Twilight Zone – The Once and Future King (09/27/86)

I don’t know whether to credit writer George R.R.R. Martin or director Jim McBride, but they pulled off a task I thought was impossible.  They made a rock & roll segment which, not only did not make me cringe, but kept me entertained throughout.  Of course, I have a few issues, but they mostly fall into the categories 1) I didn’t give it a chance, and 2) not enough of a good thing.

Elvis impersonator Gary Pitkin is doing a serviceable imitation of The King, singing Heartbreak Hotel in a venue that surprisingly does not have bowling balls and pins colliding in the background.  At first I was little put off by his silver jacket, black shirt and white tie.  It was too tacky for younger Heartbreak Hotel Elvis and not glitzy enough for older heart-attack Elvis.  He doesn’t really look much like Elvis either.  Little did I realize I fell right into their trap.

Back in his dressing room, he is complaining to his manager about the crummy gigs he is playing.  Surprise!  She has booked him in Viva Las Vegas!  Pitkin is not thrilled, however.  He feels that it was decadent Vegas that killed Elvis.  Or maybe he’s just been there; I certainly feel no need to go back.  He says he might look like Elvis, but he’s not going to make the same mistakes he did.  His manager says old Vegas Elvis once gave her a scarf after rambling like a crazy man — a fact you might think she would have previously mentioned to her Elvis-impersonator client.

Driving home that night, Pitkin is run off the road.  This is the one scene that still bugs me.  After he sees an on-coming car swerving into his lane, the POV suddenly shifts to inside the drunk’s car, over his shoulder, and we hear his drunken singing.  After Pitkin flips his car, we are literally seeing through the drunk’s eyes as we see the rear-view mirror and Pitkin’s upside-down car framed in it.  He drives off and that, as they say, is that.  I replayed it a few times trying to make the warbling sound like Elvis.  That would have made no sense, but I was grasping for any kind of context.

Pitkin climbs out of the car.  Keen observers (i.e. not me) will notice that it is day-time now.  He puts his thumb out and an old pick-up stops. He takes a look at the driver and says, “You look just like Elvis Presley!”  The driver — Elvis — says, “Do I know you, mister?”

Ahhhhh . . . I get it now; and by “now” I mean after I finished watching the entire segment the first time.  Jeff Yagher is playing both Pitkin and Elvis.  They couldn’t have Pitkin be a perfect doggelganger for Elvis.  When he climbs in the truck, the driver with the lock of black hair hanging down his forehead, the rolled up shirt sleeve, the sideburns, the friendly sneer, the voice — we accept him as the real Elvis right away.  Dang that’s good.

Pitkin notices the date on a newspaper.  It is July 3, 1954.  He recognizes this as two day before Elvis records his first record for Sam Phillips.  They go back to Elvis’s job where his boss is not thrilled that he has 1) picked up a hitchhiker, and 2) the hitchhiker has a picture of a black man (Chuck Berry) on his t-shirt.  Well, actually he refers to Berry as “a negro” with a pretty i-sounding “e” and pretty uh-sounding “o”.  Elvis plays him the ballad he plans to record.  Pitkin says that is all wrong and demonstrates the rock & roll performance Elvis should give.  Elvis thinks it is trashy.  They get into a fight and the real Elvis ends up dead, impaled on a broken guitar neck.  Of course, given how Elvis really died, this is relatively classy.

Pitkin decides to bury Elvis and assume his identity.  He will honor Elvis’s memory, he will protect his legacy, he will ensure that the world will still have his music, he will use this 2nd chance to avoid all the mistakes that Elvis-Prime made.  But mostly he will keep his own ass out of the electric chair.

In two days, he grows his sideburns and hair out, dyes them and goes to Sun Records dressed as Elvis.  And I mean literally dressed as Elvis — wearing the exact same pink shirt Elvis was killed in.  OK, I guess he could have bought an identical shirt, but why bother?  Was that the only shirt Elvis owned?  And would Elvis still be wearing it?  Wouldn’t people say, “Hey Smellvis, how many days ya gonna wear that shirt?”  And yeah, I guess the hair and sideburns were make-up and a wig from his act, but he didn’t retrieve anything from the wreck except his guitar.  In a good segment, none of that matters.

He dumps the ballad, and plays the rock-a-billy That’s All Right, Mama for his first recording, and the rest is history.  We fade into an aerial shot of 1970s Las Vegas.  Despite Pitkin’s disdain for Las Vegas, he has steered Elvis II right back there.  Bloated helmet-haired, aviator-spectacled Elvis is telling a groupie his crazy tale.  He says he doesn’t think Ma Presley truly believed he was her son.  He ponders what would have happened if real Elvis had lived.  Maybe that was the key to getting Elvis to a happy, healthy life.  The groupie turns out to be Pitkin’s manager.  Elvis gives her his scarf — after wiping his nasty sweat on it — and sends her away.

It’s not so much that this episode tricked me or had great twists, it just really made me think.  First they got me with Pitkin’s less than perfect imitation.  Seeing him grow into the part was awesome.  He became Elvis as he became Elvis.  By the last scene, Pitkin was The King.

I was thinking ahead that, in course-correcting, Pitkin should wait a few years later to call Priscilla Presley and should kick Col. Parker’s ass out a few years earlier.  But I never jotted it down because that just wasn’t the point.

In no time we are with fat Elvis in Vegas.  It was Pitkin who brought this fate on Elvis.  He was trying to save Elvis, but as his groupie / manager reveals, he has always been Elvis.  Somewhere a little boy named Gary Pitkin is listening to Elvis records and will eventually start the cycle again.  Maybe old Pitkin should warn him.  But would that deny Elvis to the world in the next go-round?

I was disappointed that it just sort of ends (i.e. not enough of a good thing).  I guess you can take the groupie being his manager as the twist, but it is not necessary to enjoy the show.  Just sit back and let the story roll over you.  Pitkin knows how and when he will die.   He knows that he killed Elvis, and by trying to perfect his life, kills him again.

The Once and Future King ranks with Profile in Silver as among the best of this series.  Is it a coincidence that both are centered on an actual historical figure?  While that is fun, the real common thread is the extraordinary performances by the leads.

Great stuff!

Other Stuff:

  • Title Analysis:  They even nailed that.  Well done!
  • Segment not Posted:  A Saucer of Loneliness starring Shelly Duvall.  She has enough problems without my shit.

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