When David Bowie Made His Big-Screen Debut in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’
The mid-'70s found David Bowie ready to retire from music — again — and looking for a new direction. His creative drift occurred at just the right time for director Nicolas Roeg, then on the hunt for his leading man in a future cult classic.
"I’ve rocked my roll. It’s a boring dead end," he'd shrugged in 1975. "There will be no more rock 'n' roll records or tours from me. The last thing I want to be is some useless fucking rock singer."
Bowie's ennui (and growing chemical dependency) was on full display in Cracked Actor, a documentary filmed during his 1974 tour. Aired during January 1975, Cracked showed a gaunt and paranoid Bowie moving listlessly through his professional obligations, seemingly on the brink of a breakdown even as he enjoyed immense commercial success with his Diamond Dogs LP. To Roeg, Bowie's misery looked like the perfect fit for his next film.
Titled The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg's project was an adaptation of the 1963 Walter Tevis novel about an alien who crash-lands on the planet in search of water to bring back home to his family, where his species are suffering a drought. In order to raise funds for the voyage back home, he uses alien technology to make himself a wealthy inventor — which is really just the start of a surreal journey into self-destruction and various other perils.
Bowie wasn't the first person Roeg thought of for the project, which was originally pitched to Peter O'Toole, and he wasn't the studio's pick either — in fact, once execs got word that a rock star had been cast in a role they'd envisioned for Robert Redford, they pulled funding. To his credit, Roeg stuck to his guns.
"I didn’t want an 'actor,'" he later said, explaining he was instead looking for "someone who had the possibility of being unique."
Bowie, meanwhile, if not necessarily an actor per se, had experience in front of the camera — and anyway, he knew Roeg's faith in him wasn't unfounded, even if it wasn't based on traditional technique. "Just being me as I was was perfectly adequate for the role," mused Bowie years later. "I wasn’t of this earth at that particular time."
Although The Man Who Fell to Earth's director and star proved an easy fit, many other things about the production were far more complicated. Filming in the New Mexico desert caused problems with the cameras, a group of Hells Angels camping nearby proved less than accommodating, and Bowie ended up having to miss a portion of the shooting schedule after getting sick on bad milk. When Roeg's distributor, Paramount, saw the final cut, they reportedly refused to honor their contract, insisting he hadn't delivered the film he'd promised to make.
Critics were kinder after The Man Who Fell to Earth made its theatrical premiere on March 18, 1976, and although the film was far from an unqualified success on either critical or commercial grounds, it attracted a cult following that only grew over the years. Reissued at various points on home video, it even returned to theaters in 2011 — and Bowie himself returned to the story years later, refashioning it as a stage project he titled Lazarus.
And as for that retirement from music he'd threatened in '75? "No, oh no. I love rock & roll. Everything I've said about it in the past is all wrong," Bowie laughed in April 1976, after releasing his Station to Station LP. "I love it. I love it because it's so full of liars. I've never been in anything in my life where I could tell as many fibs and have so much fun with it."