In early November 2023, Sofia Coppola’s anticipated Priscilla began screening in theaters across the U.S. The biopic centers around Priscilla and Elvis Presley’s tumultuous and highly publicized relationship during the peak of Elvis’s fame. Based on Priscilla’s 1985 memoir, Elvis and Me, Priscilla has been met with a variety of reactions and responses, mostly about her age when she met Elvis (who at the time was 24, while she was 14). On the other hand, similar to reactions to Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 film, Elvis, many people were shocked to witness the King of Rock and Roll’s ongoing struggle with and death from prescription drugs.
The news of Elvis’s untimely death came four years following his and Priscilla’s separation and divorce in 1973. Presley was found dead in his home at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, on August 16, 1977. After a preliminary autopsy, the medical examiner revealed to the press that Elvis died of heart failure and that drugs did not play a factor in his death.
Other physicians on the case later admitted that Elvis’s actual cause of death was hidden at the request of Elvis’s family for the sake of the musician’s legacy. During the autopsy, his stomach contents were disposed of before analysis and no drugs were found at Graceland, further indicating attempts to preserve Elvis’s public image.
The circumstances surrounding Elvis’s death at 42 remained unclear following his initial autopsy for two months. An eventual toxicology report indicated a lethal combination of 14 different drugs was found in his system at the time of death. Pathologists also noted signs of diabetes, glaucoma, and severe constipation during this investigation.
Presley was known to abuse opiates and other prescription drugs for decades throughout his career. Opioids including Oxycodone, Dilaudid, Demerol, and codeine were found in his system when he died, along with the sedative methaqualone, also known as Quaaludes. A longtime user of opioids, Elvis also abused antihistamines, tranquilizers, and barbituates to treat insomnia, along with laxatives to combat the constipation caused by opioid use.
In the years leading to his death, Elvis spent seven years performing in residency at the Westgate Las Vegas. During this period, Presley relied heavily on prescription drugs to function. Despite his habits, Priscilla has noted Elvis never considered himself to be an addict or have a problem with drugs.
On one hand, Elvis actively campaigned for the war on drugs in America and at one point was gifted a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (which is now the Drug Enforcement Agency) by President Richard Nixon in 1970. Regarding his drug addiction, Priscilla has indicated that Elvis didn’t see himself as an addict for these reasons and because the drugs he was taking were prescribed to him.
One might wonder how Elvis had such easy access to so many prescriptions over the years. George Nichopoulos, or Dr. Nick, Elvis’s personal physician for roughly a decade, testified before the Tennessee Board of Health and admitted to prescribing the musician thousands of doses. Dr. Nick claimed to have given in to Presley’s requests for prescriptions to keep him from acquiring them on the street. A jury eventually acquitted Dr. Nick of any charges, and though he was not found responsible for Elvis’s death, his medical license was suspended in 1995 due to overprescribing medications to patients.
Although his official cause of death was not ruled an overdose or drug-related, many people have concluded that prescription drugs certainly played a role in Elvis’s passing in 1977. The heart failure deemed his cause of death was likely caused by the lethal combination of depressants and codeine he had taken that night; the amount of codeine found in Elvis’s system was nearly ten times the usual recommended dosage.
In David Ritz’s Elvis by the Presleys, Priscilla said Elvis probably would have brushed off an intervention or refused addiction treatment if anyone in his inner circle suggested he had a problem with drugs. The distinction between illegal substances and prescription drugs was substantial enough to convince Elvis that his habits were justified. However, the fact remains that even the most accessible drugs can be dangerous and addictive, even if they are legal.
With the rising popularity of biopics in the movie industry over the last several years, Elvis Presley has been the subject of two films based on his life and legacy. Both Elvis (2022) and Priscilla (2023) have ignited substantial public discourse regarding both Elvis’s romantic life and struggles with addiction. The intricate web of prescription drug abuse, fueled by a tumultuous, decades-long career as the King of Rock and Roll, paints a somber picture of Elvis’s final years.