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|BILLY GARDELL PICKS UP THE PARKER LEGEND
June 04, 2016 - Las Vegas Review Journal / Elvis Express Radio
|We all know about Elvis in Vegas. And where Elvis went, the Colonel followed.
While Elvis Presley famously died at home inside Graceland, newer Las Vegans may not know his controversial manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, lived his later years in Las Vegas,
and died here in 1997 at the age of 87.
When the former Las Vegas Hilton was still owned by the Hilton family, Parker had the run of the place while living just a short hop away, in Country Club Towers. The ongoing
friendship seemed to be fueled by both loyalty and the Colonel’s ongoing investment in games of chance.
The Colonel even made it posthumously into a Cirque du Soleil show, as the narrator of “Viva Elvis.” Presenting him as an entirely reliable narrator might have been one of that
show’s many missteps.
But now the beginning of the Parker-Elvis Presley relationship will be explored in a TV project, “Million Dollar Quartet.” Like the hit musical parked at Harrah’s Las Vegas, the CMT
miniseries — shooting now to air next summer — will be centered around the early Memphis days of Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Parker is played by Billy Gardell, the “Mike & Molly” star who also has an ongoing commitment to Las Vegas as a stand-up comedian. He will be at Treasure Island on Friday.
“This is the kind of thing that I need to do next,” Gardell says on the phone from Memphis, where the series is shooting. “It’s a nice change of direction, acting-wise. I’ve gone from
playing a guy with a solid moral compass to a guy with no moral compass.”
Gardell says “Mike & Molly” fans are “excited that I’m doing something new. Going from a guy that never told a lie to a guy that’s always lying.”
But such is Parker’s legacy, which has been debated ever since Elvis had to sing “Do the Clam.” But it came under serious scrutiny with Albert Goldman’s 1981 biography “Elvis,”
which dug deep into Parker’s role in the saga. Among the boldest claims was that Parker was a Dutch-born, illegal U.S. resident and hence never booked his client for lucrative
Gardell says he is playing Parker from the angle “that nobody knew who this guy was. The more I talk to people with any kind of knowledge about it, the more I find he was a little
different to everybody. He was kind of what the situation needed. Nobody knew who that guy was except himself.”
And Parker was exactly what the Vegas situation needed in 1969. Though it’s hard now to imagine a time when the Rat Pack wasn’t cool, try to picture the Vietnam era with its
counterculture movies such as “Easy Rider.” Then picture Frank and Dino waving protest signs, “We Want Free Broads.”
Elvis at the International (which soon became the Hilton) taught Las Vegas to think big. Parker also gave the music industry the model for the manager-single client relationship. Is it
a coincidence that in Celine Dion’s first Las Vegas arena concert in 1994, she dedicated “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to Parker in the audience?
No, because her late husband and manager, Rene Angelil, once recalled coming to Las Vegas expressly to try to interest Parker in his young ingenue.
Shooting around Memphis in Sun Studios and other authentic locations, Gardell says “people are interested in the project” and happy to have them in town, but aren’t really
volunteering any opinions on the Colonel. “I don’t think they’re taking it that personal. I think the people who dealt with him in business are probably the people who are sorry they
ran into him.”
But again, no complaints in Las Vegas. As far as the Hilton was concerned, Presley died way too early. The hotel kept returning to its brand association with the superstar over the
years, hosting both a theatrical musical and a concert syncing a live band to Elvis on video.
After Presley’s triumphant comeback in 1969, the Colonel signed a five-year deal with the Hilton, inked on a coffee-shop tablecloth. Last year, the tablecloth returned to the building
(now the Westgate Las Vegas) as part of an Elvis exhibit that proved to be short-lived.
By 2015, the Westgate needed Elvis more than Elvis (or at least his Graceland estate) needed the Westgate.
Gardell understands you have to give the devil his due.
“You put those clothes on and you light the cigar, and you have a little bit of a devilish gleam in your eyes,” he says. “It’s fun to get into that head space and play this guy. Because
as much of a huckster and con man as he was, he was still the visionary who saw what Elvis could become.”
As for Gardell’s post-“Mike & Molly” career, he says his stand-up continues to explore “being a husband, being a father and the insanity that goes with that if you try to do it and not
be a hypocrite. Turning 40 changes everything, and now I’m 47.”
Co-star Melissa McCarthy continues her big-screen career in the “Ghostbusters” reboot July 15. “I’m sure our girl will hit another home run over the fence. That’s what she does.”
And when it comes to the end of “Mike & Molly,” “I think our work stands,” he says.
And if you ask Ray Romano or Brad Garrett, it may even stand more prominently in syndication than it did on Monday nights.
“When you reach that rare fraternity of syndication, when you’re in the dinner hour on a bunch of different channels, you really are in people’s living rooms,” Gardell says. “You
become part of the family, and it’s nice. It lives on much longer. I’m still watching ‘Cheers.’ ”