The Man Who Fell To Earth
David Bowie finished recording Young Americans in January 1975, and the album was released two months later. In the interim, Bowie was approached about starring in director Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation of The Man Who Fell To Earth.
Roeg and executive producer Si Litvinoff consulted casting agent Maggie Abbott, who originally suggested Mick Jagger for the role of Thomas Jerome Newton, but Roeg was not keen. She then suggested Bowie, which piqued the interest of the film makers.
Abbott gave Bowie a copy of the script, and he agreed to meet Roeg in New York. Bowie agreed to take the role – despite having not read the script or novel – on the strength of Roeg’s previous work.
What I didn’t tell him that day when he turned up was that I hadn’t actually read The Man Who Fell To Earth. And it was a combination of having seen Walkabout and actually meeting Nic in person that convinced me that this was something I should definitely get involved with… I tried to kill the conversation as quickly as possible because I didn’t want him to suss that I hadn’t read it. So he was throwing bits of the film at me and I was, ‘Yes, quite, quite… oh absolutely… oh yes, I can see that.’ But it was probably the best decision based on absolutely nothing – other than a man’s previous work – that I’ve probably ever made.
The Man Who Fell To Earth, Criterion edition commentary
Bowie’s detached, inscrutable persona fitted perfectly with the character of Newton, an alien trying to make sense of the world in which he lives, who accumulates huge wealth but falls out of love with his lover, and who lives in isolation after succumbing to a crippling drug addiction (in this case alcohol) and falling into depression.
I just threw my real self into that movie as I was at that time. It was the first thing I’d ever done. I was virtually ignorant of the established procedure [of making movies], so I was going a lot on instinct, and my instinct was pretty dissipated. I just learned the lines for that day and did them the way I was feeling. It wasn’t that far off. I actually was feeling as alienated as that character was. It was a pretty natural performance. … a good exhibition of somebody literally falling apart in front of you. I was totally insecure with about 10 grams [of cocaine] a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.
Movieline magazine, April 1992
Although the role seemed tailor-made for Bowie, the similarities were perhaps a little too close. Just as he had with the character of Ziggy Stardust, over time Bowie found his own personality melding with the fictional persona he embodied.
They all started to overlap each other. The frame of mind I was in, there was no real split from one to another. To me [yappy, cocaine-paranoid voice], it all made sense, man! Oh boy, what days they were…
Mojo, July 2002
The shoot took place from 2 June to 25 August 1975. The majority of it took place in New Mexico, at locations in Albuquerque, White Sands, Artesia and Fenton Lake.
Bowie appears to have mostly stayed clean on set, having made a pledge to Roeg not to use cocaine during the shoot, although he did lapse on occasion. He was reportedly a committed member of the cast, learning his lines and always showing up on time.
David vowed to Nic, ‘No drug use,’ [and he was] clear as a bell, focused, friendly and professional and leading the team…
You can see it clearly because of Tony Richmond’s brilliant cinematography. Look at David: his skin is luminescent. He’s gorgeous, angelic, heavenly. He was absolutely perfect as the man from another planet.
Variety, 11 January 2016
During downtime, Bowie occupied himself with voracious reading, and claimed to have taken 400 books to the shoot. He wrote lyrics and short stories, and planned his autobiography, The Return of the Thin White Duke, which was to be published in December by Bewlay Brothers.
He also wrote music when not on set, some of which he intended to be used for the film’s soundtrack.
All my reading at that particular time was people like Israel Regardie, Waite and Mathers and Manly Hall. It was an intense period of trying to relate myself to this search for some true spirit. And I thought I was gonna find it through reading all this material.
Bowie Style, Mark Paytress and Steve Pafford
After finishing work on The Man Who Fell To Earth in August 1975, Bowie returned to Los Angeles and moved to a new home, at 1349 Stone Canyon Road in the woods above Bel Air. There began one of Bowie’s lowest periods, as his cocaine addiction spiralled and his physical and mental health went into a sharp decline.