David Bowie, the subject of Brett Morgen’s new documentary Moonage Daydream (in theaters and on Imax screens Sept. 16), appeared in 12 scripted movies — everything from the high-minded (1983’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, from Japanese New Wave director Nagisa Ôshima) to the lowbrow (2001’s Zoolander, in which he judges a runway walk-off). But for many fans, his most successful big-screen outing was his first.
Based on the 1963 sci-fi novel by Walter Tevis (whose books The Hustler and The Queen’s Gambit were also adapted to great success), 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth tells the story of an extraterrestrial whose planet has been stricken by drought. Bowie was 28 and coasting on the success of his otherworldly Ziggy Stardust persona when he was selected by director Nicolas Roeg, who’d cast another rock star, Mick Jagger, in 1970’s Performance. Roeg had also considered casting Jurassic Park novelist Michael Crichton, who at 6-foot-9 more accurately matched the description of the alien in the book. But a screening of Cracked Actor, a 1975 TV doc about Bowie, convinced Roeg the glam rocker was born for the role.
Bowie plays a humanoid alien named Thomas Jerome Newton who lands in New Mexico in search of water. While on Earth, Thomas patents alien technology and gets very rich, with the intention of using it to build a vessel to bring water home. He meets Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, Oscar-nominated for her performance in George Lucas’ American Graffiti), who introduces him to the earthly pleasures of TV, booze and sex.
“He wasn’t putting it on,” Roeg wrote of Bowie’s performance in his 2011 memoir. “For example, Bowie has a marvelous laugh. It was just left of center. It was like, ‘Isn’t that how they laugh on Earth?’ ”
The original Man Who Fell to Earth (it was revived as a Showtime/Paramount+ series this year) is now considered a sci-fi classic, revered by directors like Christopher Nolan, who cast Bowie as Nikola Tesla in 2006’s The Prestige. Roeg died at age 90 in 2018; Bowie was 69 when he died of liver cancer two years earlier.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.