Arts in Lockdown Series Part 18: Producer and Director Steve Binder

By Joanne Calitri   |   January 28, 2021
Steve Binder directed the Elvis Presley ‘68 Comeback Special, which resurrected The King’s career (Photo courtesy: Steve Binder)

As you are reading this, it’s the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birthday (January 8) and I’ve been talking to Steve Binder, an American producer and director born in Los Angeles. Steve, who just celebrated his 88th birthday last month, is currently working as a creative consultant on Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis, where Dacre Montgomery is playing Steve, Austin Butler as Elvis, and Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker (release date November 2021). I interviewed Steve five years ago for his presentation and director’s cut of the ‘68 Elvis Comeback Special at the Plaza Playhouse Theatre, Carpinteria (MJ Vol. 21/Issue 1 January 7, 2015).

Producer and director Steve Binder live on Zoom with MJ’s Joanne Calitri

Steve’s impressive nonstop career carved new paths in TV and film by changing rigid formats for freedom of performer expression and audience appeal, often forging ahead against racial prejudice and advertiser influences in the industry, with many “firsts”: he used electronovision, the precursor to HighDef, to film The T.A.M.I. Show, the first live music concert film and precursor to music videos, featuring The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye. Binder directed Petula, a taped TV special for Petula Clark featuring Harry Belafonte, marking the first time a man and woman of different races exchanged physical contact on American TV. The ‘68 Elvis Comeback Special, with an unscripted acoustic set, resurrected Elvis’s career. His Diana Ross Live from Central Park Special drew more than 450,000 fans in pouring rain, and he brought Rick Springfield to the U.S. He taught producing and directing for more than 35 years at the UCLA and USC schools of cinema.

Steve took piano lessons when he was young. “I use my brain as my instrument,” he says. “When I hear music, I relate it to video immediately.” He holds an honorary doctorate of humane letters at Columbia College Hollywood, has been happily married to Sharon for 25 years, and has nine grandchildren. Steve’s many friends include local music attorney L. Lee Phillips and his wife, Marla, realtors Mark and Sheela Hunt, the late John Harding and his son Chris, blues guitarist Shawn Jones and the late Waylon Jennings.

During our interview, his email and phone was going off the hook, so we sincerely appreciate his time to do this!

Q. Can we start with your consulting on the new Elvis biopic? 

A. Yes. They started filming it in Australia in January 2020, but as you heard, Tom Hanks got COVID and so they stopped production, and restarted in September 2020; it’s still in progress.

I’m creative consultant on it. I’m really excited about it, because I love Baz’s work as a director. It seems to be like the movie Moulin Rouge, an abstract, and not a literal interpretation of the Elvis books and movies made prior. Before COVID, the actor who is playing me, Dacre, and I met at lunch, and I’m really impressed with him. He trained in England, and keeps emailing me how excited he is, at this point has actually completed his part in the film, and has become best friends with Austin, who plays Elvis. It seems like it’s a happy family and I’m looking forward to the movie release, it’s an interesting take on Elvis and not watered down like all the other Elvis movies.

My goal when I started the Elvis ‘68 Special was to show the real Elvis, and there’s a difference between what you think the public wants to see, and what you actually show them. I think the public is craving that authenticity that was so lacking in the Dick Clark movies. 

And, the other big news is they are going to re-release my latest book, Comeback ‘68 / Elvis: The Story of the Elvis Special, in conjunction with the movie. The original book was released a while back for about a month, under 1,000 were sold at Graceland during Elvis Week. We pulled it because Warner Bros., which is doing the new movie, contacted my book partner to ask us to re-release it when the movie comes out as a favor, so we said yes. Baz wrote the prologue for the new book. It’s currently being published and printed, with an initial run of 75,000 copies for the U.S. I really decided to write the book because there were many other books about my ‘68 Special, none of the authors knew the true story because I never opened up on it, and so I decided to set the record straight and write the book. They are promoting the book with the movie. 

How do you stay creative and inspired?

In his TV and film career of many firsts, Binder often forged ahead against racial prejudice and advertiser influences in the industry (Photo courtesy: Steve Binder)

That’s pretty easy for me, because I’ve never stopped! When I started my career I never intended to be in show business, I just wanted to please my parents who sent me and my sister to college. My dad worked hard at a gas station and my mom was a housewife. I was in pre-med at USC, and the air cadets program when the Korean war broke out, and got notice they wanted us to double our commitment to four years, and my dad told me to not do it. I dropped out, was drafted, and served as the radio announcer for the Armed Forces Radio with Nick Clooney, George’s dad, in Germany. I came back to L.A. to finish college. A high school friend who was an assistant editor on Star Trek at Paramount Studios suggested I get a job at the studios. I applied at CBS to be a typist for the scripts, and the mailroom at KABC. I took the mailroom job, and from there became the youngest network TV director with the Soupy Sales show, launching my career. One thing after another came my way. I directed 26 hours of Steve Allen’s Jazz Scene USA series with Stan Kenton, Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson, and his syndicated Late Night Show with guests Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Frank Zappa, where I learned so much and met so many people. I directed Hullabaloo for NBC, the first time rock and roll was in primetime TV. That led me to my first feature film, The T.A.M.I. Show, and it continued. I can’t remember taking a legit vacation during my entire career! 

Your experiences on diversity in TV, film, directing, and producing? 

I’ve seen it my whole career. In NYC when I directed Hullabaloo, the executive in charge told me that out of 12 dancers only two to four could be Black. The first show I did on KABC, I was told that Blacks couldn’t dance with whites on the show. There’s always been racism and prejudice, and when I started in the business there were no females behind the scenes of any quality titles, maybe two white female assistant directors of the Lawrence Welk Show.

Harry Belafonte was the biggest example, where I had to fight to keep him on the Petula Clark show, when Petula touched Harry while singing the duet of “On the Path of Glory,” there was a racist person working for the sponsor.

When I was the executive producer of The Soul Train Music Awards, I learned there were different advertising rates for Black shows than white shows.

I pushed back on these boundaries consciously. I really feel strongly that once the doors open, there’s an audience for minorities, and it still hasn’t been opened all the way, I’m sure every job a minority gets is a struggle, it’s a dominantly white male industry.

I think the advertisers in TV for sure are responsible for a lot of this, what they would and would not accept, and they are obviously the person who holds the money purse, and dictate to a lot of the stations and networks what they can do and not do. 

I think it’s easy to say anything you want, but it’s not easy to say, “No I want to do it this way not that way,” and you meet a lot of resistance. As many times I’ve been told I’d never get another job or you’ll never work again [laughs], there’s always been people on the other side equally who are ready, willing, and able to hire you. Many times producers are frustrated directors, but they do it vicariously by telling the director what to do. I find that you can’t get ahead, sooner or later there is no one that respects you, and you risk your career, saying to yourself, is this job worth sacrificing your integrity and your values in life? And to me, no job is worth that. I always felt in my projects, to hopefully educate the public, to have everyone treated equally, to have a shot at the same dream everyone else has.

What’s your advice for the next generation of producers, directors?

I’ve taught for over 30 years and told my students, even if you don’t pursue a show biz career, you’re going to learn a lot about life and people. One of the textbooks for my class is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Life is a people world and people business, the more connections and friends you make and are sincere about it, the more opportunities you will get in life. And do the work, so many people love titles, and it’s not what the business is about, it’s hard work and you sacrifice a lot to succeed, including being with your families.

For your generation, what is the world looking like now?

Well for me personally, it’s scary, today I saw an interesting interview that we’ve become an autocracy and are in fear of losing our democracy. It’s scary for us who went through tough times but never doubting our Constitution would be adhered to and our democracy would be solid. When I was stationed in Germany, I said thank God we can never have a Hitler in the U.S. because we are so diversified with cultures, races, and religions. I’ve always accepted the fact there are leaders and followers in society, but I don’t want anyone thinking my thoughts for myself, I want to still believe I can express my opinions, and I believe in democracy and no man is above the law. It scares me to think it can happen if we don’t get involved. The greatest sign of being positive is the voter turn out, that’s encouraging.

I’m ready, willing, and able to speak out for a good cause and charity, and really proud when artists speak out. I’m a big fan of George Clooney as a role model for youth today.

My generation is past the point of contributing to the world. It’s up to the young people to make the world they want to live in. I’m optimistic, even with all that is going on in the world, it will be overcome because the John Lennons of the world sent out an incredible message to the youth, it’s up to them to change the world and not rely on their parents and grandparents to do it. We’ll get through the lockdown, I’m positive. I have nine grandkids and want them to live a great life!

 

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