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Elvis Presley’s acting career never reached its fullest potential, but many of the people who worked with him praised his ability on screen. Eventually, though, his acting career took a downturn. Still, two of his friends said they watched him give one of his best performances in the mid-1970s. They couldn’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable as he performed it, though.

Elvis Presley gave an incredible but uncomfortable acting performance to his friends

In the 1970s, Elvis brought his friends to Denver for a ski trip. They had traveled there after a tour, and everyone was exhausted and irritable. Still, Linda Thompson, Jerry Schilling, and Myrna Smith rallied enough to celebrate Elvis’ 41st birthday with him.

Elvis had seemed glum, but he perked up when Smith said she hadn’t seen the movie Across 110th Street. It was his favorite film, and he launched into a detailed explanation of its plot.

A black and white picture of Elvis Presley wearing a floral shirt and laughing.
Elvis Presley | Keystone/Getty Images

“I made the mistake of saying no, and he told me the entire story, acted out every role, recited practically every line,” Smith said, per the book Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick.

Smith and Schilling watched him do this. Afterward, they agreed it was one of Elvis’ best performances ever, but they couldn’t help but be irritated about it. Elvis’ performance kept them up until the early hours of the morning.

Elvis Presley longed for more serious acting opportunities

Reenacting Across 110th Street required Elvis to flex his dramatic acting chops. This was not something he often got the opportunity to do. Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, preferred keeping Elvis in unchallenging roles.

“Too often, especially in later years, Hal Wallace and Colonel Tom Parker, who pulled all the strings where Elvis was concerned, played it safe,” critic Leonard Maltin said on a “Paramount Presents” edition of the film King Creole. “They played it safe. They never wanted to give him the kind of acting challenges I think he was capable of meeting.”

The musician’s co-stars said he impressed them on set

Though Parker liked Elvis to play it safe, his co-stars recognized that he had talent as an actor

“He was very concentrated, very focused on playing Danny,” his co-star Jan Shepard said in the book Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick. “For a kid coming in and just beginning his career he had a great sense of timing; there was great honesty in his acting. He was a very good listener, and he just became that young boy, he became Danny in the show. Just like in his music, he really got involved in his acting, you’d look in his eyes and, boy, they were really going.” 

Elvis Presley stands in front of a curtain and film equipment and holds a camera.
Elvis Presley | Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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Walter Matthau agreed, calling Elvis a smart and intuitive actor.

“He was very intelligent,” Matthau said. “Also, he was intelligent enough to understand what a character was and how to play the character simply by being himself through the means of the story.”