Actor becomes a fan — `Elvis’ grows on Michael St. Gerard

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
March 9, 1990

Diehard fans may find it sacrilegious that the actor who portrays the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was never an Elvis Presley fan. But few could argue that any actor has done a better job of playing Presley than Michael St. Gerard.

On “Elvis,” ABC’s new fact-based series, St. Gerard plays Presley at 19, when the fledgling singer was on the cusp of fame. The half-hour drama airs from 7:30 to 8 p.m. Sunday on WLS-Channel 7.

St. Gerard doesn’t wear blue contact lenses to mask his brown eyes, nor does he bear more than a passing physical resemblance to Presley. But the actor has captured so well the mannerisms and innocent ambivalence of Presley during the mid-1950s that some of the black-and-white mock-concert footage shot for the series easily could be mistaken as segments from Presley’s early shows.

“Presenting the essence of what’s inside of Elvis is more important to me than matching his actual look,” St. Gerard said in a telephone conversation from his New York home, while on hiatus from shooting.

“What I concentrated on was portraying who the real Elvis was. I didn’t want to play a stereotype. In that sense, it was to my advantage that I knew nothing about Elvis, or even rock music, for that matter, when I was hired for the series. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was or how he should be played. I had a clean slate to work with.”

That slate quickly filled up when St. Gerard prepared for the part. Taking on the role with academic fervor, the 27-year-old actor pored over every book on Presley he could lay his hands on. He also bought all of Elvis’ old movies. St. Gerard wasn’t interested in judging Presley’s acting ability. Rather, he used the films to mimic Presley’s loping walk, twitching leg and famous sneer.

This isn’t St. Gerard’s first encounter with Presley. He portrayed Presley in last summer’s “Great Balls of Fire,” the theatrical film based on Jerry Lee Lewis’ rise to, and early fall from, grace.

Unlike other dramatized accounts of Presley’s life, many of his friends are treated as such, and not merely as hangers-on. This is another way of presenting Presley as a full-dimensional character.

Chicago actor Jesse Dabson, who co-stars as Presley’s guitarist, Scotty Moore, said: “I think it’s really important to show that Elvis was a real person. He wasn’t born a big superstar or anything. He had friends and, luckily for me, ABC has chosen to show that side of his life in the series. Michael, Blake (Gibbons, who plays bassist Bill Black) and I have the right chemistry to play friends. I think any actor can do a job well, but without that chemistry, it’s really difficult to make that relationship believable.”

St. Gerard’s Presley is the singer during his most attractive stage. Slim-hipped and ever-so-surly lipped, Presley idealistically dreams of fame and fortune as a means of moving his family up from its poor socio-economic roots.

St. Gerard’s portrayal of Elvis also has won him admirers both with longtime Presley fans and with the press. Although “Elvis” hasn’t been the ratings winner ABC hoped it would be, the network seems committed to giving the show a chance. With nine shows already in the can, ABC gave the producers the go-ahead to film four more episodes this month.

“I’m overwhelmed by everything that’s been happening,” he said. “On the morning the first show aired (in February), my girlfriend called me up and said, `You’ve got to come here and see these reviews.’ So we went to this cafe and went through them, and each one was better than the next. It was one of the highlights of my life.”

Critics aren’t the only people who’ve given St. Gerard kudos. Many fans already have accepted him as the next best thing to Elvis. Since the series first aired, stacks of letters for St. Gerard have arrived at Graceland, Presley’s mansion in Memphis, Tenn.

While he believes the series has enough good material to last at least three years, St. Gerard has contingency plans in case the series gets canceled. He would like to portray another real-life person. And while his striking good looks easily could catapult him into the leading-man category, St. Gerard said he’d like to do a comedy.

His next project will air later this season as an ABC Afterschool Special, tentatively titled “The Accident.” St. Gerard has a periphery role, playing a young man from a prominent New England family who is being groomed for a political career. His abuse of alcohol results in tragedy. While St. Gerard’s status as a television star could have won him a larger role, he said he wanted this part.

“I really believe in the message the movie brings out about not drinking,” said St. Gerard, who doesn’t drink or smoke.

With his current notoriety, St. Gerard has had to defend himself from tabloid accusations. Though they regularly claim “sightings” of the real Presley at various fast-food chains across the country, having St. Gerard to write about is too good an opportunity for the gossip rags to pass up.

“It’s sad, but I guess as soon as you’re doing well, there are those who want to knock you down. I guess that goes with the territory, but when (those stories) first started coming out, I actually lost sleep over it. I really did. I’d be up all night wondering whether I could deal with it. I’ve learned just to accept it, and now some of the things actually seem kind of funny.”

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