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The Men Who Would Be King: The Best (And Worst) Actors To Play Elvis

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Source: warner brothers

Jul. 1 2022, Published 4:56 a.m. ET

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As Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster Elvis biopic continues to wow movie theater crowds, one thing that has united audiences and critics is the performance of Austin Butler, who plays the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Luhrmann himself says that casting Butler was a no-brainer from the start.

“From the moment he walked into our first meeting all the way to the end, he lived as Elvis,” he revealed. “Not in the way a method actor would. It was more organic than that. His natural voice even lowered throughout the shoot. He somehow just became Elvis.”

Butler’s performance may be one of the most praised portrayals of Elvis on the big screen, but it is by no means the only one. We round up the other pretenders to the throne…

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austin butler in elvis
Source: warner brothers

Kurt Russell - Elvis (1979)

Kurt's real-life dad, Bonanza's Bing Russell, co-starred as Presley patriarch Vernon in this biopic directed by John Carpenter. The filmmaker would later team up with Kurt on Escape From New York, Escape From L.A., The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China.

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Bruce Campbell - Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

This cult horror comedy - which finds Elvis and JFK living in a Texas nursing home – was described by one critic as "The best movie to star both the King and JFK.” Bruce Campbell didn’t watch any of Elvis’ movies before portraying him as a 68-year-old because “he’s playing a persona, so they wouldn’t have been any use,” he says.

Harvey Keitel - Finding Graceland (1998)

This movie in which Keitel’s Elvis claims he staged his own death and is alive and well today was the first dramatic feature to include a scene shot inside Graceland, thanks to the help of executive producer Priscilla Presley.

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harvey elvis
Source: avenue pictures

Tyler Hilton - Walk the Line (2005)

“I'm not an Elvis impersonator,” claimed the One Tree Hill alum, who played opposite Joaquin Phoenix as Elvis’s Sun labelmate Johnny Cash. "But I do watch it and say, 'That was a noble attempt, young warrior.’”

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Jonathan Rhys Meyers – Elvis (2005)

The Irish actor known for playing a different king (The Tudors' Henry VIII) affected a Southern accent to co-star in this TV Miniseries with Camryn Manheim and Robert Patrick as Gladys and Vernon. His performance bagged him an Emmy nomination as well as winning the Golden Globe for Best Actor.

Val Kilmer - True Romance (1993)

As the ghost of Elvis, Val shares advice with Christian Slater's character Clarence, even coining a new catchphrase for the King: “I like you, Clarence. Always have – always will.” Two years earlier, Val earned further acclaim for embodying another rock legend - the Doors’ Jim Morrison.

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Source: warner brothers

David Keith - Heartbreak Hotel (1988)

The Officer and a Gentleman veteran says Elvis is his favorite role ever “because I got to sing the stuff myself, and I'm a frustrated rock star. It was like living the dream.” Sadly the critics did not agree, with one noting: “The King has left the building.”

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Michael Shannon - Elvis & Nixon (2016)

When Michael Shannon landed the part, “I just dove into Elvis’s world,” he says. “I watched all his movies. I read books, I watched press conferences that he did. I listened to his music. I just completely immersed myself.” He also got a private tour of Graceland with Jerry Schilling, a member of the so-called Memphis Mafia. “It was incredible,” he says. “And it was intimidating.”

michaelshannon elvis
Source: bleeker street
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Dale Midkiff - Elvis and Me (1988)

The TV movie was based on Priscilla Presley's 1985 biography of her life with the King. “She had final say on who was going to portray her husband, and thankfully she picked me!” Dale says.

Michael St. Gerard - Elvis (1990), Great Balls of Fire! (1989), Heart of Dixie (1989)

Michael became something of an Elvis regular: as well the 1990 TV series Elvis, he also played the King in the 1989 Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! and in Heart of Dixie, with Ally Sheedy, the same year… and in 1993 made a cameo as Elvis again in the penultimate episode of Quantum Leap. “You’re playing someone who captured the hearts of so many people. You can get swallowed up in a role like Elvis,” he later said. After undergoing a spiritual awakening, Michael retired from acting in 1994 and now works as an inner-city pastor.

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