Jerry Lee Lewis had problems with just about every rock and roll icon of his generation. But he saved much of his anger for Elvis Presley. They both played similar styles of Southern rock, had outrageous stage personas, and traditionalists pilloried them.
The fact Elvis ended up being called The King of Rock and Roll showed who won that rivalry. Lewis carried a grudge against Presley for years, apparently even long after Elvis died in 1977.
One of the major issues Lewis had with Presley was how the press treated them. Lewis infamously married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Lewis Williams, which caused an outcry in the media. However, Presley dating 14-year-old Priscilla Wagner was less of a scandal because they kept things private. Elvis married Priscilla when she was 21.
These events split their personas. Presley played the “bad boy,” but people saw Lewis as an actual bad guy. Lewis had his faults and public problems. Over time it destroyed his career, and the singer spent years rebuilding his public reputation.
Adam Fields, who produced the biopic of Lewis’ life called Great Balls of Fire, said Lewis was worried throughout production about how the 1989 film would portray him. But he stayed engaged in the production because it would make him “bigger than Elvis.”
“He couldn’t stand the fact that Elvis was the King,” Fields told ScreenRant. “Jerry said to me, ‘Hey, Priscilla was 15 when she moved into Graceland. At least I married mine! You could do my life’s story, and it could be nothing but weddings and funerals from start to finish… Then again, Elvis didn’t have no movie made about him while he was alive, did he? I guess this makes me bigger than Elvis now, don’t it?’ And I go, ‘Uh, sure.'”
Jerry Lee Lewis’ Biopic Got Made Because of a Photo
Fields said he got interested in Jerry Lee Lewis’s life after seeing him perform in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. He read that Lewis was on a comeback tour and wanted to check it out.
“So I went to see him at some club out here, and it was like going to see a Grateful Dead show or an early Springsteen show,” Fields said. “He played for three hours, he had crazy energy. And then I read about him, and I realized I had to do this movie.”
But no studio wanted to make the movie. That is until Fields set up a meeting between Lewis and star Dennis Quaid. Quaid was coming to the headquarters of Orion Pictures so Fields invited Lewis to be in the building at the same time. He also had a piano installed in the conference room. Then he waited for the inevitable.
“I knew what would happen. Jerry Lee started playing the piano, my friend is taking pictures, and I knew everyone would hear it and come pouring down into the conference room,” Fields said. “Sure enough, Dennis, who had a band, just couldn’t stand that he wasn’t the center of attention! So he sits down at the bench with Jerry. Well, Jerry wasn’t so cool with that, and he starts snarling and giving Dennis the elbow, and Dennis is giving him the leg… And, with a little movie star magic, he turns to the camera with his million-dollar grin at the perfect moment while Jerry’s snarling … It was one of the great, magical photos.”
Premiere magazine published the photo. That got people interested in Lewis, and while the movie had been languishing in turnaround, it was suddenly fast-tracked into production.