It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Bowie’s relationship with film was slight, but the courtship had lasted some years. In 1967, avant-garde film-maker Michael Armstrong had cast him in black-and-white short The Image, in which Bowie stood motionless in the rain while a painter created his portrait. He’d briefly appeared in powdered wig for BBC2’s 1968 drama The Pistol Shot. He was an extra in The Virgin Soldiers, while a 30-second advert for Lyons Maid ice-cream (directed by Ridley Scott, no less) returned him to the small screen in early ’69.
By July 1970, he’d reprised his role in Pierrot In Turquoise – Lindsay Kemp’s travelling mime production, renamed The Looking Glass Murders for TV. More recently, Bowie had tinkered with the idea of a Diamond Dogs screenplay. Intriguingly, Dogs – his first completed script – was intended for Terence Stamp, playing father to Iggy Pop, with Bowie directing. He’d also been approached by Elizabeth Taylor to take a part in The Blue Bird, but Bowie found the script tedious. More impressively, he’d been slated to star in The Eagle Has Landed, but nothing came of it. As it turned out, he very nearly missed out on The Man Who Fell To Earth, too.
Producer Si Litvinoff knew Roeg from the ’60s. They’d met on the set of François Truffaut’s book-burning attack on totalitarianism, Fahrenheit 451, on which Roeg had served as cinematographer (incidentally, one of the tomes seen aflame was The Man Who Fell To Earth). In March ’66, Litvinoff had optioned the rights to Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, with an initial view to Jagger starring and Roeg directing. Stanley Kubrick eventually got the job in 1970, while Roeg settled on another Litvinoff production, 1971’s Walkabout. In late ’74, Litvinoff was looking to develop Out Of Africa for Columbia, with Roeg at the helm. While negotiations were taking place, Roeg and Litvinoff went on a double date in LA, one of the consorts being American Graffiti actress Candy Clark. Roeg and Clark soon embarked on an affair, with the latter eager to appear in a version of a screenplay Roeg carried, written by fellow Englishman Paul Mayersberg. At the Beverly Hills Hotel, Roeg showed Litvinoff the draft for The Man Who Fell To Earth, and asked him to produce.
The director’s initial choices for the role of alien businessman Newton had been author and Westworld director Michael Crichton, and Peter O’Toole. At 6’ 9”, the towering Crichton was perfectly suited to the imposing protagonist of Tevis’ story, but it didn’t happen (Crichton went on to write Jurassic Park and create ER). The intervention of tenacious CMA casting agent Maggie Abbott was crucial.
“Nic and Si told me they were thinking of Peter [O’Toole] when they took me to lunch to discuss the casting,” she tells Uncut. Fatefully, O’Toole was unavailable, shooting Man Friday in Mexico. “I tried to talk them into Mick [Jagger] but Nic knew him so well and said he wasn’t what he had in mind. He wanted someone who looked frail – as if he had no bones in his body – and I immediately cried out, ‘David Bowie’!”
Abbott was convinced of her client’s screen potential: “His studied movement and polished self-projection made him a star; he just needed the right movie part.” When she saw Mayersberg’s script, she just knew: “He had just the charisma the character required. It had nothing to do with acting experience.”
Her charges took little convincing. In London, Litvinoff, with Roeg present, was shown Yentob’s film. Remembers Litvinoff today: “I had been a fan of his [Bowie’s] and was excited to see it, especially since I very much liked ‘Space Oddity’ and thought – and hoped – that he would like the project. Nic had some other casting possibilities in mind, but after seeing Cracked Actor, we were both convinced he was ideal and we very quickly asked Maggie to push for him. And she did.”
A meeting was arranged at the singer’s flat in on the east side of New York in February ’75. While Litvinoff was across town trying to tie up Robert Redford for Out Of Africa, Roeg was at Bowie’s for an appointment that the latter had clearly forgotten. Hours later, the embarrassed host arrived home to find Roeg patiently waiting in the kitchen.
“When he came back, it was very late,” recounts the director. “But Bowie went straight into it, said he liked the idea and that he’d do the film.” Litvinoff was on his way over, too. “I rang the doorbell and it was opened by a lovely black girl with orange-dyed hair wearing the Clockwork Orange sweater that Ritva of London had made in a limited edition,” he recalls. “It was Ava Cherry, who was then with David. I thought that was a lucky sign.”
Intended backers Columbia pulled out after realising their ideal man, Robert Redford, wasn’t in the lead role. In stepped the newly formed British Lion, led by producers Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings. On the shoot, by all accounts, it was tense between company and crew. At one point, according to Litvinoff, “Devious Deeley” shut down an open bar for them that the executive producer had set up with his own money.
When filming began at Lake Fenton in New Mexico that June, Roeg’s choice of lead seemed wholly justified. “Bowie arrived in New Mexico in the same limo as in Cracked Actor,” he recalls today. “So we used it in the film and cast his driver [Tony Mascia], too. I was conscious not to disturb him at all. There were certain people who were concerned about his unconventionality as an actor, wondering if he was being used as some sort of gimmick. Some executives even suggested post-synching another voice over Bowie’s. I just said, ‘Are you mad? His voice is it!’ Every time someone mentioned how curious his delivery was, it pleased me more and more.”
Bowie understood implicitly what Roeg wanted. “I think Nic and David got along very well,” offers Litvinoff. “And I think there is mutual admiration. They are both extraordinarily well-read, inquisitive and sophisticated, with unique, original and provocative avant-garde taste.”