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Ziggy Stardust Was A Star On-Screen, Too

David Bowie showed off his acting chops as the British-accented alien in the 1976 film <em>The Man Who Fell To Earth</em>.
Studiocanal Films Ltd./The Kobal Collection
David Bowie showed off his acting chops as the British-accented alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth.

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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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.