10 Brilliant Stories From David Bowie's Film Career
As well as being a musical great and style icon, the late David Bowie was also a brilliant actor.
We rounded up some of the most bizarre stories from his life in front of the movie camera.
Casting himself in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ (1976)
According to director Nic Roeg in his book ‘The World is Ever Changing’, he was initially going to cast a 6’8” doctor he’d met at a dinner party as alien Thomas Newton in this quirky sci-fi, but it didn’t work out. He later saw Bowie in a BBC documentary, went to New York to meet him but the star was four-and-a-half hours late. He finally walked in saying he’d do the film. “I didn’t know whether to say I cast him or he’s cast me,” wrote Roeg.
“His actual social behaviour was extraordinary,” Roeg continues. “He brought with him a trailer full of books and things; he hardly mixed with anyone at all. He seemed to be alone, which is what Newton is in the film – isolated and alone.”
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Pretending to be a baby during ‘Labyrinth’ (1986)
Perhaps Bowie’s most famous role – because of the songs and the codpiece – co-star Jennifer Connelly has admitted he was delightful to work with.
But not only can he write awesome songs about babies, he can also sound like them. For the film’s seminal hit ‘Magic Dance’, the man himself performed the toddler gurgling which appears on the record.
Nicking his character’s belt from ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ (1992)
Bowie called David Lynch “delightfully and dedicatedly bonkers” and joked that his character FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries was similar to himself.
“He has seen too much and has little ability to do much about it,” he said in the movie’s press notes. “Not dissimilar to the perspective of a rock god, really.”
He also admitted to stealing Jeffries’ belt when he’d finished filming.
“I’ve worn it a few times on stage with Tin Machine,” he said. “It consists of two rather garish portraits of Freida Kahlo. A very ‘now’ item. I’m hoping it will lead to a court case producing massive exposure on CNN. Otherwise, I sell it to the highest bidder…or Madonna, perhaps.”
Screaming punk songs to damage his voice for ‘The Hunger’ (1983)
Surprisingly, Bowie was slightly intimidated by co-star Catherine Deneuve during the shooting of this sexy and stylish vampire movie which features the star sporting some great old-age make-up as a rapidly aging bloodsucker.
To prepare to play an old man, Bowie took a very Method approach. Every night, he stood on the George Washington Bridge in New York and screamed punk songs at the top of his lungs into the darkness, making his voice OAP-level hoarse.
Being called a very rude word during the video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ (1980)
Still one of the most expensive videos of all-time (accounting for inflation), Bowie as a clown has become an iconic image.
But assistant director Michael Dignum revealed on Facebook that when he met the singer years later, Bowie revealed a hilarious behind-the-scenes incident from the set of that promo.
Bowie explained how he was filming the shot of him walking in front of a bulldozer when a man with a dog walked straight in front of the camera.
“Knowing this is gonna take a while I walked past the old guy and sat next to camera in my full costume waiting for him to pass,” the star told Dignum. “As he is walking by camera the director said, ‘Excuse me mister, do you know who this is?’ The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said, ‘Of course I do, it’s some c*** in a clown suit.’
“That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realise, yes I’m just a c*** in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.”
He’s banned from playing Frank Sinatra - by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself
‘Absolute Beginners’ director Julien Temple has said that Bowie tried to imbue his character in that Brit flop with some Rat Pack cool.
Unfortunately, when talk emerged in 1974 that he might actually play Sinatra in a biopic, it didn’t quite go according to plan.
Bowie went to see Frank in Las Vegas and let it be known that he was in the audience and wanted to meet the singer in person.
Sinatra refused - apparently furious that a “f****t” might be playing him on-screen.
Bowie later said it was Frank’s daughter Nancy who was pushing for him to play her dad. “God, he hated that,” he explained. “He was absolutely terrified that I might be taken seriously. He hated long hair, hated anything limey.”
Annoying the 007 producers by turning down ‘A View To A Kill’
It’s well-known that the star turned down the producers of ‘A View To Kill’ when they approached him to play baddie Max Zorin, a role that was eventually taken by Christopher Walken.
But what’s so delightfully Bowie is how honest he was about it afterwards.
“It was simply a terrible script and I saw little reason for spending so long on something that bad, that workmanlike,” he said. “And I told them so. I don’t think anyone had turned down a major role in a Bond before. It really didn’t go down too well at all. They were very tetchy about it.”
Doing his best work without any direction in ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ (1983)
The star was cast in this WWII Japanese POW camp drama after director Nagisa Oshima saw him performing on Broadway in the lead role of ‘The Elephant Man’, a theatrical version of the movie in which the actor wore no prosthetic make-up.
While Bowie was pleased with his performance, he later revealed the British actors on-set had been given almost zero direction, with Oshima telling them, “Please do whatever it is you people do.”
Co-star and fellow musician Ryuichi Sakamoto explained that he hung out with Bowie every night, as the movie was shooting on a small South Pacific island with only a swimming pool and restaurant to keep everyone entertained.
His crazy idea for a ‘Diamond Dogs’ movie
Released in 1974, his eighth album revolved around a character called Halloween Jack and was set in a post-apocalyptic world called Hunger City.
The year after it was released, a movie version became Bowie’s passion project.
Set to star Iggy Pop and Terence Stamp, Bowie shot black and white test footage in his New York hotel room.
“I built three or four-foot high buildings out of clay on tables,” he said. “Some were standing up, others were crumbling and I took the camera and put a micro-lens on it, zooming down the streets in between the tables.”
There’s also a suggestion that in the film everyone would’ve travelled on rollerskates because fuel had run out. Weirdly, the project never saw the light of day.
Chopping his hair for a role and still getting practically cut out of ‘The Virgin Soldiers’ (1969)
His first ever movie role, Bowie cut his hair short and auditioned like everyone else to play a part in this military comedy.
But like many great actors before him, he found his part hacked to pieces in the editing suite, only ending up in the film for about two seconds in the back of a barroom scene. We think Bowie had the last laugh.
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Image credits: Getty, Rex_Shutterstock