After the first season of “Mike & Molly,” Billy Gardell told members of his family that he was giving them a bucket list gift. He would pay for them to go anywhere they wanted.
His wife’s family opted for Hawaii and Gardell’s mother picked Las Vegas. His father’s selection was not a surprise but now seems very fitting.
“My dad was a huge Elvis fan and he wanted to go to Graceland. There was always Elvis music in our house. When Elvis died, he took three days off from work,” Gardell says.
At the time Gardell traveled to the Memphis home of Elvis Presley, Gardell had no idea it would end up being a bit of research for his latest acting role. He’s portraying Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, in the new CMT series “Sun Records.”
The series is based on the Tony Award-winning musical “Million Dollar Quartet” that looks at the early days of music legends Johnny Cash (Kevin Fonteyne), Jerry Lee Lewis (Christian Lees), Eddy Arnold (Trevor Donovan) and Elvis (Drake Milligan). They got their starts through the Sun Records recording studio run by Sam Phillips (Chad Michael Murray).
Also featured in the series are Jimmy Swaggart (Jonah Lees) and Ike Turner (Kerry Holliday).
Gardell plays the larger-than-life Parker who is credited with turning Elvis into an international sensation. Research material about Parker was thin but what Gardell found gave him a good idea of the kind of man Parker was.
“I was able to talk to some people in Memphis who knew him and they all had a different description of Col. Parker,” Gardell says. “I think he did whatever he needed to do to get money. I think he could talk his way out of anything.
“I had to play him with a twinkle in his eye but also get across that he was cold and calculating.”
The series introduces Parker when he is running a carnival scam. When his scheme is revealed, the only thing that saves Parker is an intervention by singing superstar Eddy Arnold. Parker would go on to be the manager of Arnold, then Hank Snow and finally Elvis.
Gardell had not heard about Parker’s other famous clients before making the series.
“I guess when you represent Elvis, you don’t need a client list résumé,” Gardell says.
If you only know Gardell’s résumé for his years as Chicago police officer Mike Biggs on “Mike & Molly,” his work has also included “My Name Is Earl,” “Sullivan & Son,” “Heist” and a series of Round Table Pizza commercials. He also hosted the game show “Monopoly Millionaires’ Club.” Gardell jokes his game show days ended because he gave away too much money.
He had such great success on “Mike & Molly,” Gardell didn’t want to go back to another situation comedy immediately. He wanted to push himself as an actor and the role in the CMT drama gives him that opportunity. So far, eight episodes of “Sun Records” have been produced. Whether he will get back to playing Parker depends on the ratings.
Gardell has faith there will be more because “Sun Records not only looks at a pivotal moment in music history but also shows what was going on in the country in regards to civil rights. Phillips was the record producer who recognized that the singers were creating a whole new sound with their mix of jazz, hillbilly and gospel sounds.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t like that,” Gardell says.
- 10 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, CMT.