Change of Habit was Elvis Presley’s 31st and final film. Although Elvis was to appear later in two documentaries- Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972), Change of Habit was Elvis’s last appearance in a movie as an actor.
Change of Habit was originally planned as a Mary Tyler Moore vehicle, Mary was then under contract to Universal Studios. Doris Day was just winding up her film career, starring in With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), coincidentally, at the same time, and the studio was grooming Mary to take her place (kind of) as “America’s sweetheart.” Mary had finished her career in the iconic tv series The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1966 and made a movie, the box office smash Thoroughly Modern Millie (co-starring with Julie Andrews) the following year.
When Elvis Presley signed on to be Mary’s leading man in Change of Habit, of course, everything changed. The formula “Elvis movies” all made money, but the law of diminishing returns had finally set in and the profits from the King’s films was growing mighty thin by this time.
Elvis had made his classic “Christmas special” the previous December (which would later become batter known as “the Elvis Comeback Special”) and being cast in Change of Habitwas actually part of a package deal his manager Colonel Tom Parker had made for Elvis. Elvis was paid $1.25 million for the Christmas special and Change of Habit combined. This allowed Parker to be able to boast that he had procured his usual salary of “a million dollars a film” for his client.
Both Elvis and Mary, although neither they nor anyone else may have realized it at the time, were at a crossroads in their respective legendary careers. Later in 1969, following Change of Habit, Elvis would go back to being a live entertainer, headlining shows in Las Vegas, and beginning the final phase of his career. This final “live performance” phase would cement his status as (probably) the most popular entertainer of the century.
Mary Tyler Moore was never to achieve film stardom, but after Change of Habit, she would return to television, starring in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), one of the most beloved TV shows of all-time. As a coincidental sidebar, Ed Asner, who would co-star with Mary as her boss Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, also had a role (as a policeman) in Change of Habit.
Change of Habit was the story of three nuns, Sisters Michelle, Irene and Barbara (Mary, Barbara McNair and Jane Elliot, respectively) who go into an inner city ghetto to try and help out undercover, i.e. sans their nun’s habits. There, they meet a clinic doctor named John Carpenter (Elvis, in his only “professional man” movie role). Gritty “real life” situations ensue, and (as if you didn’t already guess) Dr. Carpenter and Sister Michelle develop a romantic attachment.
After the huge success of his Christmas TV special, Elvis was hoping that, after a few dozen disappointing and mediocre flicks, Change of Habit might finally gain him some respect (and self-respect) as an actor. According to Mary: “He was looking for a film that would require none of his typical rock star gyrations, but would illuminate his acting ability… apparently the studio was able to convince Elvis that the choice would pave the way for dramatic recognition.”
Change of Habit took place in the early months of 1969. It supposedly took place on the streets of New York, but was actually filmed in Los Angeles.
During filming, Elvis was generally liked by all. Director William Graham was to recall Elvis Presley as “the nicest man I have ever met.” Both Barbara McNair and Jane Elliott also recalled Elvis fondly.
The relationships with Mary Tyler Moore were a little dicier. Jane Elliott: “She (Mary) didn’t get involved. She didn’t socialize.” Barbara McNair: “I didn’t talk to her much because she was kind of standoffish. She wasn’t easy to get to know. She didn’t socialize, so I never got to know her.” Director Graham: “Mary Tyler Moore was wondering what she was doing in an Elvis Presley movie, and I remember she was a little bit on the prissy side. But that was okay because she was playing a nun, so I would expect her to be a little bit reserved.”
Mary would never eat with the rest of the cast, but would always dine alone in her dressing room. Sadly, one of the reasons for her apparent aloofness was possibly her diabetes. She was already forced to have a special diet because of her diabetes (Mary would be fully diagnosed as a type one diabetic the following year).
In the early stages of the disease, she could only eat certain types of food. Actress Virginia Vincent recalled seeing Mary eating an apple at lunchtime one day and asking her, “All you’re eating for lunch is an apple?”
“Yes, that’s it,” Mary replied.
Mary was also concerned about how she looked on camera. Diabetes caused the effect of making her skin prematurely wrinkled. During filming, director of photography Russ Metty used a special light on Mary, a light that gave her a kind of “heavenly glow” (perfect for a nun).
Now to the question on everyone’s mind, was there any romance going on between the two stars? Mary: “He confessed right from the start that he had a crush on me from The Dick Van Dyke Show. He was so shy about it, he was literally kicking at the dirt below him as we talked.”
Although Elvis did have a huge crush on Mary, and was almost two years her senior, he was still a good old southern boy at heart. Mary: “He had a tendency to call me ‘ma’am’ out of respect. ‘Be right there ma’am’- even though I was younger than him.”
At the time, both Elvis and Mary were married and each had a child. While it appears Elvis may have been willing to push the envelope romantically (“He made a pass at everybody,” recalled Jane Elliot), Mary seems to have put the kibosh on anything actually getting too serious.
Mary (like so many women the world over in similar situations) seemed to recognize a man’s interest in her and be flattered by his attention, but made sure it went no further than harmless flirtation. Mary said, “It was a wonderful experience. He was charming and he had a big crush on me, almost like a young kid with an older woman. He was shy.”
Mary elaborated on their relationship years later in her 1995 autobiography: “I was his last leading lady. The King would slyly say later on, ‘I slept with every one of my leading ladies but one.’ I don’t want to bust anyone’s cover, but I know who the ‘one’ is.”
Change of Habit was released in November of 1969. The reviews were mixed and the film, like so many of Elvis’s recent movies, made a minor profit at the box office. Sadly, it was not to be the “career changer” Elvis had dreamed of.
Although he never publicly said so, Elvis still must have had a certain amount of affinity for Change of Habit. For the rest of his life, he was to use the name “Dr. John Carpenter” or “John Carpenter” as one of his favorite aliases when he was trying to remain incognito.
Change of Habit ends in a curious way. It shows Elvis and Mary in church, and Mary is deciding whether to discard her life as a nun and go to Elvis or remain a nun and reject her feelings for him. The viewer is left to decide for him or her self which way Mary would decide. When asked many years later about the nebulous ending, director Graham said he always thought Sister Michelle (Mary) would choose Dr. Carpenter (Elvis) and end her life as a nun.
In a 2009 interview with Parade magazine, Mary was asked which of the men she’d worked with was the most “her type.” In Mary’s illustrious career, the men she had worked with included David Janssen, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Redford and James Garner.
But Mary’s choice was Elvis. “I think maybe Elvis because he went so against the grain,” she said.