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Interview: Elvis Presley co-star, Suzanna Leigh

Suzanna Leigh was the Kate Winslet of her day: a beautiful feted young British actress who made it big in Hollywood. In her heyday she starred opposite Elvis Presley and Tony Curtis and stepped out with Steve McQueen; her other beaux included Patrick Lichfield, Richard Harris and Michael Caine (for one night only - well, it was the Sixties, after all). She lived a champagne lifestyle, mixed with the beautiful people and drove a Rolls Royce. She was presented to the Queen at a Royal Command Performance. (HRH wanted only to hear about Elvis, she remembers.)

Born Sandra Eileen Anne Smith on 26 July 1945, Leigh grew up in Berkshire, England, and later went to convent schools outside London. She began working in films while still a child, appearing as an extra in several British productions. She changed her name to Suzanna Leigh after entering film, whilst under the tutelage of her godmother,

One of her most enduring memories of Hollywood is of working opposite Elvis Presley on Paradise Hawaiian Style in 1966. She and Elvis were allowed to meet only on the set to avoid any hint of scandal, but one day, in front of photographers, Elvis swept her up and kissed her. The photos went round the world. 'That won't do your career any harm, baby', drawled the King. She was with Elvis when Steve McQueen called her over to the adjacent set where he was filming and introduced himself. 'For anybody of my age that was it: working with Elvis and having Steve McQueen chatting you up. I thought 'I'd die happy right now'.

'Elvis and I were both under contract to Hal Wallis, who was known as the star maker', The Hollywood Reporter quotes Suzanna as saying on one occasion. 'I remember the day that Hal said that I would be making my next movie with Elvis. I was an incredible fan of his, and then he said you’ll be filming it in Hawaii. Wow. Elvis was a fabulous actor, very underrated by a lot of the conventional theater people',

Interview: Elvis Presley co-star, Suzanna Leigh
Publicity photo 'Paradise Hawaiian Style' (Suzanna Leigh is behind Elvis).

But the Hollywood dream did not last. Suzanna was scheduled to make another film with Elvis. 'Then out of the blue came an edict from the Screen Actors' Guild saying that I couldn't take the part. British Equity had refused to allow Charlton Heston to film his scenes as Gordon of Khartoum in Britain, so the Guild had retaliated by making it very difficult for British actors to get parts in Hollywood', she explains. 'My mentor, Hal Wallis , said that union members were so opposed to me that they were throwing darts at my picture at the Guild's Beverly Hills offices'.

Assuming it would take a while to sort out the problem, Suzanna flew back to Europe. 'With hindsight I should have just stuck it out', she says. 'I was supposed to do all these other pictures. It would have meant being out of work just sitting there. But when you're 20 and you're getting so many offers from Europe - I really couldn't believe that between Hal Wallis and Elvis they wouldn't be able to sort it out. My agent had died. So I went back to England'.

Interview: Elvis Presley co-star, Suzanna Leigh
Elvis Presley and Suzanna Leigh | Publicity photo 'Paradise Hawaiian Style'.

In Paradise Hawaiian Style, Elvis employs this odd pickup line on Suzanna: 'We met before, on a surfboard, in Waikiki. You were wiped out', In real life, Ms. Leigh said, the King's kisses really did wipe her out, although their romance never progressed beyond the oscillatory stage.

'His kisses held an intensity that melted my very being', Leigh wrote in 'Paradise, Suzanna Style', her 2003 autobiography. 'I slipped my arms around his neck and our bodies entwined. This was all madness, but we didn't stop. A person could go to the gallows with such a kiss lingering on their lips, knowing life had been good',

Kisses aside, Ms. Leigh told The Commercial Appeal that she and Elvis bonded like brother and sister, linked by their beliefs in guardian angels, their interest in spirituality and their senses of humor.

Her determination to get to Hollywood sounds itself like an improbable film plot. Born plain Suzanna Smith, she decided she was going to be a star at the age of five. She was dyslexic but, she says, 'Years ago they didn't call it dyslexic - they just said you were thick. So I had to work out very early what I wanted to be in spite of it'. She was encouraged by her father, a professional gambler, who died when she was six. (She never had a good relationship with her mother, a millionairess property developer.)

Her father had told his daughter that Vivien Leigh was her godmother, so at the age of 11 she trotted round the corner from her mother's house in Cadogan Square to Vivien Leigh's house in Eaton Place and introduced herself. 'She said she had known my father, though she had been to hundreds of christenings and didn't remember mine. It was about 15 years after she'd done Gone with the Wind and she was stunning, beautiful and slender with dark hair. She said she didn't mind a bit if I used her name'. So Suzanna Smith became Suzanna Leigh and secured a few acting lessons into the bargain. 'It was really exciting.

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