Occam’s Razor teaches us that the simplest answer is usually the correct one, but try telling that to a dedicated conspiracy theorist. It’s not that life isn’t complicated, or that crazy things don’t happen, but a simple explanation (Oswald Shot Kennedy, a weather balloon crashed at Roswell) is mathematically far more likely than one involving vast sinister cabals and little green men. The persistent tabloid-fueled belief that Elvis Presley did not in fact die on August 16, 1977 is no different. The simple explanation for what happened that day is that years of stress, health problems and raging pill addiction finally caught up with the iconic rock star in the form of a massive heart attack in his Memphis bathroom. The complicated explanation could, honestly, be just about anything (time-travelling ninjas), but the most commonly circulated is the one put forth in the amazing 1990 home video The Elvis Files, that Presley’s “death” was actually an elaborate hoax perpetrated, kind of half-assedly, by the United States government.
The hour-long special is hosted by none other than Bill Bixby, best remembered for playing Bruce Banner to Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk on the late 70s/early 80s TV series (technically, he played “David Banner”, they changed it because CBS thought “Bruce” was too gay). Bixby was a natural choice for the job since he had actually starred alongside Presley in two of his movies, 1967’s Clambake and1968’s Speedway, and remained casual friends with him afterwards. The producers clearly thought his presence would lend an air of legitimacy to the proceedings, and made a point of having him say that he didn’t want to sign on to the project at first, but that the compelling evidence they had assembled changed his mind. Most of that evidence is taken from a book of the same name written by Gail Brewer-Giorgio, who also co-wrote and appears on the show. Coincidentally, Elvis had inspired her to write a book once before, while he was still alive, a novel called Orion, which just so happens to be about a rock star who fakes his own death.
The broad strokes of her version of events goes like this: Elvis, growing weary of fame, enlists as an undercover agent for the federal government, but after arousing the ire of the Mafia, he and the FBI conspire to stage his demise, after which he flees abroad. There is a kernel of truth to the theory in that Elvis was an honorary agent of what’s now the DEA, a distinction he received after writing a letter to President Nixon offering to use his so-called “youth” connections to help win the War on Drugs. Their iconic handshake is the most requested image in the National Photo Archives, so it wasn’t exactly a clandestine meeting, but according to Brewer-Giorgio, it wasn’t just a photo op, but the beginning of the Presley’s life as a double agent. As far as the Mafia involvement goes, Elvis’ father and finance manager was swindled by some low level crooks, who were later arrested, but there was no violence or even the threat of it. And even if there was, Presley had a coterie of bodyguards, endless resources and friends in high places; he was probably safer than Nixon.
Bixby and Brewer-Giorgio trot out a number of guests to support this theory, whose testimony adds any number of significant details that don’t amount to much at all, such as Presley’s own cousin, who notes there was something unnatural about the body in his casket, as if it was replaced by a wax dummy or had just been to the mortician, and the president of the world’s largest Elvis fan club, who points out that his middle name is misspelled on his grave, reading “Aaron” instead of “Aron”, which is clearly a signal to his fans that he’s not the one buried there and has nothing to do with the well documented fact that he was in the process of legally changing it to reflect the biblical spelling when he died. In fact, if the guest’s contributions prove anything it’s that, if there was a conspiracy, it was terribly executed, like the photographer who claims he caught Elvis observing the mourners at Graceland or a handwriting expert who avows the he filled out his own medical examiner’s report. Hell, there’s even a posthumously recorded phone interview; real amateur-hour death-faking by any standards
All this is dubious proof is presented with such straight-faced earnestness, a sort of specious verisimilitude, that it’s easy to see how more gullible viewers could be convinced, but obviously there’s plenty of holes and they’re big enough to drive a truck through (one of the most nagging questions being, if he did fake his death, why choose to let the world think he keeled off the toilet in a drugged out haze?). Apparently, there were enough rubes out there for Bixby to host a second special a year later, and even today, the debate rages on in the dumber corners of the internet, despite the fact that, even if he didn’t really die that August day in 1977, he would almost certainly be dead by now. It’s not necessarily the complexity of Brewer-Giorgio’s story that makes it unbelievable, it’s all the outrageous assumptions she makes along the way, connecting dots that have no business being connected. In the end though, as funny and cheesy as The Elvis Files is, there’s also something slightly creepy and exploitative about it, which just sort makes you sad for those poor saps who can’t face the fact that the King is dead.
Tupac’s totally alive though.