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13 actors who have played Elvis Presley

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In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson said "To be great is to be misunderstood." While the author's list includes holy men and philosophers, the same idea could just as easily apply to Elvis Presley. The man who was crowned the "King of Rock and Roll" never thought he earned that royal moniker. He recognized the work put in before he arrived on the scene, but the fact is, he outsold every one of his contemporaries.

When it comes to Elvis' big screen portrayals, the results run the gamut from a measured southern gentleman to a lunatic karate man with a penchant for all things extravagant — talk about being misunderstood. Is playing a nuanced and larger than life character such as Elvis the equivalent of doing a modern-day Hamlet? In 2022's Baz Luhrmann-helmed Elvis, Austin Butler plays our titular hero from his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi to his rhinestone-studded years in Las Vegas. But he was far from the first actor to channel the King. Here's our list of iconic Elvis portrayals in cinema.

Kurt Russell, <i>Elvis</i> (1979)

This TV movie marks the first time director John Carpenter ever worked with Kurt Russell, who most critics fawned over in his portrayal of Elvis. As a matter of fact, he was nominated for an Emmy for this performance. It's a fair portrayal of Elvis' life, seeing as his father was consulted, Russell got to pick out a jumpsuit from Graceland, and Priscilla Presley was paid $50,000 to ensure the script was accurate. Kurt Russell is generally excellent in everything, but he brings a certain gravitas to Elvis that lets us glimpse into his relationships with those he loved most.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

Don Johnson, <i>Elvis and the Beauty Queen</i> (1981)

This 1981 made-for-TV movie portrays Elvis in 1972 amid his divorce from Priscilla, whom we never see on screen. Elvis soon meets Linda Thompson (Stephanie Zimbalist); a youthful beauty queen who becomes his live-in girlfriend for most of the last years of his life. Don Johnson as Elvis is a take on the divorced dad trope, albeit one with all the funds to keep himself from being sad or lonely.

Johnson gained 40 pounds for the role, and there's even a whole scene explaining the King's infamous love of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The film is mostly for completists, though it's a version of  the King by the guy who would soon become Miami Vice's Sonny Crockett. He brings some of that energy to this performance, but not enough to merit a rewatch.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

David Keith, <i>Heartbreak Hotel</i> (1988)

Chris Columbus' 1988 take on the King's legacy suffers from everything about the '80s via 1950s aesthetic of reimagining. To be frank, it's a goofy movie that would probably never be made today. However, there is a certain charm to the hairbrained things that got greenlit in the age of Aqua Net and leg warmers.

This is one of those films that you may have caught on cable and have fond memories of, or maybe you even saw it in the theater. David Keith will forever be etched in the minds of moviegoers as Drew Barrymore's dad in the original Firestarter, but he chews up a gold lamė suit as Elvis in this strange little film.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

Dale Midkiff, <i>Elvis and Me</i> (1988)

This made- for- TV movie loosely based on Priscilla Presley's autobiography is basically Elvis exploitation. Because of the source material, it's easy to expect salacious details, but at this point we know this story: Man pursues girl, they fall in love, he becomes rock star, and she suffers having made him her whole life. It's a melodramatic love story that captivated audiences when it was released in 1988. For what it's worth, Dale Midkiff is a pretty good Elvis, even if he does play up the kitsch.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

Michael St. Gerard, <i>Elvis</i> (1990)

Michael St. Gerard isn't the only person on this list to play Elvis more than once, but for many, his portrayal in this 1990 miniseries was a definitive take. We follow a young Elvis in 1950s Memphis as he's lighting the wick to his eventual rocket to stardom. It's a grounded performance by an actor who truly looks the part, with a strong jaw, pouty lips, and a jet black slick back.

That he so resembles his subject could be the reason why Michael St. Gerard went on to reprise Elvis in: Great Balls of Fire, Heart of Dixie, and an episode of Quantum Leap. Despite his recurring role, most remembers him as Link Larkin from the original Hairspray, John Waters' ode to race relations and the musical magic of the 1960s.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

Val Kilmer, <i>True Romance</i> (1993)

Elvis was such a huge persona that just the essentials, the whiff of Elvis-isms, is enough to give us enough context clues. Perhaps that's why people have sworn to see Elvis out in the wild for years after his death. As an Elvis-themed mentor, Val Kilmer is Christian Slater's conscience in True Romance, which was penned by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott.  We see Kilmer briefly and never fully in mirrors as he advises  Slater's Clarence Worley proceeds on his cross-country adventure, complete with drugs, prostitutes, and, of course, murder. Clearly, he needs Elvis' advice to get out alive.

Val Kilmer gives an amazing performance as an imaginary, Elvis-like guide, advising on the side of street justice and ensuring a happily ever after. There's amazing acting across the board in this film from a creative force on the brink of superstardom. Elvis, being a fan of action and celluloid himself, would have probably loved this one.

TRUE ROMANCE, Christian Slater, Val Kilmer
TRUE ROMANCE, Christian Slater, Val Kilmer

Peter Dobson, <i>Forrest Gump</i> (1994)

The short but sweet portrayal of Elvis as a fascinated bystander to a young Forrest Gump's leg-braced dancing — which, of course, informs the star's stage persona — is prophetic of Peter Dobson's career. He has played Elvis, Elvis impersonators, and even people with a striking resemblance to Elvis in Elvis-like situations. An additional highlight is his portrayal of Ray Lynsky in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. However, Dobson's few seconds on screen as a pre-fame Presley in the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump made an impact, even without us seeing his full body or face.

Forrest Gump Peter Dobson, Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump Peter Dobson, Forrest Gump (1994)

Bruce Campbell, <i>Bubba Ho-Tep</i> (2002)

This Don Coscarelli-helmed yarn is about an aging and forgotten Elvis impersonator, who is actually Elvis, living out his final days in a retirement home that's being stalked by a soul-stealing cowboy mummy.  He's aided in thwarting the evil by his neighbor, Ossie Davis, as John F. Kennedy, aka Jack. That's a lot to unpack, and the movie is a study in suspension of disbelief, but like Coscarelli's other cinematic ventures (the Phantasm series, John Dies at the End, The Beastmaster), that disbelief is essential and comes with the price of the ticket.

Bruce Campbell does his best Elvis as a depressed man on his way out who finds a reason to live in the extermination of evil. It's a fun, irreverent portrayal in a style that only Campbell can pull off. Watching Elvis with a walker and white Adonis jumpsuit battle the cowboy mummy is almost too much, and yet it's certainly enough.

Unwrapping the Mummy Timeline
Unwrapping the Mummy Timeline

Tyler Hilton, <i>Walk the Line</i> (2005)

Obviously, Walk the Line is a Johnny Cash film, and thus Elvis is not the central character. That said, Tyler Hilton knocked his performance out of the park as an unsure Elvis in a sea of talent. Unlike most of the other actors on this list, his understated portrayal is an anomaly for a performer that many see as a one-dimensional caricature. While no one on this list looks exactly like Elvis, Hilton's swagger and convincing acting carry him into our minds as a prince to the quintessential King.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

Jack White, <i>Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story</i> (2007)

There isn't a moment where musician Jack White (an Elvis superfan himself) makes any sense in his bonkers portrayal of the singer in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It's a mashup of every era of Elvis' real and perceived behavior, concentrated into a performance that is supposed to be a young Elvis on his rise to stardom. However, he's clearly on copious substances, surrounded by girls, karate chopping the air, and calling himself "the King" (which Elvis reportedly never did). Like many of the other portrayals on this list, when the legend is better than the truth, ham it up.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

Jimmy Ellis, <i>Orion: The Man Who Would Be King</i> (2015)

This one is a true story, given that the movie is a documentary. In the days after Elvis's passing, Jimmy Ellis, an unknown singer with a baritone that matched the King's, was plucked from obscurity and passed off as a masked Presley, back from the dead. The ruse was so convincing for some that the Nashville News wrote, "There are many that believe that Elvis is still alive — if he is alive, he wears a mask and goes by the name Orion."

Any fan of Elvis Presley can appreciate the performance of a man trying to assume the role of his idol and spinning a lie so crazy, it could be true. Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is certainly worth your time if you find yourself starved for Elvis content.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis
Actors who have portrayed Elvis

Michael Shannon, <i>Elvis & Nixon</i> (2016)

Michael Shannon is an imposing figure and plays his Elvis with a sly, mischievous streak while vying for top dog status in a room with Richard Nixon. Shannon doesn't look at all like Elvis, but no one on this list really has the cut of the King in their repertoire — it's all attitude and body language. This strange and humorous film sees Elvis trying to align his waning star, in an era of Vietnam war protestors and drug use, to President Nixon, who is also suffering from lagging approval ratings from the same people. Each needs something from the other, and the whole movie is a wink at both American historical figures.

Actors who have portrayed Elvis ELVIS and NIXON, l-r: Colin Hanks, Michael Shannon (as Elvis Presley)
Actors who have portrayed Elvis ELVIS and NIXON, l-r: Colin Hanks, Michael Shannon (as Elvis Presley)

Austin Butler, <i>Elvis</i> (2022)

Much like Kurt Russell's portrayal, this new take on Elvis' life and rise to stardom is getting the thumbs up from the King's family. Lisa Marie Presley had this much to say about Austin Butler's latest portrayal of her iconic father: "It's almost like he channeled him… He put everything he had, his heart, his soul, everything he had into researching, reading, watching, learning. He honored him in every way possible."

The late singer's granddaughter, Riley Keough, reportedly wept when seeing Elvis' version of the iconoclast grand. If there is a higher form of praise for embodying a person on film, we are not aware of it.

Elvis
Elvis

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