Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Chadwick Boseman is one of the few who fits into all three categories. The Hollywood actor may be known for his magnificence on the big screen and for breathing life back into several Black icons, but the extent of his own greatness is something we are only now all starting appreciate.
Across the globe, those who mourned the passing of Chadwick Boseman in 2020 recognized his iconic performances as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall. But long before any of this, he was just known as “Chad” in his hometown of Anderson, South Carolina.
Born in 1976, Chadwick and his two older brothers Kevin and Derrick were raised by their hardworking parents, Carolyn Boseman, a nurse, and Leroy Boseman, who worked in agriculture and the textile industry. They supported everything their children did, which, for Chadwick, was a lot.
Boseman Family Portrait
In his teen years, Chadwick played basketball at Hanna High School, all while being involved in the debate team and the theater program. With his skills, everyone was convinced he would go to college for basketball — that is, except for one teacher who noticed a particular hobby of his.
Marion Tarrant, coach of the Hanna High School basketball team, noticed Chadwick was always reading books. Even on road trips while all the other kids his age were goofing off he would be on his own, reading. Tarrant believed that with his social skills and well-read nature, Boseman should pursue a career in education.
Young Chadwick thought he would become an architect or basketball player. He would continue to educate himself and others throughout his life, but not within academics. He’d do so in a different way. The start of his astounding career began with a devastating change in his high school days.
Hanna High School
Chadwick’s basketball skills were so good he was even recruited to play in college. In his junior year at Hanna High, life took a dark turn when one of his teammates was shot and killed. The tragedy shook Chadwick, and he poured his thoughts and feelings into writing his own play he titled Crossroads.
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The play was centered around youth and violence, along with the importance of goal-setting for young people. It changed his life and made him realize just how much he loved storytelling. It would take a little more inspiration, however, for Chadwick to choose a career in the arts.
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The young Chadwick Boseman lacked the confidence to start a career in a creative field. Watching his older brother Kevin start his career as a dancer gave Boseman the courage to follow his own big dream. Rather than playing basketball, Chadwick followed his dream of becoming a director.
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Boseman attended Howard University to study directing. He took extra acting classes to better guide actors in his future work. At the historically Black college in Washington D.C., Chadwick found community and knowledge among his peers. Here, he was introduced to a whole new culture, which included a certain iconic Marvel superhero.
Scott Suchman – Howard University
Boseman took a job at an African bookstore, where he was introduced to one of the first African superheroes, the Black Panther. Chadwick was so inspired by everything he learned that he even took a special trip outside the U.S.
This special trip led him to the African country of Ghana. This would be the start of his African studies, knowledge he would eventually share with the world. Balancing his film, acting, and cultural studies, Boseman would soon come upon a great opportunity — but not before receiving some friendly help.
Chadwick was admitted to a prestigious summer program at the British American Drama Academy in London. The only issue was the immense financial cost. Thankfully, his mentor, award-winning actor and producer Phylicia Rashad, called in a friend for help.
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Rashad promised him he would attend the program, and he did so with the financial help of iconic actor, producer, and director Denzel Washington. Chadwick was never the type to ask his mentor for any connections — he wanted to succeed on his own. Yet from this point forward, success would be his.
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Chadwick moved to New York and wrote a number of short plays before delving into an acting career. His first credited role would be an inspirational failure. It was a great opportunity on the drama All My Children, but Chadwick was not happy with it.
Instagram / Chadwick Boseman
At the time, Black actors were struggling with roles that lent themselves to racial stereotypes. Boseman found himself dealing with the same issues on All My Children. Yet after some hesitation, Boseman pushed to change the stereotypical role he was given.
Chadwick went to the drama’s producers and suggested changes be made to his character, Reggie Porter. While they took some of his suggestions, they ultimately said he was “too much trouble” and let him go.
Boseman had only worked the All My Children role for a week, and coincidentally, it opened the door for young actor Michael B. Jordan, Boseman’s future co-star. Flash forward to today, Jordan says he’s grateful for Chadwick’s example. It was the start of Boseman’s revolutionary upheaval of the industry.
Only in his 20s, Chadwick would continue taking on roles he felt were respectable and acted them out with power and dignity that was seldom seen from anyone in Hollywood. Even when he found fame and award-winning success, Boseman would not stop pushing for higher excellence.
Boseman handled each of his biopic roles with the utmost care and respect. For all three, he worked with family members of his real-life counterparts to better understand who these men were. Relatives of Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall praised Boseman for his accuracy. Special training also helped with these roles.
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Chadwick trained with baseball coaches for 42 and spent five hours every day practicing James Brown’s moves for Get On Up. For Black Panther, he trained one-on-one with a professional martial artist to play out the fight scenes seamlessly. He performed with dignity and grace, even while secretly struggling with colon cancer.
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All who have worked with Chadwick Boseman speak of his professionalism, power, noble and humble nature, and, most importatly, his work ethic. Chadwick would bring his acting prowess, his studies in African culture, and his own personality to create the cinematic feat of Black Panther.
Like with All My Children, Boseman pushed for proper representation by suggesting the actors speak in authentic South African accents and leading on-set discussions about African symbolism and spirituality. His heroic work paved the way for a new era in filmmaking and a new era for children of all ages and colors.
A hero as both fictional King T’Challa and as himself, he frequently visited children’s hospitals. He was elated when the children would recuperate and comforted the loved ones of those who didn’t. He was proud that his work gave them all something special.
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Throughout his career, Chadwick was concerned with the importance of his work. Ever since he was a teenager, he wanted to use the arts to make a difference for people around the world. Even with his short career, he was a king in his own right.
Wanting to fully commit himself to his work, Boseman kept his diagnosis a secret until the very end. Few in his inner circle suspected that his dwindling weight was related to any terminal illness. After all, he was only 43. How could he stay so determined?
Instagram / Chadwick Boseman
Always conscious of the past, Boseman drew upon the struggles of the greats who came before him, like the timeless Denzel Washington. Like Chadwick, he could blow you away with his intensity in one scene and then leave you sobbing in the next. Even as a kid, he had an acting knack.
Of course, a man of his talent wasn’t just born with the skill, but he clearly had interest in the stage from an early age. He was only seven when he performed in his first live performance.
He performed in a talent show at his local Boys & Girls Club, an organization still near to his heart that he joined to stay safe from the often-tough streets of his neighborhood. When it finally came time for college, he jumped at the chance.
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Packing his bags, he headed to Fordham University in the Bronx, but he wasn’t the grade-A student he hoped, earning just a 1.7 GPA. Burned out, he took a hiatus from the stress, eventually returning with a new-found passion for acting.
In 1977, Washington graduated with a Bachelors in Drama and journalism. After some theater work that garnered positive attention, he won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which was a massive accomplishment.
American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco
His first film role was in a 1981 comedy called Carbon Copy. This led to several off-Broadway productions, until finally he landed his first major role in the critically-acclaimed television hospital drama St. Elsewhere. He was now making big-time moves.
In 1983, he married an actress named Pauletta Pearson, whom he met on the set of Wilma, the first screen work he did. Together, the couple had four kids: John David, Malcolm, Olivia, and Katia. While his family grew, so did his professional life.
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He was quickly becoming a household name from his television work, but as all actors dream of, Washington still struggled for an Oscar nomination. That was, until, six years after his film debut.
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He starred in the 1987 movie Cry Freedom alongside Kevin Kline and absolutely crushed the performance of Steve Biko, a real-life South African apartheid martyr. This was the beginning of a slew of audience-wowing work.
Within the next handful of years, it was apparent there was absolutely no stopping Washington’s tsunami of talent. One of his most notable performances was in Malcolm X — for which received an Oscar nomination — in the Spike Lee biopic.
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The role of Malcolm X was important to Washington, who said the civil rights activist’s book was “one of the very best” he ever read. He’d even done a play about Malcolm 12 years earlier in New York City.
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The year following his second Oscar-win in the ultra-intense Training Day, he stepped behind the camera to direct Antwone Fisher, in which he also starred. But, being the busiest man in Hollywood never stopped him from immense work off screen.
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Because of the positive effect the Boys & Girls Club gave him a child, he became heavily involved in ensuring the program never faltered, as he knew first-hand the dangers of life on the streets.
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He did everything he could for the community that led to his eventual success, such as giving toys to children whose parents couldn’t afford a bountiful holiday season. And, he donated lots of money.
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It was all smiles on the faces of these club workers after he shelled out $25,000 in assistance. By this point, Denzel Washington had a lot to be proud of — his kids were no exception.
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John David, Washington’s oldest child, initially pursued a career in professional football and was even drafted to the St. Louis Rams in 2006. However, he eventually ended up taking the same acting route his dad did.
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Spike Lee cast Denzel’s son in his critically-acclaimed movie about a Ku Klux Klan infiltration called BlacKKKlansmen. As proud as Washington was, it was the 2016 Golden Globes that completely blew him away.
Washington’s outstanding body of work earned him the coveted Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Cecil B. DeMille Award. He also brought his family onstage so they could savor such a precious moment.
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Denzel Washington’s legacy was admired by another Hollywood great: Sydney Poitier. “[Washington] had taken the concept of African-Americans in films to a place where I couldn’t,” Sydney said. “And he has taken it there with the same kind of integrity that I tried to articulate. So I thank him for that.”
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These compliments meant the world to Denzel Washington, who saw Poitier as a mentor. It was Poitier, in fact, that pushed Denzel to take the right roles early on. The ’50s legend had a career of experiences to draw on for advice.
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1. Audiences knew Poitier was a pure talent onscreen once those cameras started rolling, but many didn’t know his secret hidden talent: The guy spoke fluent Russian! This would have made him an awesome James Bond villain.
2. During a visit to Mississippi as a young man, Poitier and his friend had a terrifying encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. It was so bad Poitier slept with a gun during the filming of In the Heat of the Night.
3. After first arriving to New York City, a poor Poitier held a job as a dishwasher. During this period of time, a waiter he developed a friendship with taught him how to read.
4. While No Way Out is Poitier’s first film credit, he worked uncredited for several years beforehand. He played an extra in a film called Sepia Cinderella, and performed in three short films while enlisted in the military.
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5. Poitier entered the United States Army in 1943, but after a few years of working in a mental ward, he wanted out. So, he actually faked insanity to no avail, but soon after, he was actually released anyway.
6. Many people think the actor’s name has Haitian origins, but the name was actually brought to the Bahamas’ Cat Island by an English plantation owner named Charles Leonard Poitier.
7. The role that really got audiences talking about Poitier’s talent was in the film Blackboard Jungle. Even though Poitier was supposed to play a high schooler, he was actually 28 years old at the time.
8. Poitier’s directorial debut was in 1972 with the film Buck and the Preacher. Although it wasn’t the smash box-office hit Poitier hoped for, his work was a unique take on westerns utilizing an all-black cast.
9. Before Bill Cosby was outed as a total creep, Poitier actually starred alongside him in three different crime-comedy movies he also directed, including Uptown Saturday Night. If only he knew the secrets his sidekick held…
10. One unprecedented scene Poitier shot appears in In the Heat of the Night. In one scene, he slapped a white man! Showing a black man hit a white man was unheard of at the time.
11. Many people have no idea why Poitier wasn’t nominated for the classic film In the Heat of the Night, but it had nothing to do with his talent. He was up for awards for three films, which made selection hard.
12. Poitier garnered two massive achievements early on in his career. He was the first black man to earn a best actor nomination in the late ’50s, and then a few years later won for Lilies of the Field.
13. One of the most famous comedy movies of all time was Stir Crazy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Well, Sidney Poitier actually directed it! It was so successful, it made ten times the budget!
14. Poitier joined Disney’s Board of Directors in 1995 and received a shoutout in The Lion King. Pumba’s line, “They call me MISTER PIG!” is based on the line, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” from In the Heat of the Night.
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15. A strong supporter of civil rights, Poitier was one of several famous faces who attended the March on Washington rally. He joined Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, and Charlton Heston to listen to Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
16. One of the most unique works of art Poitier ever produced was an album titled Poitier Meets Plato. Throughout the album, Poitier reads excerpts of the writings of the famous philosopher Plato.
17. Are you a fan of rap? Well, Busta Rhymes actually gave a shoutout to Poitier in his music video for the song “Gimme Some More.” He not only holds up an image, but he drops the iconic actor’s name.
18. Poitier was given the ultimate title of knighthood in 1974. Because he held citizenship in the Bahamas, his official knighted title was “Knight Commander within the Order of the British Empire.”
19. The last movie Poitier ever starred in was a film with some name power. The Jackal starring Richard Gere was a hit at the box office successfully, even though critics didn’t offer the kindest reviews.
20. The very first credited acting role Poitier earned was for the film No Way Out. Even back then, Poitier knew he was a part of something special: he, with the help of other black Americans, was about to change the world.
One of those helpers? There may not have been a mountain high enough to keep Marvin Gaye from reaching the top of Motown music success, but the peaks in his personal life were nearly impossible to scale. And they would come to define his legacy.
On April 2, 1939, Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. (yes, without the e) was born in Washington, D.C., to a loving mother named Alberta and a horrifically abusive father, who was also the church minister. Surrounded by violence, Marvin was drawn to music at a young age.
He discovered his talent for singing when he was young. He could deliver a four-octave vocal range, and he performed in church choirs to showcase his talent. People began to take notice of the young boy’s voice.
Even though Marvin Jr. found solace in music, his home life was made miserable by his father, Marvin Sr. Constant verbal and physical abuse even gave his son suicidal thoughts. So, early in his adult life, Marvin made a bold move to rebel.
Taking inspiration from a man he greatly admired, “The King of Soul” Sam Cooke, Marvin added an “e” to the end of his name to distinguish him from his father. From there, he would continue to grow.
After entering high school, Marvin associated with music every chance he could. He joined the glee club and performed in several doo-wop groups. At age 17, Marvin made an uncharacteristic decision no one saw coming.
After being kicked out of his house by his father for the umpteenth time, he figured joining the military would help. However, he hated the menial day-to-day tasks, so he actually faked mental illness to get discharged.
Not long after Marvin left the military, he met his first wife, Anna Gordy, who was the daughter of his producer. At the time, Marvin was in a band called Harvey and the New Moonglows, but he soon released his first solo album.
Unfortunately, his album titled The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye didn’t take to audiences like he wanted, which definitely was a huge hit to his ego. However, he still had the support of his partner Anna.
The lack of success from his first solo album meant he had to return to life as a session musician to pay the bills, but he still had confidence he’d find the right music for a mass audience.
Funny enough, Marvin found ways to earn a living that didn’t involve music at all: movies! He starred in The Ballad of Andy Crocker and then Chrome and Hot Leather shortly after. Music, though, was where his heart lay.
Marvin eventually did begin cranking out successful songs, and people started listening in droves. In fact, you might remember the incident in 2015 when Pharrell and Robin Thicke were successfully sued for plagiarizing the song “Got to Give it Up.”
Marvin’s growing success, however, led to a downward spiral. Copious drugs, divorce, depression, and a horrific relationship with his dad caused serious problems. Although his music was garnering tons of positive attention, he was growing quite unstable.
At one point, cocaine had Marvin so paranoid about people hurting him that he actually wore a bullet-proof vest throughout one of his tours, as well as hiring armed guards to follow him everywhere.
Marvin finally hit rock bottom in 1981. In order to combat everything that was happening, he took time off, traveling to Ostend, Belgium. The city was so proud to have him they eventually built a statue in his honor.
Luckily, Marvin managed to overcome most of the struggles plaguing him throughout his career. Sadly, his 1983 performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at an NBA All-Star game was last time anyone saw him on television.
On April 1, 1983, during a vicious verbal spat with his ailing mother and father, Marvin physically confronted his dad. Moments later, his father returned with a gun and murdered Marvin. It was a tragedy that rocked the music world.
Marvin was survived by three children, one adopted son with Anna Gordy, and two conceived by his second wife, Janice Hunter. His daughter Nona was the most successful, following her father into music, but also starring in Hollywood films, as well.
Regardless of Marvin’s struggles throughout his life, there’s no denying he was a one-of-a-kind talent. Hollywood honored him with a star on Walk of Fame, and to this day, people enjoy his hits. But just like the king of Motown, another musical “King” was also struggling.
When we think of Elvis, it’s all dazzlingly bejeweled getups, paralysis-inducing hip-thrusts, and a voice so smooth it sends quivers right through your sacralchakra. But the real truth behind this legend is anything but glamorous.
Born in 1935 to a blue-collar family in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis’s childhood was like that of any other poor white boy at the time— church, chores, and chicken. That he would turn into the ultimate icon just a few years later was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
The Presleys made a fateful move to Memphis, Tennessee, when Elvis was just 13 years old. While the family settled into project housing downtown, Elvis spent his days roaming down Beale street and soaking up all the Gospel music he could.
It wasn’t until after high school that Elvis built up enough courage to book himself a recording session at Sun Records. He later claimed the record was just meant as a gift for his mom, but there were far cheaper studios in town…clearly, The King wanted to be discovered.
The studio was piqued by the young boy’s talent from the start, but it wasn’t until almost a year later when producer Sam Phillips heard him sing a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” that he really knew he struck gold.
The song was recorded and aired on the radio where it was an overnight sensation. You see, during the time in the segregated south, there was a demand for the African-American music sound… but without the African. This was precisely what Elvis offered.
It wasn’t long at all before girls were fainting, boys were moshing, and the young Mr. Pelvis became a household name. But as the laws of physics have taught us, what goes up must come down, and as gifted as he was, Elvis was no exception to the rule.
Maybe a lesser known fact about Elvis is that he was born as a twin, but his brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. Jesse was buried in a cardboard box in an unmarked grave, as that was all the family could afford.
Perhaps the death of Jesse made Elvis’s mother Gladys extra protective. In fact, Gladys walked Elvis to and from school every single day until he was in high school and begged her to stop.
As his career took off, Elvis remained close with his mother, calling her every night. They were so close that they even had a cosmic connection of sorts, knowing what was going on with the other without even communicating.
One time he called his mother after his tour bus caught fire. She immediately picked up the phone asking what happened. When Elvis asked her what she meant she said, “the fire. I dreamed of you in a fire.”
In 1958, Elvis had risen to the height of stardom, but that still didn’t protect him from the draft. So he traded in his guitar for a set of army duds and was sent off to Germany. Certainly a dramatic change for the A-Lister.
Watching her boy being trampled by packs of starry-eyed girls was one thing, but picturing him an ocean away at war was more than Gladys could handle. She began drinking heavily and taking pills; later that same year she was admitted to a hospital.
At the hospital in Memphis, Gladys was hardly recognizable. During the course of her depression, she had put on significant weight and the pills had also taken their toll — an eerie foreshadowing for The King himself.
On the night of August 14th, 1958, Elvis suddenly became agitated and had a strong feeling that something was wrong. The next morning he was informed that his mother had died from a heart attack. She was only 46.
Both Elvis and his father were inconsolable after the news. From that day forward The King sent flowers to her grave every single week until his own death. But as duty called, Elvis returned to Germany after the funeral.
Back in service, Elvis tried to distract himself as best he could. One night at a party in Munich, he met a 14-year-old ex-pat named Priscilla Beaulieu. The King completely succumbed to her flirtations. Elvis was smitten.
Despite being railed from all sides—the press, Priscilla’s own family—the two had an undeniable connection. So after Elvis returned home in 1960, they kept in contact by phone and three years later, while still in high school, Priscilla moved to Graceland.
Priscilla later said that she was put in many “adult situations” at far too young an age. Aside from the overtly obvious implications of her statement, there were other things that Priscilla was put through that she has only recently come forward about.
In 1967 the couple wed at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas when Priscilla was just 22 years old. Though their marriage would only survive 6 years, Priscilla came to take up a place in Elvis’s life that was not only profound, but binding.
Elvis never really got over the death of his mother and his time in the service did nothing to ease that loss. Even as he returned and picked up his career where he’d left off, things had changed, and they were never going back.
In Germany, The King in camo had been given his first dose of amphetamines. He took to the pills almost instantly, claiming he’d never felt such a rush of energy. As he returned to his music career, he continued to use these stimulants to help him perform.
This early flirtation with pills was only the beginning of his downward spiral. His relationship with Priscilla and the birth of his daughter Lisa Marie kept him suspended for a time, but eventually, Elvis’s perpetual absence and affairs became too much.
Priscilla filed for divorce in 1973. The loss of his wife was the last lifeline The King had, and from that point on, he isolated himself to the point of becoming a hermit, only leaving Graceland with great coercion and many, many pills.
Elvis needed pills to leave the house, to get up the energy to perform, to calm him down at night to sleep; essentially he was completely dependent on drugs. He became bored and unmotivated with his music and began making irrational political agendas.
Once in 1970, Elvis penned an 8-page long letter to President Nixon requesting a meeting with him to discuss his political ideas and offer himself to be an undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
Elvis’s request to meet with the president was indeed granted. The two discussed the hippie movement, drug culture, Black Panthers, and Elvis’s love of guns. His spy proposition, however, was seemingly dismissed… at least as far as we can tell.
As the world for Elvis had once seemed infinite, in his final months it was no greater than the walls of Graceland. The King was so deep in depression, RCA Records built a recording studio at his home to try to release their album on time.
The last two albums Elvis ever made were recorded entirely from Graceland. With Moody Blue being released only a month before he was found dead in his bathroom in 1977. Presley was 42-years-old.
Only recently in an interview did Priscilla give some deeper insight into The King’s undoing. It was almost written, Priscilla explained, “I think that he would always have his demons. Elvis was a thinker. He was a searcher. His mother had demons, his father had demons.”
Elvis was a loner. Though Priscilla tried to be everything she could for him, it wasn’t enough. “He really was alone.” She told Good Morning Britain, “He really didn’t have a peer, not with a group and not really with anyone.”
It is shocking to hear that such a magnetic performer had those great shadows living within him, but pills were only superficially the fatal culprit: it was really depression and mental illness that lured Elvis into his final retirement.
Elvis’s rags-to-riches story has long represented, if not epitomized, the all-American dream. But so too has his downfall, which has been regarded as gluttonous and excessive with substance abuse and dramatic weight gain.
Really, Elvis’s legacy is the enduring all-American reality — constantly striving and yearning for more, over-indulging. As media and culture scholar Robert Thompson said, “He wasn’t only The King; he was one of us.”
And given that Mr. Elvis Presley is still among the highest-earning deceased celebrities in the world, it is safe to say that it was his life and not just his music that touched the world. He was a man so absolutely human that he’ll live on as long as we remember.