TV sponsors got all shook up when they saw Elvis Presley bumping and grinding, years after he first gyrated his pelvis on TV.
It was 1968, and the former teen idol was eager to reclaim his throne as the king of rock ‘n’ roll. His historic hour-long broadcast is the subject of a new documentary, “Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback Special.”
The music icon died Aug. 16, 1977, at age 42.
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“The ‘bordello’ scene … was named by an NBC executive,” Steve Binder, who directed Presley’s comeback special, told Fox News Digital. “When the show first aired, it was only 60 minutes, which meant it was probably 40 minutes of entertainment.
“The rest was commercials, public service announcements and so forth. … I put together my own 90-minute version. It was rejected by the sponsor and NBC, who did not want to add another half hour of airtime when it first aired. So the first version had very little of [the bordello scene] in it. I used it as introductions to the big production numbers.
Susan Henning was cast as “The Blonde Girl.” (Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
“When Elvis passed away, NBC decided to do a three-hour special,” Binder shared. “They sent a gopher down to the library to get the Elvis master. He probably knew nothing about the past. He walked down there, saw my 90-minute edited version, which I didn’t even think NBC kept, and pulled that one instead of the original 60-minute master. And from that day forward, there is no more 60 minutes. It’s all about the 90 minutes. And everything they took out of the 60-minute version, including the ‘bordello’ scene, went back into the show.
“Nobody said anything.”
Elvis Presley’s moves were too hot to handle for TV sponsors. (Getty Images)
Binder was used to facing strict guidelines when it came to bringing his production to life.
“I did so many shows where the censors wouldn’t let me air certain scenes,” he laughed. “I remember, in one special, we weren’t allowed to show two people in bed. It had to be twin beds.”
For the comeback special, Binder wanted to illustrate Presley’s rise to stardom and how he made audiences clutch their pearls as he swiveled his hips. For one scene, the 33-year-old, eager to show he still had swagger, would get hot and heavy with a 20-year-old blonde. The dancer, Susan Henning, spoke out in the documentary.
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Everyone noticed the chemistry between Elvis Presley and Susan Henning on set. (Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
“I was a virgin hooker. I take pride in that,” Henning beamed in the documentary about her role. She noted that her scenes with Presley for the “Guitar Man” sequence were “too tempting” after she saw him in his jeans.
“It wasn’t work,” she chuckled. “I think it was apparent to everybody that we very much enjoyed what we were doing. We had fun dancing and practicing and being silly. … [Binder] allowed free liberty for us to express ourselves. It was just natural, and I think allowing Elvis and I to be natural … it brought out more in us.
“He was very sensuous, very masculine, and it elicited the femininity and the flirt and the coy and the tease in me. And I think we played off each other.”
Susan Henning’s scenes with Elvis Presley were originally cut from the special. (Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
Binder said while filming the bordello scene specifically he called everyone on stage to the set, including sponsor representatives and NBC executives.
“I said, ‘Guys and gals, if you want anything changed, now’s the time to speak up,’” Binder recalled. “They all gave their opinions of what they objected about it. They felt the girls had too much cleavage showing in their breasts. So, we took black netting and brought the costuming department up to the stage. And in front of all of them, we put netting in. We did things like that to any of their objections. … Then, I said, ‘Is this acceptable … to be aired?’ And they all said yes.”
Steve Binder and Elvis Presley became fast friends on set. (Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
“So, I thought it was behind me,” Binder continued. “And then, the next thing I know, is they’re preparing for the initial broadcast, and I hear that they’re going to bring in an executive. They sent a guy [from sponsor Singer Sewing Machines] … from New York to come out to LA to make the final decision.
“And this guy shows up in a brown suit and brown shoes. He’s watching Dean Martin on a videotape [from a different special] with a 6-foot beautiful young woman in a bikini. They’re basically doing a dirty joke without the punchline. I’m thinking this is going to be a piece of cake because our ‘bordello’ sequence is nothing near as risqué as that segment.
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Steve Binder needed to revamp the costumes used in Elvis Presley’s comeback special to avoid showing “too much cleavage.” (Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
“He walks over to our videotape machine,” Binder shared. “I have the editor play the segment for him. And he immediately says, ‘No, we can’t show that.’ And, so, they take it out of the show. I was incredibly upset having gone through all that. And then for the ‘bordello’ scene to be taken out. When it [later] came back in, I guess America had moved on by that time. And it was totally acceptable. So it’s been in ever since.”
During filming, Binder often quarreled with Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who was adamant about Presley singing Christmas tunes.
Steve Binder (left) said Colonel Tom Parker was adamant about having Elvis Presley sing a Christmas song. (Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
“The Colonel lost every single battle except for the very end,” said Binder. “He told NBC that he wouldn’t allow them to air the show unless it had at least one Christmas song in it. … I remember the Colonel staring at me. I thought he might be able to hypnotize me.
“I then remember an improv we filmed where Elvis did a couple of Christmas songs, including ‘Blue Christmas.’ But the Colonel didn’t care. He only wanted to have control. And he lost control so many times making this special. The only thing he had left was to try and get one Christmas song in the show. I gave it to him with ‘Blue Christmas.’”
Steve Binder said Elvis Presley was inspired by Marlon Brando’s character from the 1953 film “The Wild One.” ( Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Presley also got his say when it came to being decked out in leather.
“Elvis showed me a picture of himself sitting on his Harley,” said Binder. “He had all of these store-bought motorcycle costumes. And then he showed me a picture that he loved of Marlon Brando when he was a motorcycle gang leader in a movie called ‘The Wild One.’ I called Bill Belew, my costume director, and I said, ‘Let’s make him a black leather motorcycle outfit but nothing you could walk into a retail store and buy. This has to be custom-made for him.’ And Bill delivered.
“That black leather was a marriage between [Presley] and his being, his body,” Binder chuckled, admitting he didn’t like some of Presley’s jumpsuits later in his career.
“I was not a jumpsuit person. I liked the manhood of that black leather look. And he was in great shape at the time. There was no mention of any drugs or anything. … He was mentally right on.”
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“That black leather was a marriage between [Elvis Presley] and his being, his body,” said Steve Binder. (Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
Binder spent five months with Presley and vividly remembers the last time they spoke.
“He wanted to travel the world and meet all of his fans,” said Binder. “I said, ‘Elvis, I hear you. I just hope you’re strong enough to stand up to Colonel Parker.’ Unfortunately, he wasn’t. He went right back into the control of Parker who … didn’t want to leave the United States. He forced Elvis to stay here. And it was all about the money. It had nothing to do with Elvis’ creativity and his desire as a creative person to want new challenges in life.”
From left: Guitarist Charlie Hodge, Elvis Presley and director Steve Binder behind the scenes of the ’68 comeback special. (Frank Carroll/Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
“[Elvis] told me he never wanted to sing a song again that he didn’t believe in,” Binder reflected. “He didn’t want to make a movie that he didn’t like. … [But] he wasn’t strong enough at the end to stand up to Colonel Parker, who just wanted him to be a money machine.”
During his last conversation with Elvis Presley (right), director Steve Binder (left) encouraged the singer to break away from Colonel Tom Parker. (NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)
Binder described his collaboration with Presley as “a special time in my life.”
“I never realized how lucky we were every time we walked on that stage,” he said. “When we put the cameras up, something magical happened.”
“Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback Special" will be available for streaming Aug. 15 on Paramount+.