Elvis: The Controversy Behind Colonel Tom Parker Explained

Baz Luhrmann’s musical biopic Elvis explores the eponymous singer’s career, leading up to his tragic death, and one of the characters that has caused a fair amount of controversy is Elvis and the Colonel, Tom Parker. The Tom Hanks Tom Parker portrayal has caused quite a bit of controversy upon the film’s release. All in all, the manager was known for some appalling behavior towards his star client, and Elvis tries its best to portray that accurately. The Elvis manager certainly had some unethical practices when it came to the King of Rock n Roll, and many were shocked upon viewing the film to find out that this was the case.

The Tom Hanks Tom Parker portrayal was certainly a different type of role for the actor, who is known for taking on characters like the sunny Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The Elvis Presley manager did a lot of controversial things during his time in show business, and the Baz Luhrmann movie reveals just how much of a monster he really was. So much so, that the Elvis estate even sued Parker for mismanagement. Tom Parker wasn’t a household name before Elvis, but it’s clear that after the biopic, it soon will be. Here’s why Colonel Tom Parker is so controversial.

Who Was The Elvis Manager Played By Tom Hanks

Colonel Tom Parker, as played by Tom Hanks in Elvis, was the controversial manager of singer Elvis Presley (played by Austin Butler) with a mysterious past who had a key role in both The King’s success and downfall. Elvis and the Colonel were associated throughout the musician’s entire career, including music, movies, and TV specials. Known for his keen promotion and merchandising savvy, Parker, or “the Snowman,” would help to make Elvis a household name, putting the singer on everything from lunch boxes to board games to trading cards and beyond.

On top of that, Parker found venue upon venue for Elvis to perform in, be it recording studios, Hollywood films, TV specials, and even satellite broadcasts, immersing the artist into the cultural zeitgeist while keeping him landlocked in North America. Born as Andreas Cornelis Dries van Kuijk in the Netherlands, the Tom Hanks Tom Parker portrayal saw him illegally immigrate to the United States, finding employment as a carnival worker before joining the Army, where he was eventually discharged after going AWOL. Parker returned to the carnival (one not-too-dissimilar to the 1950s carnival in American Horror Story thanks to the setting), where he made his living for a time before getting involved in music promotion, working with the likes of Gene Austin, Minnie Pearl, Eddy Arnold, and Hank Snow.

Snow eventually led Parker to Elvis Presley. Parker became known as a shrewd, showy, and manipulative businessman who was able to work out lucrative deals at minimal overhead while making sure his pockets were lined healthily along the way. He was given the honorary title of “Colonel” in the Louisiana State Militia from Governor Jimmie Davis as thanks for the work he did on his political campaign. Parker adopted the title as if it were part of his identity, frequently being referred to as “The Colonel,” despite his military discharge. Parker realized early on the bigger potential of Austin Butler’s Elvis and transitioned to managing him full-time.

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While proving to be a frequent challenge for Parker, Elvis and the Colonel stuck together. Parker struggled with a gambling addiction while keeping Elvis on a short leash, halting the singer from touring overseas and pushing him into cheap projects that were frequently averse to what the artist wanted to be a part of, eventually taking 50% of Elvis’ earnings, of which they both agreed upon. Elvis Presley had his own struggles, particularly in his later years, as his lavish spending, addiction issues, divorce, and declining health took a toll on The King. In the end, both Elvis and Colonel Parker shared a tragic journey that mirrored their working relationship.

Tom Parker’s Role As Elvis’ Manager Explained

A split screen of Colonel Tom and Tom Hanks.

The Colonel was well-known as a strong promoter that frequently leaned into exploitation. He would sniff out talent and attempt to milk them for all they were worth, including Elvis, whom he initially saw as an act that wouldn’t last more than a few years. However, it soon became obvious that Elvis had staying power, with the right guidance. Parker found ways to market Elvis through merchandise, TV appearances, and films, always working in some kind of cross-promotion to make more money off the endeavor. In 1958, Parker encouraged Elvis to voluntarily enlist in the Army (part of Elvis‘ true story) after he received a draft notice and serve a two-year stint as a regular soldier, showing the world that he was just like any average American.

Elvis and the Colonel worked to change his overall image in the wake of the backlash from his critics, who frequently deemed him offensive. When Elvis returned home from the Army, The Colonel focused on more films, TV appearances, and albums, saturating the airwaves with Elvis. The pattern that Parker would traditionally follow was affordability and profit over quality, which would eventually help to torpedo Elvis’ career for a time. In 1967, Parker pushed Elvis to marry Priscilla Beaulieu, hoping that it would help change the tide of his career. However, the tide wasn’t actually changed until a 1968 TV special, produced by Scott Binder, put Elvis the singer back on top, while simultaneously showing the Colonel how close he was to losing the singer to another producer.

The Colonel seized on the moment and put Elvis back on tour, eventually settling on a residency in Las Vegas and a non-stop barrage of venues and recordings that took the singer to the brink, as he deteriorated into a mockery of his former self. Even so, he continued to sell out shows and hit the Top 10 charts. Parker sent Elvis all over the United States, but he would never let him out of North America, leaving Canada as the only other nation to host The King in his long career. The reasons for this are a source of controversy, as it was believed that Parker’s status as an illegal immigrant (the theme of the Netflix series Stateless) would prohibit him from traveling as he didn’t have a passport, nor could he get one due to his status.

However, Parker claimed that his issue with overseas performances was over security issues, as well as poor venues not suitable for the star’s stature. Elvis Presley expressed his desire to go overseas frequently, but he was kept at bay with easy and fast money arranged by The Colonel on projects in the U.S. By the time they reached the final years of Elvis’ career, the two were so intertwined and invested that it made more sense to stay in business than to walk away. In the end, they’d become dependent on one another and were in too deep to even know how to start over.

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How Accurate Is Tom Hanks’ Portrayal Of Tom Parker In Elvis?

Colonel Tom Parker played by Tom Hanks in Elvis

Tom Hanks has built a reputation for disappearing into his roles. The actor won his first Oscar for Philadelphia, where he played an AIDs-afflicted lawyer, losing significant weight to portray the character’s declining health. Gaining or losing weight, taking on accents, and experimenting in a variety of genres that pushed his limits as an actor, Hanks has built a career out of challenging roles. Hanks has portrayed real-life people in a number of films, from Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 to Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in Sully – and many more. The actor has proven time and again that he’s up to the challenge of playing a real-world personality and the role of Elvis and the Colonel is no different.

Although from the Netherlands originally, actor Tom Hanks’ Parker had a Southern-style accent due to a huge chunk of his life being spent there, but it was more of a mixture with his native Dutch accent. He was a heavier-set man with balding hair and frequently wore a fedora and a suit of some type, sometimes made of gaudy designs to help promote something. He had a matter-of-fact method of speaking and didn’t suffer fools lightly. Hanks retains all of these qualities in his performance, including the adoption of prosthetics to help look more like the controversial Parker.

The actor wore a fat suit and heavy make-up to appear more like Parker, but the real performance came in the mannerisms, accent, and presence of Hanks embodying Elvis’ manager. While it sometimes borders on cartoonish parody, with Hanks seemingly becoming a supervillain of sorts, it fits the overall style and narrative of Director Baz Luhrmann’s movie. It’s one of only a very few villainous roles that Hanks has taken in his long career in movies, making it a relatively rare departure for the actor.

What Really Happened To Colonel Tom Parker?

the real colonel tom parker from elvis

After Elvis’ death in 1977, the Elvis Presley manager continued on as if The King were still alive. Never one to miss an opportunity to make money off of his prized client, Colonel Tom Parker jumped on Elvis’ death as a marketing cash grab. He attended Elvis funeral dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap, avoiding any display of emotion. He then did the unthinkable, convincing Elvis’ father, Vernon, to sign over control of Elvis’ movie and singing “career” to him. Parker was eventually sued by the Elvis estate over mismanagement, which found his dealings over the years to be unethical and extortionate.

In 1983, he was paid $2 million dollars in an out-of-court settlement, which had him turn over any and all audio and video recordings he had of Elvis and terminated his involvement in any Elvis-related earnings for five years. Despite the court controversy, Parker continued to appear at Elvis-themed events, from anniversaries to special events, etc. Having been a staple in The King’s life for so long, he was well known to Elvis’ ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, who humored his appearances at such venues, regarding him as a family friend despite their clashes over the estate.

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Parker was an avid gambler, which is believed to have been the source of many of his “fast money” dealings with Austin Butler’s Elvis. He was believed to have been in debt to the Las Vegas Hilton for over $30 million at one point, which led to his eviction from the property after Elvis’ death. Parker suffered a stroke in 1997, dying at a hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada after years of declining health, survived only by his second wife. After a lifetime of earning well over $100 million managing Elvis, The Colonel’s estate was barely worth $1 million upon his death.

What Tom Hanks Thinks Of His Tom Parker Role

A Man Called Otto trailer Tom Hanks

The Tom Hanks Tom Parker portrayal was a shocking one. However, as he always does, Hanks shone as Tom Parker in Elvis, and the Colonel proved to the world that he could play a complex villain. The actor has talked about the project, what drew him to it, and how he felt about the overall story. Reportedly, Hanks was approached by movie director Baz Luhrmann, and after a short conversation, the actor was hooked. In particular, Hanks was looking forward to taking part in a fresh look at the story, as the tale of Elvis is well-known enough to garner fatigue. In an interview (via Entertainment Weekly), Hanks broke down why he took the part, “Baz said, ‘There would’ve been no Colonel Tom Parker without Elvis. And there certainly would’ve been no Elvis without Colonel Tom Parker.’ And when he said that, I said, ‘Oh, well, okay, now that’s brand new.”

Tom Hanks was also intrigued by the fact that the wider public knew very little about the Elvis manager, claiming this was another reason he took on the role. Coupled with the fact that the character of Tom Hanks’ Tom Parker isn’t his usual role, and Hanks was eager to play the part. “I had the luxury of essentially recreating somebody who no one really knew. I had a different layer of expectations,” the actor said. The complex Elvis/Parker relationship is the glue that holds Elvis together, making it different from yet another musician biopic. The Tom Hanks Tom Parker portrayal is certainly one of the highlights of the movie, giving audiences something they aren’t used to seeing from the actor.

Tom Hanks Missed Out On Elvis Oscar Nomination

Tom Hanks as Col Tom Parker in Elvis.

Elvis picked up an impressive seven Oscar nominations. However, there were some interesting omissions from the award announcements. First, Baz Luhrmann joined a list of directors including Joe Wright, Frank Darabont, and Lawrence Kasdan as someone who had two Best Picture nominations but didn’t get a Best Director nomination either time. Second, for a movie about a musician, Elvis also didn’t receive any music nominations at the Oscars. Finally, Tom Hanks wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Austin Butler won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, beating out favorite Brendan Fraser (The Whale), and he picked up a nomination for the same award at the Oscars. However, Hanks, who has six prior nominations and won twice, was snubbed for his role as Colonel Tom Parker. While Elvis and the Colonel carried the movie to several awards, Hanks’ omission stands out above most others. The other five nominations were for technical (Editing, Sound, Cinematography) and design (Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling).

Key Release Dates

  • Elvis Movie Poster

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