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Early Years of Elvis Become Network Series


ELVIS ABC, Tuesday, 9:30-10 p.m. Special premi`ere of new series. Regular time period begins Sunday, Feb. 11, 8:30-9 p.m. Starring Michael St. Gerard. NEWS FLASH: Sightings of Elvis expected to increase. King of Rock last seen at recent national press screenings. Story of early years quite convincing. Warning: Could be impostor, despite uncanny resemblance.

At least the memory of Elvis is alive. It's coming to TV Sunday nights after a special premi`ere episode. The half-hour dramatic series will focus on Presley's early years of poverty and struggles to create his own kind of music, ultimately taking him to his legendary status. The series has the cooperation of Elvis's estate and his widow, Priscilla Presley, and is based on true incidents in Elvis's life.

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The premi`ere episode appears quite promising. Michael St. Gerard in the title role has the King's slightly pouty visage, punctuated by twinkling dark eyes and knowing smile. (A singing voice is not required, as all music is overdubbed, courtesy of the famed Elvis impersonator Ronnie McDowell and the King himself.) As depicted here, Elvis is sincere, earnest, hardworking, and obedient. He addresses his father and mother in reverent hushed tones as ``Momma,'' ``Daddy.''

``Everybody knows about the late Elvis with sideburns, high collars, and sun glasses,'' says co-producer Jerry Schilling, who knew Elvis well for 23 years and worked with him for 11. ``What's interesting here is showing the influences that got him there - his friends and family, black music in the segregated South. He was the first white kid to make big use of it.''

Filmed in Memphis, Tenn., the series has the look and feel of the early 1950s it is trying to recreate. Locations important in Elvis's rise to success will be used: Beale St., where he learned the meaning of the blues from those who jammed there; the Overton Park Shell, site of his first major professional performance; Sun Records, which gave him his first chance to record.

In the opening episode, Elvis - a 19-year-old who has a job loading trucks but dreams of being a singer - has spent $4 to cut a record at Sun as a gift for his mother (Millie Perkins). Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (played by Jordan Williams) asks Elvis to sing with two local pros, Bill Black and Scotty Moore. Phillips knows that Elvis has great talent but tells him it is still very ``raw.'' At the local music club, Elvis sits in with Black and Moore and wows the crowd.

This Elvis is no rebel. When father Vernon (played by Billy Green Bush) tells his son that his overtime wages are needed to pay family bills, Saturday rehearsal time is out of the question.

If there is an immediate, winning quality to ``Elvis,'' it could lie in the producers' ability to capture the pace and innocence of another era. Because of it, simplicity of presentation, and storytelling reminiscent of the early medium, ``Elvis'' strikes you as TV from another era as well. No ``Miami Vice'' slickness here, despite a heavy reliance on music.

Starting with Perkins and Bush as his parents, the actors don't appear to be actors but come off as honest, down-home folk. And ``Elvis'' appears to be free of heaped-on nostalgia and the ersatz glow of remembrances of such other eras as ``The Waltons.'' There is a certain guilelessness which seems real rather than propped up, and it makes you sympathetic to the production.

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Whether all this will be enough to attract Sunday night viewers is another question. Placed on behind the new ``America's Funniest Home Videos'' - a half hour of homemade video snippets - the two shows are represent ABC's all-out attempt to dent CBS's longstanding domination of Sunday night.

According to Schilling, reached by phone, ``Ninety percent of what you will see is based on fact. The rest is stuff nobody could know and will be fleshed out in character.''

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