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Elvis Has Left the Resume : Movies: Although Priscilla Presley keeps a hand on the King's estate, she's finding her own limelight with the 'Naked Gun' comedies.

March 24, 1994|LAURIE WERNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Priscilla Presley's life has been such a public drama revolving around her teen-age involvement and marriage to the out-of-control King of rock 'n' roll, that six years ago she was the last person you expected to see in a comedy.

The TV projects she had produced, an adaptation of her memoirs, "Elvis and Me," and "Elvis," a series about his life, seemed much more appropriate for rock 'n' roll's most famous widow, a role she's played despite their divorce.

In 1988, though, she took a chance with comedy by co-starring as Jane Spencer, the sincere if hapless love interest of detective Frank Drebin, played by Leslie Nielsen, in the first "Naked Gun" film. Three years ago, there was "Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear." And now she is back as Jane in the third installment, "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult," which routed the competition at the box office in its opening weekend last Friday.

"When they told me they were doing a third one," she says in a sweet, even voice on a recent afternoon at a midtown Manhattan hotel, "I had to wonder, what's left to do?"

As fans of these intentionally broad, physical comedies know, though, there are always new silly things to do to the cast, and Presley has been pretty game about embarrassing herself--by singing a particularly raucous off-key version of "The Way We Were," by clumsily falling down a flight of stairs. This time, she tries to seduce Frank (who is now her husband) by wearing a negligee emblazoned with what seem to be all the lights in Las Vegas.

Her favorite stunt, however, didn't make the final cut. "There's a scene where I'm angry and I throw my wedding ring at him," she says. "Then I do a couple of back flips across the room." She smiles. "I practiced like crazy! I can't believe they took those out."

Regardless of what finally made it to the screen, Presley, 48, admits that this time she felt more comfortable doing the comedy; she was petrified the first time around, even a little mystified that she was cast.

To director David Zucker, that was one of the reasons he chose her.

"She'd done five years on 'Dallas,' but she'd never done a comedy," he says, "and if you have no expectations of people being funny, then the jokes are more of a surprise. Plus she seemed like she'd have good chemistry with Leslie. And there was a bit of glamour to the name. You always look for a little spin in casting."

Much to Zucker's surprise when he met her, she wasn't at all what he imagined. "She's so normal, so much like the girl next door," he says. "What she must have been through seems to have had no effect."

Presley had well-publicized difficulties as a single mom with her and Elvis' daughter, Lisa Marie, who is now 26. And she admits that life on her own was tough in the beginning. "I had to find myself, prove myself as a person," she says.

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She had to prove herself professionally as well, first as a co-host of the series "Those Amazing Animals" and then in "Dallas." With the exception of the "Naked Gun" films and the Andrew Dice Clay bomb "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane," however, she's been spending more of her time in the world of business, marketing two fragrances--Moments and Experiences--and soon-to-be-released clothing and skin-care lines.

Her skill as a businesswoman was called upon a few years after Elvis died, when she was co-executor of the Presley estate.

"At first, I fought it a little since I was trying to go on my own," she says. "But I've come to terms with it, out of respect to the family." And undoubtedly to her daughter's legacy. Her plans for the estate, including opening Graceland as a museum, multiplied the estate's value to more than $50 million.

Her Elvis-related activities have to be handled carefully, however, so as not to affront the current man in her life, Brazilian screenwriter-director Marco Garibaldi, with whom she has a son, Navarone, 7.

"He knows it's part of the business. I have my office and that's it," she says. "It's a lot of juggling egos and sensitivities."

It helps that she immerses herself totally in family life when she's not working, including spending time with Lisa and Lisa's nearly 5-year-old daughter, Danielle, so close in age to Navarone that the two children regard each other as siblings.

"It's really great to have them so close in age, to raise them together," she says. "But Danielle looks so much like Lisa that sometimes I look at her and forget." She smiles. "For a second I feel like I've gone back to my past."

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