On-screen Smooch With Elvis Still Pays

By Michael Lollar (The Commercial Appeal)Jan 5, 2008
On-screen Smooch With Elvis Still Pays
The King saw Cynthia Pepper on TV, suggested her for 'Kissin' Cousins' role

Elvis Presley had seen her in a TV sitcom and suggested her for a role in a 1964 movie in which he would tell her she was "as purty as a little ol' speckled pup."

The movie was "Kissin' Cousins," in which Elvis played a dual role as an Army officer and as the officer's hillbilly cousin. It was the hillbilly character, Jodie Tatum, who used the puppy pickup line on actress Cynthia Pepper.

Cynthia Pepper and Elvis Presley were on the cover of the July 22, 1964, edition of Everybody's, an Australian teen magazine, for a story about "Kissin' Cousins."
"I played hard to get, but I succumbed," says Pepper, 67, of her character in the film that still earns her residuals 43 years after its release.

Now living in Henderson, Nev., Pepper will be in Memphis Sunday to take part in an Elvis Insiders Reception and Graceland tour, part of a four-day celebration of Elvis' birthday. He would have been 73 on Jan. 8.

For Pepper, "Kissin' Cousins" was a brief chance to know -- and kiss -- a sometimes self-doubting Elvis. The movie was shot in only 17 days as part of the money-making formula that protected Elvis' wholesome image, but wore on his patience.

"It was entertaining and innocent. The movies obviously were lighthearted. We all know he could have done a lot better. He was a better actor than the movies allowed him to be," says the actress.

Pepper was a veteran actress by the time "Kissin' Cousins" came along. Daughter of a vaudeville actor, she was on stage at age 4 with actress Julie Harris on Broadway. She had her own sitcom, "Margie" set in the Roaring '20s; had a recurring role on "My Three Sons" and played Sandra Dee's roommate in the movie "Take Her, She's Mine." After "Kissin' Cousins," she made guest appearances in several TV episodes, including "The Flying Nun" and "The Jimmy Stewart Show," and last appeared in a cameo role in the 2005 film "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous."

Pepper says she was given the part in "Kissin' Cousins" on short notice. She got a telephone call and was given two days to report to the set.

"My agent said Elvis had seen me on TV and suggested me for the part," says Pepper. Some of the cast members would become better known in other realms. Maureen Reagan, daughter of eventual President Ronald Reagan, had one line in the movie. Teri Garr, who would become a well-known actress, was a dancer in the film.

Pepper played an Army stenographer assigned to accompany a lieutenant (Elvis) to the hills of East Tennessee to negotiate the sale of land to build a missile base. There, they encountered angry property owners, including the lieutenant's cousin (a hillbilly Elvis in a blond wig).

The hillbilly Elvis fell for Pepper in the movie, leading to a romantic scene in which Pepper says she kept "flubbing" lines in order to repeat a kiss with Elvis. "I got to do it six or seven times. I could have done it in one or two takes, but why would I?"

Pepper says she came to know Elvis as a "regular guy. He was a little unsophisticated at the time. He would sit around and talk about trucks and would say 'Miss' or 'Ma'am.' There weren't any airs about him."

As filming went on, Pepper says she realized Elvis wasn't sure of himself at that stage in his career.

"I felt that he was quite insecure at the time," she says. "He said to me one time, 'I don't know what I'm doing here.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I should be back home driving a truck.'

"I think he had all the insecurities that we all had. I think that's one reason he had all those guys (his entourage known as the Memphis Mafia) around him -- to buffer himself from the outside."

During her Memphis visit, Pepper will be a guest with former Elvis hairstylist Larry Geller and members of the TCB Band at a reception in Graceland Plaza, followed by a special evening tour of Graceland.
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