already on the Sunset Strip. "So many guys tried to emulate Elvis, so people probably didn't realize it was actually him," he says, chuckling. And while it's never fun to be publicly humiliated, Presley took it in stride and it further cemented his bond with Binder.
"It's hard to put a finger on, but when we went back upstairs, he seemed to trust me more," the director says. "He was confident that I was on his side, whereas almost everybody else in his life was on Col. Parker's payroll. I've always felt strongly that everyone needs a Jiminy Cricket on their shoulder, and I was that for Elvis."