Elvis Presley was not a man who held firearms safety in particularly high regard. As the promise of the early 1970s and the revival of his career within the newly-built Las Vegas International Hotel began to fade under the weight of garish jewellery, prescription drugs and depression, ‘the King’ famously became a fan of shooting out television sets showing programmes of which he didn’t approve.
As his entourage grew wearily aware, if Camelot star Robert Goulet was appearing on a chat show, then the television showing it would soon be riddled with bullets. Yet for Elvis, firearms weren’t just a means for ending the lives of televisions. Sofia Coppola’s new biopic Priscilla is based on his wife’s 1980 autobiography Elvis and Me and reveals how the King’s temper could flare to quite terrifying levels. What the biopic skates over, however, is just how close, after Priscilla Presley left Elvis for martial arts guru Mike Stone, the singer came to facing a serious murder charge.
“You know it. There is too much pain in me and he did it,” Elvis railed to his bodyguard, Sonny West, who would later reveal the star’s extraordinary behaviour in the early morning of 19 February 1973. “Mike Stone must die. You will do it for me,” Elvis intoned, in a manner that made the longstanding ‘Memphis Mafia’ member believe that his famous friend was trying to hypnotise him. “Kill the sonofabitch, Sonny. I can count on you. I know I can. He has no right to live.”
A Hawaiian-born, former martial arts Grand Champion, Mike Stone ran a karate school in Southern California and was in demand as a trainer to the stars, with both Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee among his clients. Ironically, Stone and Priscilla Presley met at the insistence of Elvis, who suggested Priscilla take up karate classes while she was effectively marooned in Graceland, the King occupied elsewhere making increasingly desperate films, or prowling the stage in Las Vegas. By the start of the 1970s, a shared interest in karate was one of the few things the couple had in common.
Priscilla and Stone’s subsequent affair lasted for more than three years, until, in February 1972, she finally decided to tell her husband the truth. As Priscilla Presley recounted in her memoir, the King’s response was profoundly disturbing: ‘He grabbed me,’ she wrote, ‘and forcefully made love to me. It was uncomfortable and unlike any other time he’d ever made love to me before, and he explained, “this is how a real man makes love to his woman”.’
Fleeing to her and Stone’s humble love nest in Belmont Shores, 40 miles outside of Los Angeles, Priscilla Presley initiated divorce proceedings, asking for just $100,000 as a settlement.
A 37-year-old Elvis swiftly found himself a new partner in Linda Thompson, a 22-year-old former Miss Tennessee. But the King’s ego had been wounded irreparably by his wife leaving for a more athletic man. The impending storm erupted on 18 February 1973 when, during a midnight show in Vegas, four men stormed the stage.
Convinced an attempt was being made on his life, Elvis karate kicked one of the invaders back into the audience, only discovering long afterward that his ‘attackers’ were nothing more than overexcited fans who had travelled to Nevada from South America.
Despite a total and complete lack of evidence, back in his hotel suite after the show, Presley went on a tirade to Thompson and members of the Memphis Mafia. In Elvis’ drug-addled logic, those men were there on the orders of Mike Stone and they had intended to kill him. Clutching an M-16 rifle he had hidden in his wardrobe, Elvis raged and screamed around his private quarters that Mike Stone must be killed. Nothing anyone could say would calm him down. Eventually, a doctor was called and a sedative administered.
Yet, as soon as the medication wore off, Elvis’ fury was reignited. Finally, Sonny’s brother, Red West, buckled to the King’s demands. The gnarled, sometime-actor was one of Elvis’ oldest friends and, over the years of touring, had developed connections with the Las Vegas Mob. For $10,000, Red was told, Stone could be killed. The amateur actor’s loyalty to Elvis would now be tested to beyond the task of procuring groupies.
Confused and frightened, Red went to Robert Conrad, his co-star in the television show The Wild, Wild West. Conrad’s advice, that Red should simply make excuses and bide his time until Elvis cooled off, may have saved Stone’s life. For days, Red stalled Elvis. Finally, he admitted that a contact in the Mob had been found.
“I found the right guy,” Red recalls bluffing in his book Elvis, What Happened?, published just weeks before Presley’s death in 1977. “But I didn’t do anything about it yet. E, are you sure you want me to call this guy back?” The question hung in the air. Elvis was silent. “Aw, hell,” said Elvis finally. “Just let’s leave it for now. Maybe it’s a bit heavy. Let’s just leave it off for now.”
There are fans, of course, who will deny that Elvis could have been capable of such homicidal rage. Yet there is consistency in the written and spoken testimonies of Elvis’ entire inner circle, friends and associates that were with him as his mental health and musical career began to tailspin in the final years of his life.
Currently living in the Philippines, Stone continues to write about martial arts. He wasn’t to discover that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll almost ordered a genuine hit on his life until decades later.
“Surely, I cannot be held accountable for her [Priscilla’s] separation,” Stone stated in a rare interview in 2020. “Priscilla had made up her mind that she was leaving him, no separation; only a divorce.” Stone conceded that he could understand how some fans blamed him for the divorce but added: “Unless you have walked at least a mile in someone else’s shoes, just be grateful and humble you have feet.”
‘Priscilla’ opens in cinemas in the UK on 5 January 2024.