Revelations from Elvis’s rebellious ‘Love Me Tender’ brother tempered by a Benedictine nun

Taken between August 22 and September 21, 1956, a rare color still finds 21-year-old Elvis Presley self-assuredly filming “Love Me Tender” on location at the 20th Century Fox Ranch in Malibu Creek State Park, Calabasas, California. The 90-minute black and white sagebrush oater was originally known as “The Reno Brothers.” The title cut, an unadorned performance excepting Vito Mumolo’s acoustic guitar and light harmonies by the Ken Darby Trio, would become Presley’s fifth number one pop single. Image Credit: For Elvis CD Collectors Forum user “Mike from Holland” / Walt Disney Studios

Elvis Presley’s film debut was the modestly budgeted 1956 Civil War-set western Love Me Tender, forgotten except for its theme song repurposed as an eternal wedding ballad. A previously unpublished interview with costar James Drury, later earning TV immortality as The Virginian, takes stock of his friendship with the rock superstar and Mother Dolores Hart, who abandoned a promising six-year Hollywood career [e.g. Presley’s Loving You and King Creole] for a Connecticut monastery. Head back to part three, entitled “Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country According to Dirty Rat James Drury,” in case you’re just joining the rodeo.

The James Drury Interview, Part Four

Let’s talk about your sole movie with Elvis Presley.

Richard Egan, Bill [William] Campbell, and I had very instrumental roles as Elvis’s older brothers in Love Me Tender [directed by Robert D. Webb]. Elvis did a great job for a beginning actor. In fact, he was maybe better in Love Me Tender than in any other movie because he had a real story to work with and a real dramatic situation.

We all know about his declining Hollywood trajectory of formula films, but Elvis could have been an amazingly adept actor if he had been able to frequently work with good scripts. Most of his later films had stories lacking depth. I don’t mean to criticize Elvis. I am just saying he had a much better script in Love Me Tender than he was ever able to work with again [not quite — King Creole, Flaming Star, Follow That Dream, and Change of Habit allowed Presley to sink his teeth into meatier roles that did not completely rely on superfluous musical interludes].

Elvis was a very eager and earnest young man on Love Me Tender. He wanted to learn about motion picture acting. He questioned us constantly about different camera shots and hitting your marks. We gave him all the advice we could. He went on to great success, of course.

Disguised as a Union soldier, James Drury keeps his pistol on the telegraph operator as his Rebel brothers-in-arms covertly rob a Union payroll train in the waning days of the Civil War in Twentieth Century Fox’s 1956 western “Love Me Tender” starring Richard Egan, Debra Paget, and Elvis Presley. Drury guest-starred four times on “Gunsmoke,” was reunited with Egan in Disney’s beloved “Pollyanna,” menaced Randolph Scott in director Sam Peckinpah’s career-making “Ride the High Country,” and finally earned his defining role as the titular ranch foreman mysteriously known only as “The Virginian” from 1962–1971 on NBC. Image Credit: eBay / Walt Disney Studios

Was it difficult to talk with Elvis in light of the ever-present Memphis Mafia?

Oh no, they knew that Elvis and I were friends. They left us alone. We didn’t have any problems with them. When Elvis first came to California in 1956, he didn’t know anybody. He had to have some familiar faces around him, people he trusted that could take care of him, be his bodyguards, and be his friends. Some were cousins, and some had been with him since Humes High School. In other words, life-long friends. Elvis wanted them around him, and he was making tremendously big money which enabled him to support them for many years.

Did you run into Elvis after Love Me Tender wrapped?

Very definitely — I was friends with Elvis for the rest of his life. Anytime he was playing in a city where I was I’d go to see his concert. I would never call him backstage or anything, but he would always know I was there. He had “spies” in the audience. Before very long, he’d send a message to me. A guy would come over and say, “Elvis wants you to come to his dressing room after the show.” I would go and spend hours with him [On the road Presley avoided backstage socializing, spending minimal time in the venue before showtime. Within a few minutes of his “Can’t Help Falling in Love” finale, he was in a limousine headed to the next city. In Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe backstage access was more common].

Did you go to any of his Las Vegas shows at the International / Hilton Hotel?

I went to see Elvis in Vegas several times over the course of the years [Presley delivered 15 engagements in Sin City between 1969 and 1976. He had previously completed a less than stellar two-week booking at the New Frontier Hotel from April 23-May 6, 1956, three months before production of Love Me Tender commenced] and maybe in Denver one time [November 17, 1970, April 30, 1973, or April 23, 1976, are the only possibilities].

When did you last see Elvis?

I believe it was in St. Louis when he was doing a concert [Presley performed in the Gateway to the West on three occasions, all at the Kiel Auditorium — September 10, 1970, June 28, 1973, and March 22, 1976]. Elvis was a wonderful, wonderful guy [Unfortunately, Drury’s memories of the “Mystery Train” rocker onstage were rather fuzzy].

Culminating with the anniversary of Elvis’s death at age 42 from prescription medication abuse on August 16, 1977, have you been to the annual Elvis Week in Memphis?

No, I never have. Believe it or not, I’ve never been to Graceland. That would be a revelation all the way around.

Steadfast Southern mother Martha Reno [Mildred Dunnock] and youngest child Clint Reno [Elvis Presley] are reunited with Confederate war veterans-elder sons Brett Reno [William Campbell] and Ray Reno [James Drury] in “Love Me Tender,” a 20th Century Fox CinemaScope production issued to staggering box office receipts on November 15, 1956. While not pictured, eldest son Vance Reno [Richard Egan] is about to receive the surprise of his life when he learns that family farm manager Clint married Vance’s girlfriend Debra Paget after mistakenly believing that he perished on a Civil War battlefield. Image Credit: Elvis Day by Day / Walt Disney Studios
James Drury, Elvis Presley, William Campbell [with his back to the camera], Mildred Dunnock, Richard Egan, and Debra Paget finish supper just prior to the rock ’n’ roll star busting out “We’re Gonna Move” in his debut picture, “Love Me Tender,” released on November 15, 1956. Decades later Drury and Paget [“God bless you, Debra Paget”] supplied collectible autographs. “The Virginian” was 85 years old when he died in April 2020 of natural causes. Eighty-seven-year-old Paget is one of the few cast members still living in addition to frequent western bad guy L.Q. Jones. Presley had a crush on the ravishing “Broken Arrow” beauty who was two years his senior. Future wife Priscilla Beaulieu bears a remarkable resemblance to Paget. Image Credit: Pinterest user “Julie Richards” / Walt Disney Studios

“It is a story of courage, sacrifice, dedication, and fulfillment. With grace and good humor in a voice as clear as the mountain spring, Mother Dolores Hart illuminates her lifelong quest for a state of tranquility and the joy of living in the presence of God.” What instigated your endorsement on the rear cover of Mother Dolores’s memoir The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows [2013, Ignatius Press]? She collaborated twice with Elvis in Loving You [1957] and King Creole [1958].

Dolores is the gal who became a Benedictine nun, right out of the picture business. Four days after she worked with me on The Virginian, she left for Bethlehem, Connecticut [ironically, Hart renders a missionary journeying to aid Yaqui Native Americans who develops feelings for the Shiloh foreman in “The Mountain of the Sun,” the 28th episode of season one broadcast on April 17, 1963].

Only three or four of her closest friends knew that she was gonna abandon Hollywood, so it came as a surprise to everybody. I was very sorry to see her go simply because I thought she was such a fine actress and great performant of the art. Dolores could have achieved major stardom as she had electricity and was immensely effective in her screen presence. You could look in her eyes and see right through to China.

Dolores has been in the monastery ever since [the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis], but we’re still friends. I talk to her quite often. “We must listen with the ear of the heart” is from the Bible [Proverbs 2:2] and the Rule of Saint Benedict. She describes her life, career, and what she’s done since becoming a nun in fascinating detail. She’s doing what she really wants to do, and that’s very commendable.

“Dolores could have achieved major stardom as she had electricity and was immensely effective in her screen presence.” Conflicted missionary Cathy Maywood [Dolores Hart] must choose between temporary trail guide James Drury or God in “The Mountain of the Sun,” the 28th episode of “The Virginian’s” first season aired on April 17, 1963. Image Credit: Cinematography by Lionel Lindon / NBCUniversal / screengrab
“You could look in her eyes and see right through to China.” Intending to provide aid to the Yaqui Indian tribe in San Pedro, 24-year-old missionary Dolores Hart is phenomenally beautiful and accentuated by a red and purple scarf as she listens to rugged scout James Drury in “The Mountain of the Sun,” the 28th episode of “The Virginian’s” first season broadcast on April 17, 1963. Image Credit: Cinematography by Lionel Lindon / NBCUniversal / screengrab
Reno siblings Elvis Presley, James Drury, Richard Egan, and William Campbell [almost concealed] were having a wonderful time at a community picnic raising funds for the construction of a school house until railroad detective Robert Middleton brashly interrupted the proceedings in “Love Me Tender,” distributed on November 15, 1956. Image Credit: The Bob Pakes Collection / Elvis — Echoes of the Past / Walt Disney Studios
Elvis Presley’s cowboy hat goes flying in the air as his brothers William Campbell [sans hat in the blue suit] and a nearly obscured James Drury attempt to physically restrain him after a violent quarrel with wife Debra Paget in director Robert D. Webb’s “Love Me Tender,” issued to theaters on November 15, 1956. That’s scene-chewing bad guys L.Q. Jones and Neville Brand [right] on horseback as fellow Confederate guerilla soldiers. Image Credit: The John Hazelton Collection / Film Posters / Walt Disney Studios

© Jeremy Roberts. All rights reserved. Part four of the James Drury interview, conducted by phone on May 14, 2013, in advance of a Memphis Film Festival appearance, was condensed and edited for clarity upon its 2020 debut in this “Elvis Presley — The Truck Driver Who Dared to Rock” column. Transcription courtesy of Kate McCullough. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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