Elvis Presley as Willy Wonka? The films the King of Rock’n’Roll almost made

West Side Story, Midnight Cowboy and The Godfather would all have been very different if Elvis had got his way – or if his manager Col Tom Parker hadn’t turned down so many roles on his behalf

According to Baz Luhrmann’s biopic, Elvis Presley’s dream was to be a great actor. But his Hollywood ambitions were frequently stifled by his controlling manager, Colonel Tom Parker (played by Tom Hanks). A key scene in the film has a rueful Elvis (Austin Butler) explaining that he won’t be able to co-star opposite Barbara Streisand in the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born (a part he really wanted), because negotiations between Streisand and Parker ended extremely badly. Though that’s the only example that makes it into the movie, there are a number of other films that Elvis could have made, proving that his big screen career would have been very different if Parker had wielded less influence.

The Rainmaker (1956)

The same year that Elvis landed his first film role in Love Me Tender, he was asked to screen test for The Rainmaker, a Depression-era drama starring Burt Lancaster as a conman who hoodwinks a small town and falls in love with a middle-aged spinster (Katharine Hepburn). Elvis auditioned for the role of Hepburn’s brother but, according to the film’s screenwriter N Richard Nash, he only showed the acting ability of “the lead in a high school play”, and the part eventually went to Earl Holliman.

Thunder Road (1958)

Robert Mitchum had seen Elvis on stage before he was famous, and the pair remained friends once Elvis hit Hollywood. At a Christmas party, while playing songs together, Mitchum tried to talk Elvis into taking the part of his younger brother in Thunder Road, a moonshine-fuelled chase thriller he was producing. However, Parker vetoed the idea because it wasn’t a musical and he didn’t want Elvis “to do a movie he couldn’t get an album out of”. The part of Robin Doolan eventually went to Mitchum’s son, James Mitchum.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

In 1958, Elvis was offered the role of Brick Pollitt in the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play about an alcoholic former high school athlete trying to recapture his glory days and resisting the affections of his wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor). Parker apparently refused the role on Elvis’s behalf and it went to Paul Newman instead.

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, directed by Stanley Kramer.
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, directed by Stanley Kramer. Photograph: United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The Defiant Ones (1958)

By 1958, Elvis had made his first three movies: Love Me Tender, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock. His film career established, he was keen to play the role of John “Joker” Jackson, opposite Sidney Poitier, in The Defiant Ones: about a black and a white escaped convict who are shackled together. Once again, Parker vetoed the role, which eventually went to Tony Curtis – the actor and the film were both Oscar-nominated.

West Side Story (1961)

It has long been rumoured that Elvis was considered for the part of Tony, but Parker turned down the role on the grounds that he didn’t think a film about street gangs would be good for the King of Rock’n’Roll’s image.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

Clearly, Elvis didn’t have much luck when it came to parts in Tennessee Williams adaptations that eventually went to Paul Newman. He was approached to play Chance Wayne, a drifter (a sanitised version of the play’s gigolo) who has a relationship with a faded movie star. Once again, Parker reputedly vetoed the role because he didn’t want Elvis playing a seedy character.

Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964)

It could have been so different … a photograph of Elvis shown surrounded by Oscars won by MGM films.
It could have been so different … a photograph of Elvis is surrounded by the Oscars won by MGM films. Photograph: Fred Prouser/Reuters

In 1964, MGM considered Elvis for the lead in their Hank Williams biopic. This time, however, it was Williams’ widow Audrey Williams who intervened, saying that she didn’t want the King to take away from Hank’s legacy. The part eventually went to George Hamilton.

Valley of the Dolls (1967)

According to a Vanity Fair article, author Jacqueline Susann wanted Elvis to play crooner Tony Polar in the screen adaptation of her Hollywood potboiler, but the studio ignored her request. Elvis probably had a lucky escape on that one, as the film was a critical disaster and regarded as one of the worst movies of all time.

Jon Voight’s Joe with Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Another kind of rodeo … Jon Voight’s Joe with Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso in Midnight Cowboy (1969) Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

United Artists wanted Elvis for the role of Joe Buck, a naive Texas hustler trying to make it in New York. True to form, Parker turned down the part on the grounds of its seedy connotations, without even bothering to consult Elvis. Of all Elvis’s near-misses that one probably stung the most, as the film won three Oscars as well as best actor nominations for both Jon Voight as Joe and his co-star Dustin Hoffman.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Elvis was briefly considered for the lead role in the 1971 musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The part eventually went to Gene Wilder (two years older than Elvis).

Marlon Brando in the title role of The Godfather (1972).
King crossed … Marlon Brando in the title role of The Godfather (1972). Photograph: Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

The Godfather (1972)

Elvis was a huge fan of Mario Puzo’s novel and wanted to play the the role of consigliere Tom Hagen – the part that eventually went to Robert Duvall. Various sources suggest he got as far as being asked to screen test, and also that he lobbied for the title role.


Matthew Turner

The GuardianTramp

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