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8 Movie Star Life Stories (That Were Completely Made Up)

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You know you shouldn't believe everything you read about famous actors and actresses. Here are eight stars whose life stories (or significant parts thereof) were as fictional as the movies they starred in.

1. Theda Bara

The publicists promoting Theda Bara, Hollywood's first major sex symbol, let their imaginations run wild. She was introduced in fan magazines as the daughter of a desert prince and an Italian or French sculptor (or an Egyptian seeress, depending on the story you read). "Born in the shadow of the Sphinx," and weaned on serpent's blood, she was "a crystal-gazing seeress of profoundly occult powers." She had previously been a star of the Paris stage and, in her spare time, she drove men wild with desire. She would also go heavily veiled in public (thanks to a contractual obligation) and was often photographed with skeletons.


In actuality, she was a girl from Cincinnati named Theodosia Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor. Can you believe that people used to fall for that "daughter of an Egyptian seeress" line? In truth, she was known to be demure and prudent. As a teenage actor on the New York stage (sorry, not Paris), she had tried to make herself sound exotic (or at least non-Jewish) by calling herself Theodosia de Coppet.

But it was as Theda Bara that she became a superstar. She later told stories of public exclusion and being refused service in restaurants. "Audiences thought the stars were the way they saw them," she recalled. "Once on the streets of New York a woman called the police because her child spoke to me."

2. Douglas Fairbanks

Douglas Fairbanks was one of the top film stars of the silent era, a successful producer, and an all-around athlete. The evidence is still there, on film. Many of the things he said about himself, however, were not so reliable. Was he a Wall Street stockbroker (which was a great job back then, when the stock market was cool)? Was he a cattle freighter? Or were they just stories?


If you believe one story that he told throughout his life, he was a Harvard graduate. However, there is no record of him on that university's esteemed register. Perhaps he was trying to add an intellectual side to his dashing image. Or perhaps there's truth to the story that he attended Harvard for a few months before deciding to travel to Europe – and the "graduation" part of the story was added later. Whatever the case, his son Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (a top star in his own right) said that it was one of many tall tales that his father made up about his early life.

3. Erich von Stroheim

Before he became known as one of Hollywood's great directors, Erich von Stroheim was the classic evil German soldier in many films made during World War I – and, like Theda Bara, audiences had trouble telling him apart from his roles. People would heckle and spit at him in the streets. But unlike Bara, he loved the attention, as it proved what an effective movie villain he was.


Although he seemed German enough, he wasn't quite there. When it was revealed that he was actually born in Vienna, he claimed to be of a noble Austrian family. In fact, his parents were Jews from Prussia and the Czech Republic. He was an officer in the Austrian army before moving to America at age 21. He wasn't an evil German; in fact, despite his name (and, as later films would reveal, his accent), he wasn't even German.

4. Max Schreck

German actor Max Schreck's unusual features inspired director F.W. Murnau to cast him as the title vampire in the horror classic Nosferatu (1922). Schreck's performance was so chilling that, as nobody remembers him for anything else, legend states that he was a real-life vampire, cast in just one film. Many horror fans, in fact, believe that this might be true. In the film Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Willem Dafoe played him like this, as a mysterious actor who avoided the sunlight and casually sucked the blood from a low-flying bat. Dafoe's performance won him an Oscar nomination and was added to Schreck's vampirical reputation.


In fact, Schreck was a happily married man who was a 43-year-old established theatre actor when Nosferatu (his fifth film) was released. Though he specialized in horror, he made several more films in Germany (usually playing non-vampires) until his death of a heart attack in 1936. None of them, however, are even remotely as famous as Nosferatu.

5. Adolphe Menjou

Another silent movie star, Adolphe Menjou was famous as a debonair charmer, with a waxy mustache and an impeccable dress sense. His name fit the image perfectly, allowing his fans to assume that he was French. The truth was less glamorous. He was actually an Irish-American born in Pittsburgh.


When talking pictures came in, many stars' voices revealed them as frauds. Menjou, however, used a French accent to match his name in his first speaking role as a womanizing musician in Fashions in Love (1929). Formerly a stage actor, he was skilled with his voice, but movie stardom meant maintaining an image. He continued making films for another 30 years, though he eventually dropped the accent.

6. Errol Flynn

Many stories have been told about Errol Flynn: high seas adventurer, gun runner, alcoholic, morphine addict, murderer, serial adulterer (no one denies that one), Nazi spy. In his best-selling autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, he boasted about his misdeeds, but that's OK, because much of it was a lie. We can't be sure of exactly how much, but some of it we know was untrue.


He claimed, for example, that his film debut was playing Fletcher Christian in In the Wake of the Bounty. That's true enough, but he also said that he was discovered by an American producer named Joel Schwartz, and the film was shot on location in Tahiti. He was actually discovered by Australian producer-director Charles Chauvel, and the movie was filmed in Sydney. (Unlike Merle Oberon, he didn't want anyone to see him as an Australian. Doubt has even been cast over whether he was Australian-born.)

Even less reliable, perhaps, was Charles Higham's Errol Flynn: The Untold Story (1980). Higham accused Flynn of being all sorts of things: a closet bisexual, a drug-runner, a pedophile (OK, that was technically true), and a Nazi spy, supplying Japan with crucial intelligence for the Pearl Harbor attack. This was discredited by many of Higham's own sources, who accused him of inventing their quotes. Flynn's family tried to sue the author, but the case was thrown out of court because, as Higham was doubtless aware, the dead can't be libeled under American law. Instead, some of the stories gained wide acceptance – and added to the myth.

7. Shirley Eaton

Jill Masterson is one of the most famous James Bond girls, which is no mean achievement, as she really didn't have to do much, dying in an early scene of Goldfinger (1964) after betraying her titular boss, who suffocates her by covering her in gold paint. Jill's painted corpse, lying naked on the bed, still ranks as one of the most memorable sights from the Bond movies – and led to a long-running story that, like the character she played, Shirley Eaton had also died of asphyxiation thanks to Goldfinger. The story was so widespread that it might have done some damage to the career of the 27-year-old starlet (who already had a lengthy CV of British comedies), but she went on to make another eight movies before retiring in 1969, then wrote an autobiography called Golden Girl. Not bad for a dead woman!

Oh, and painting your body to death? As long as you can breathe through your mouth and nose, asphyxiation shouldn't be a problem.

8. Walter Matthau

Craggy-faced comedy star Walter Matthau was born Walter Matuschanskyayasky. His middle name was Foghorn and his mother was a gypsy. Or maybe not. Thought he would stick by such "facts" in several interviews, these were jokes that he told so that he wasn't driven crazy by his constant procession of media calls. In truth, his surname was Matthow (which has exactly the same pronunciation) and his parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York. Those who knew him said that it was often difficult to know whether he was joking or being serious. Hence, it's anyone's guess whether his father was an Orthodox priest who lost his job after claiming that the Pope was infallible.


Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can see a slideshow excerpt from the book, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog. Mark offers one tip: If you want to say "This book is overrated"... it's been done.

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15 Surprising Facts About Steve Carell
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From the seven seasons he spent as the star of NBC’s The Office to leading man roles in comedy classics like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand funnymen. But he has proven his dramatic chops, too, particularly with his role as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, which earned Carell an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 2015. Even if you’ve seen all of his movies, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the Massachusetts native, who turns 55 years old today.

1. HE THOUGHT HE WANTED TO BE A LAWYER.

Steve Carell attended Ohio’s Denison University, where he received a history degree in 1984, and had planned to move on to law school. But when it came time to apply, he found himself stumped by the first question on the application: Why do you want to be a lawyer?

“I had never considered acting as a career choice, although I’d always enjoyed it,” Carell told NJ.com in 2011. “I enjoyed hockey and singing in the choir, and I didn’t think of them as potential careers, either … But I began to realize I really loved acting, and telling stories. Reading a book, watching a movie, going to a play, it’s transporting, and very, very exciting. And to be a part of that, creating things with your imagination, whoa."

2. HE WORKED AS A MAILMAN.

Shortly before he moved to Chicago and performed with The Second City, Carell worked as a postal carrier in the tiny town of Littleton, Massachusetts. Because the post office didn’t have its own mail vehicles, Carell had to use his own car. He kept the gig for just four months, then took off for the Windy City. “And months later, I found mail under the seat of my car,” he admitted. Carell also said it was the hardest job he has ever had.

3. HE WAS HIS WIFE’S TEACHER.

No, it’s not as risqué as it sounds. Carell met his wife, Nancy Walls, through an improv class at Second City; he was the teacher, she was one of his students. “I beat around the bush [before asking her out] and said something stupid like, ‘Well, you know, if I were to ever ask someone out, it would be someone like you,’” Carell told Details of his earliest attempts at flirting. “It’s so stupid, but it was all self-protection. She was the same way: ‘If somebody like you were to ask me out, I would definitely go out with him. If there was a person like you.’” The couple married in 1995 and have appeared in several projects together.

4. THE COUPLE HAD TO BREAK UP (ON CAMERA) ON THEIR 17TH ANNIVERSARY.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For Lorene Scafaria’s underrated 2012 end-of-the-world dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Steve and Nancy played a married couple who split up when it’s announced that an asteroid heading toward Earth will obliterate the planet in three weeks. Their break-up scene happens very early on in the movie, and they ended up filming it on their 17th wedding anniversary.

“She gets to leave me right at the beginning,” Carell told Parade. “They used the take where her shoe came off in the car, and she bolted across that field with one shoe on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her run that fast. We shot the scene on our 17th anniversary. [The director] got us a cake and the crew sang ‘Happy Anniversary’ to us. It was very sweet, a very special night."

5. HE AND HIS WIFE AUDITIONED FOR SNL TOGETHER; ONLY ONE OF THEM MADE IT.

In 1995, the same year they married, both Carell and Walls auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Walls made it but Carell didn’t, which must have made for one awkward celebratory dinner. But it all turned out well in the end; Carell went on to become a household name and has hosted the show on two occasions.

6. HE WAS ONE HALF OF “THE AMBIGUOUSLY GAY DUO.”

Though he missed out on the chance to become a regular SNL cast member, there was a silver lining: He was free to say “yes” to taking a role on The Dana Carvey Show, a sketch show that SNL alum Dana Carvey created for ABC. Though it was short-lived, the show was full of amazing comedic talent; in addition to Carvey and Carell, the show featured Stephen Colbert, Bob Odenkirk, and Robert Smigel and a writers room that included Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman, and Robert Carlock. The show marked the debut of Smigel’s recurring animated sketch, “The Ambiguously Gay Duo,” which followed the adventures of Gary and Ace, who were voiced by Carell and Colbert, respectively. After the show was cancelled, Smigel brought the “Duo” over to Saturday Night Live.

7. HE OWNS A GENERAL STORE IN MASSACHUSETTS.

While many A-list stars run side businesses—restaurants, wine companies, clothing lines, etc.—the Carells' second gig is a little less glamorous. In 2009, they bought the Marshfield Hills General Store in Marshfield, Massachusetts—where they spend their summers—in order to preserve it as a local landmark. 

“The main impetus to keep it going is that not many of those places exist and I wanted this one to stay afloat,” Carell told The Patriot Ledger. “Just generally speaking, there are not that many local sort of communal places as there used to be ... I think it’s nice for people to actually go and talk and have a cup of coffee and communicate with one another."

8. HE PLAYS THE FIFE.

Yes, Carell has got some musical talent and can actually play the fife. It’s a skill he acquired early in life, and shares with several of his family members. And it came in handy when he joined a reenactment group that portrayed the 10th (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot, a line infantry regiment with the British Army.

9. HE WAS NOT THE FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MICHAEL SCOTT IN THE OFFICE.

Though Michael Scott, the clueless manager of paper company Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton, Pennsylvania branch in The Office, is still probably Carell's best-known role, he wasn’t the first choice for the part. Paul Giamatti was reportedly the first choice, but he declined. Hank Azaria and Martin Short were also in the running. Bob Odenkirk was actually cast in the role because Carell was committed to another series, Come to Papa. But when that show was cancelled after just a few episodes, the role of Michael Scott was recast with Carell. (Odenkirk appeared in one of the series’s later episodes, playing a boss who was eerily similar to Carell’s Scott.)

10. WHEN CARELL LEFT THE OFFICE, THE CAST AND CREW “RETIRED” HIS NUMBER ON THE CALL SHEET.

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When Carell left The Office after seven seasons to focus on his film career, the cast and crew continued one tradition in his honor. “Steve was No. 1 on the call sheet because he was the lead of the show,” co-star Jenna Fischer told TV Guide. “And when he left, we retired his number. No one, ever since he left, was allowed to be No. 1."

11. HE WAS IN TALKS TO PLAY RON DONALD ON PARTY DOWN.

Before Party Down made its premiere on Starz with Adam Scott playing failed actor Henry Pollard, it was supposed to be an HBO series with Paul Rudd in the lead. And Rudd was pushing for Carell to play bumbling catering manager Ron Donald, as The Office didn’t get off to a great start and looked to be in danger of getting cancelled. Ultimately, HBO ended up abandoning the project, which Starz scooped up—with Scott as Pollard and Ken Marino as Ron Donald.

12. JAMES SPADER REALLY WANTED TO PLAY BRICK TAMLAND IN ANCHORMAN.

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Though it was The 40-Year-Old Virgin that turned Carell into a leading man on the big screen, his role as oddball meteorologist Brick Tamland in Anchorman brought him a lot of attention. But if James Spader had his way, Carell would never have appeared in the role at all. In a 2013 interview with Baller Status, director Adam McKay shared that before the film was even cast:

“I get a phone call and I hear that James Spader is obsessed with Brick's character. I say ‘James Spader? That is insane, will he come in and read?’ They say, ‘No, he's not going to come in and read; he's James Spader!’ James Spader and I end up talking and he called it about the Brick character. He thought it was one of the funniest character he ever read and we weren't even sure if it was going to work. He literally said, ‘I will do anything to get this role.’ Eventually, we were just like, ‘This is James Spader; he is too good for this role.’ But, he was right about how funny it was. The movie studio even questioned us and said how bizarre Brick is, and it wouldn't work. I felt bad we didn't cast James, but Carell was so good.”

Spader proved his comedic chops in 2011, when he was cast as Robert California, Michael Scott’s replacement on The Office (who quickly manages to convince the company owner to appoint him as CEO).

13. UNIVERSAL STUDIOS' EXECUTIVES WERE CONCERNED THAT CARELL WAS COMING OFF AS A SERIAL KILLER IN THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.

Though it turned out to be one of 2005’s biggest hits, getting the tone right on Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin proved to be a fairly difficult task. At one point, executives at Universal Studios expressed their concern to Apatow that Carell might come off as a serial killer to viewers.

"There is a fine line," producer Mary Parent told the Los Angeles Times. "Men and women alike could look at him and if he's too much of a sad sack, they will think, 'Dude, get a life.’” Apatow ended up adding several lines about the fact that Carell’s character could be a serial killer.

14. HE LEARNED MAGIC FROM DAVID COPPERFIELD.

In 2013, Carell played a magician in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. In order to get the role just right, he went straight to the top: David Copperfield. The famed illusionist taught Carell and co-star Steve Buscemi a trick called “The Hangman,” and they were both sworn to secrecy. “I actually had to sign something that I would not divulge,” Carell told The Hollywood Reporter. “So that was kind of cool.”

15. HE OFFERED PRINCETON'S 2012 CLASS SOME TIPS FOR SUCCESS.

In 2012, Carell delivered a speech to Princeton University graduates—which included his niece—during Class Day. He ended his talk by offering some tips to the grads:

“I would like to leave you with a few random thoughts. Not advice per se, but some helpful hints: Show up on time. Because to be late is to show disrespect. Remember that the words 'regime' and 'regimen' are not interchangeable. Get a dog, because cats are lame. Only use a 'That's what she said' joke if you absolutely cannot resist. Never try to explain a 'That's what she said' joke to your parents. When out to eat, tip on the entire check. Do not subtract the tax first. And every once in a while, put something positive into the world. We have become so cynical these days. And by we I mean us. So do something kind, make someone laugh, and don't take yourself too seriously.”

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Suspicious Minds: The Bizarre, 40-Year History of Elvis Presley Sightings
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On August 16, 1977, something momentous happened in Memphis, Tennessee. It was either the death of Elvis Presley at the age of 42, as more than 80 percent of Americans believe, or the start of the most spectacular disappearing act in the history of mankind.

This week, as fans mark the 40th anniversary of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s (alleged) passing, those who believe that Presley is still alive will have a golden opportunity to make their case. Or, rather, cases. “Elvis is alive” theories are as varied as they are plentiful, and they’ve been circulating since just after his death. He’s left the realm of popular entertainers and joined the ranks of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and to some, Jesus. What follows is a brief history of why some people refuse to let this American icon rest in peace.

THE FIRST SIGHTING

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Elvis is said to have purchased a one-way ticket from Memphis International Airport to Buenos Aires. He supposedly gave the name Jon Burrows, a pseudonym Elvis used when checking into hotels. Patrick Lacy, author of the book Elvis Decoded, claims to have debunked this popular and wholly unsubstantiated story by interviewing airport officials and determining that international flights weren’t available from Memphis in 1977. There’s also the question of why the most famous man on the planet would risk going into a public place in his hometown in order to book airfare for the purpose of faking his own death. Maybe Elvis figured his acting skills would help him avoid suspicion.

THE FUNERAL

Ollie Atkins, Chief White House Photographer. The National Archives, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

A great deal of “Elvis is alive” intrigue centers on August 18, 1977, the day of Presley's funeral. Footage of the service shows pallbearers struggling to lift a 900-pound copper coffin. The King had packed on a few pounds in his later years, but there’s no way he was pushing a half-ton. One explanation: The casket was outfitted with a cooling system—the kind you’d use to keep a wax dummy of a beloved celebrity from melting on a hot summer day. Sound crazy? Presley’s cousin Gene Smith thought the body looked a little strange. “His nose looked kinda puggy-looking, and his right sideburn was sticking straight out—it looked about an inch,” Smith said in the 1991 special The Elvis Files. “And his hairline looked like a hairpiece or something was glued on.” Smith was also troubled by the smoothness of Presley’s typically calloused hands and the sweat on his brow.

Attentive fans were further spooked when they saw the King’s headstone. The inscription reads “Elvis Aaron Presley,” even though he’d been given the middle name “Aron,” possibly in memory of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. The theory here is that Elvis used the incorrect spelling to signal fans that he was still alive. Another one of Elvis’s cousins, Billy Smith, claimed the singer simply preferred the more common double-A spelling, as legal documents bearing Presley’s signature attest.

THE DEATH ITSELF

Traditionally, you can’t have a funeral without a death, and what killed the King is another major source of controversy. The medical examiner’s official cause of death was “hypertensive heart disease associated with atherosclerotic heart disease.” Elvis weighed at least 250 pounds in his final days, and one Baptist Memorial Hospital staffer told Rolling Stone, he had “the arteries of an 80-year-old man.” So a massive heart attack isn’t exactly far-fetched. But toxicologists found more than 10 drugs in Presley’s system, fueling speculation that “polypharmacy” played a role in his death.

The general confusion surrounding these and other jargony cause-of-death explanations has undoubtedly helped to foster conspiracy theories. So have issues concerning official paperwork. Elvis’s death certificate will remain under wraps until 2027, 50 years after his passing. While this may seem like further proof of a cover-up, it’s actually a matter of Tennessee law. As for Presley’s autopsy report: It’s a private family document unlikely to ever see the light of day.

THE POOL HOUSE PHOTO

The second major Elvis sighting came in the form of a photo snapped on December 31, 1977. While visiting Graceland with his family, a man named Mike Joseph took some random pictures of Presley’s pool house. A few years later, while studying them with a magnifying glass, Joseph spotted a shadowy Elvis-like figure sitting in the doorway. Experts at Kodak verified that nothing had been doctored, so it seems someone was peering out the window. In an interview with Larry King, Elvis’s good buddy Joe Esposito suggested it was another Presley associate, Al Strada, in the photo. That explanation was good enough for Joseph, but not everyone is satisfied.

A similar case of mistaken identity led to some excitement a few years later, when sports agent Larry Kolb was captured looking uncannily Elvis-like alongside his client (and Elvis’s pal) Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson in a 1984 newspaper photo. Kolb came forward with an original color version of the image proving that it was him—not Elvis—in the shot, but that’s hardly laid the matter to rest. Asked in an interview to identify the man in the background, Ali reportedly said, “That’s my friend Elvis.”

THE KING OF KALAMAZOO

In the late ‘80s, the epicenter of the “Elvis lives” universe shifted to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city Elvis played four months before his death. In 1988, a woman named Louise Welling from nearby Vicksburg claimed she had seen Presley standing in line at the local Felpausch supermarket. He was rocking a white jumpsuit, naturally, and purchasing an electrical fuse. Welling’s daughter later spied him scarfing Whoppers at Burger King. "What gives this account eerie credibility,” expert David Adler told the Los Angeles Times in an interview promoting his Presley-themed cookbook, “is that Burger King was by far Elvis's favorite fast food chain.”

BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN?

The Kalamazoo hullabaloo spawned a rash of late-’80s Elvis sightings, many of which involved the King doing un-regal things, like pumping gas or buying junk food. These were consistent with the notion that he’d faked his own death to escape the public eye (or the mafia, as one theory holds) and return to his humble roots. But Elvis loved movies—he starred in 31—and Christmas, so it almost makes sense that he would risk blowing his cover by appearing in the 1990 holiday comedy Home Alone.

Believers of this bizarre theory contend that a 55-year-old Presley turned up in the background of the scene where Catherine O’Hara’s character is stuck at the Scranton airport while trying to get home to her son. There’s a bearded guy behind her who looks a little like Elvis in Charro! (1969) and cocks his head in a manner that conspiracy theorists swear is identical to Presley’s onstage mannerisms. Curiously, director Chris Columbus went into Home Alone having just made Heartbreak Hotel, a 1988 flop about some kids who try to kidnap Elvis. Columbus and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin laugh about the theory in the DVD commentary, but the identity of the extra remains unknown. Even if the real bearded man were to come forward, it probably wouldn’t kill the story.

GROUNDSKEEPER PRESLEY

In the summer of 2016, video of a Graceland groundskeeper purported to be Elvis got the internet all shook up. In the clip, a gray-haired dude in a baseball cap and Elvis Week T-shirt fusses with some wire and holds up two fingers—apparently some type of numerological clue—as he walks past the camera.

The video has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube—far more than the one where a clever Elvis fan debunks the whole thing by chatting with the actual Graceland employee, an affable gentleman named Bill Barmer. “I’m not really 81,” says Barmer, who then compares himself to a Pokémon Go character.

THE FUTURE

“Elvis is alive” theories can’t go on forever. The man would now be 82, and the oldest person on record only lived to 122. That means we've got maybe another 40 years of stories about the King chilling in Argentina or sipping coffee at Tim Hortons or doing whatever you do as an elderly man who’s been in hiding since the Carter Administration. Unless it turns out Elvis is immortal.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In an interview accompanying The Beatles Anthology DVD, George Harrison likens a brief 1972 encounter with Elvis at Madison Square Garden to “meeting Vishnu or Krishna or something.” His hair was black, his skin was tan, and his aura left the Beatle feeling like “a snooty little nobody.” Harrison may have been hinting at something Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper said rather deftly with their 1987 single “Elvis Is Everywhere.” Alive or dead, Presley is one pop culture deity we’ll never stop worshipping.

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