Elvis Presley shot to fame as a singing sensation back in 1956, but his manager Colonel Tom Parker also had a vision for his client to become a Hollywood movie star. That same year The King acted in his first film, a Western called Love Me Tender. Among his musical romantic comedies, he starred in three more Wild West films in Flaming Star, Frankie and Johnny and Charro, which caught the eye of Western legend John Wayne.
During this period, Wayne was America’s cowboy star, having acted in his first Western in 1930’s The Big Trail, before making iconic movies with John Ford like The Searchers.
In 1969, the 62-year-old starred in one of his last box office successes, an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit, which is on ITV4 today. The storyline saw Duke play Rooster Cogburn, a tough one-eyed old United States Marshal who helps a 14-year-old girl track down the drunk who killed her father. They achieved this with the help of Texan Ranger LaBoeuf, a part that it turns out was initially was set for Elvis. However, in the late 1960s, Elvis was tired of making poor musical rom-coms and returned his focus to live performances with his 1968 Comeback Special and subsequent Las Vegas residencies.
The King’s cousin Billy Smith described on his son Danny’s Memphis Mafia Kid YouTube channel how John Wayne asked Elvis to co-star in a few of his movies. He said: “In fact, he asked him a couple of times.” So why did The King not take up the offer?
In the end, Elvis; manager The Colonel pushed it too far by demanding that Elvis should receive top billing above Wayne if he were to play the Texan in True Grit.
Billy added: “Of course, it was always carried through Colonel and at that time when he was asking, Elvis was such a big star. Colonel didn’t want him to play second co-star or second star…with anybody else, so that ruled that out.”
Since Wayne was already such a huge star, True Grit’s producers declined Elvis even though he was their original choice for the role of LaBoeuf. Instead, another musician, Glen Campbell, was cast as the Texan ranger, which saw him nominated for a Golden Globe. If that wasn’t enough, Duke himself won the Golden Globe and his first and only Oscar in the Best Actor category for Rooster Cogburn. The Western legend said during his Academy Awards speech: “Wow! If I’d known that, I’d have put that [eye] patch on 35 years earlier.”
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Campbell also sang True Grit’s title song, which presumably would have been Elvis’ had he taken the movie. The track was composed by Elmer Bernstein and lyricist Don Black and received both Golden Globe and Oscars nominations for Best Song.
Sadly, a demand for top billing would cost Elvis another incredible acting opportunity in 1976, the year before his death at 42. The King was asked by Barbra Streisand to act opposite her in A Star Is Born, but after negotiations with The Colonel fell through, Kris Kristofferson was cast instead.