Ziggy Stardust Was A Star On-Screen, Too

Jan 11, 2016
Originally published on January 11, 2016 7:47 pm

David Bowie, who died Sunday at the age of 69, is best-known for his music — but he was also an actor of considerable gifts.

When he fell to Earth in 1976, an extraterrestrial seeking water for a dying planet, Bowie was persuasively otherworldly. One eye blue, the other green, hair a flaming auburn, his never-aging, British-accented alien was the first glimpse movie audiences got of a rock star who had already been a "Space Oddity," sung about a Starman, and become internationally recognized as the glammed-up Ziggy Stardust.

His casting by director Nicholas Roeg was regarded by many at the time as a stunt — it would be his look, his androgyny, his weirdness audiences would be coming for. But then they saw his Man Who Fell to Earth, struggling to appear normal, to not attract suspicion, and audiences realized this enigmatic, infinitely changeable musician had acting chops as well.

Bowie, had, in fact, studied avant-garde theater and mime in the early 1960s before his music career took off. And as in his music, he was attracted to dramatic material that let him be a chameleon. Four years after appearing in The Man Who Fell To Earth, he stepped into the title role on Broadway of The Elephant Man, earning excellent reviews as Joseph Merrick, grotesque of body, eloquent of spirit. "Sometimes I think my head is so big," Bowie keened in-character, "because it is so full of dreams."

Bowie's film choices inspired dreams. He was a vampire's lover in The Hunger, both a prisoner of war and an object of desire in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, the prize catch in Marlene Dietrich's stable of escorts in Just a Gigolo, the goblin king in Labyrinth, and a soft-spoken Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. And if none of those roles required him to sing, he brought a knowing expertise to one role that did — a record exec grooming a young recording artist in Absolute Beginners. "Why am I so exciting?" he sings. "What makes me dramatic?

Who better to ask those questions than this man who had made a career of reinvention: David Bowie, enigmatic artist who fell — all too briefly — to Earth.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

You have probably heard this news by now. David Bowie has died at the sage of 69. He, of course, is best known for his music, but our critic Bob Mondello says he was also a gifted actor.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When he fell to Earth in 1976, an extraterrestrial seeking water for a dying planet, David Bowie was persuasively otherworldly.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) There's no flash with an X-ray, Mr. Newton. You can't see an X-ray.

DAVID BOWIE: (As Thomas Jerome Newton) I can. I can see X-rays.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Character) Are you wearing contact lenses? I can see something inside there.

BOWIE: (As Thomas Jerome Newton) Please don't hurt my eyes.

MONDELLO: One eye blue, the other green, hair a flaming auburn, Bowie's never-aging British-accented alien was the first glimpse movie audiences got of a rock star who'd already been a space oddity, sung about a star man and become internationally recognized as the glammed-up up Ziggy Stardust. His casting by director Nicolas Roeg was regarded by many at the time as a stunt. It would be his look, his androgyny, his weirdness that audiences would be coming for. But then they saw his man who fell to Earth struggling to appear normal to not attract suspicion, and audiences realized this enigmatic, infinitely changeable musician had acting chops as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH")

BOWIE: (As Thomas Jerome Newton) Mary-Lou, help me.

MONDELLO: David Bowie had, in fact, studied avant-garde theater and mime in the early 1960s before his music career took off. And as in his music, he was attracted to dramatic material that let him be a chameleon. After appearing in "The Man Who Fell To Earth," he stepped into the title role on Broadway of "The Elephant Man," earning excellent reviews as Joseph Merrick, grotesque of body, eloquent of spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE ELEPHANT MAN")

BOWIE: (As Joseph Merrick) My mother was so beautiful. She was knocked down by an elephant in the circus when she was pregnant. Something must've happened. Don't you think?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Character) It may well have.

BOWIE: (As Joseph Merrick) May well have, but sometimes I think my head is so big 'cause it is so full of dreams.

MONDELLO: Bowie's film choices inspired dreams. He was a vampire's lover in "The Hunger," both a prisoner of war and an object of desire in "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence," the prize catch in Marlene Dietrich's stable of escorts in "Just a Gigolo," the goblin king in "Labyrinth" and a soft-spoken Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation Of Christ." And if none of those roles required him to sing, he brought a knowing expertise to one role that did - a record exec grooming a young recording artist in "Absolute Beginners."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS")

BOWIE: (As Vendice Partners) Colin, I want you to use your imagination. You wake up one morning, and you ask yourself, (singing) why am I so exciting? What makes me dramatic?

MONDELLO: Who better to ask those questions than this man who made a career of reinvention, David Bowie, enigmatic artist who fell all too briefly to Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS")

BOWIE: (As Vendice Partners) You fall for reality.

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS")

BOWIE: (As Vendice Partners) You're bruised and wounded, then you learn to fall in love with yourself. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.