March 1976: David Bowie is 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'

The poster for 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'
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LMPC via Getty Images

On March 18, 1976, David Bowie, whose most famous alter ego once fronted a band called The Spiders from Mars, suddenly found his name on movie marquees as the star of a Nicolas Roeg film - playing (what else?) an alien.

Based on Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, The Man Who Fell to Earth revolved around Thomas Jerome Newton (Bowie), an alien who landed in New Mexico on a mission to bring water back to his home planet. Upon arriving on Earth, Thomas promptly used the technology of his own planet to patent new inventions, thereby finding himself extremely rich in a relatively short amount of time, but his actions weren’t derived from greed. Truth be told, the only way for him to transport water back to his home planet involves building a new ship for his return, which isn’t exactly a cheap proposition.

Bowie’s co-stars in the film included several familiar faces, among them Candy Clark as Mary-Lou, an Oklahoma woman who falls for Thomas and introduces him to a number of human vices, including alcohol, sex, and television; Rip Torn as Dr. Nathan Bryce, a former college professor turned fuel technician who becomes Thomas’s confidant; Buck Henry as Oliver Farnsworth, the patent attorney who helps Thomas with the legal maneuverings for his new inventions; and Bernie Casey as Peters, the head of an organized syndicate who kidnaps Thomas in order to gain control of his inventions.

Just in case you’ve never seen The Man Who Fell to Earth (because we know a lot of people haven’t), we won’t tell you any more about the plot, but we will say that it’s a very artsy flick, one that left both critics and moviegoers split about whether they liked it or not. In fact, it’s been said (by producer Michael Deeley) that when the film was presented to Paramount, Barry Diller refused to pay for it, saying that it was different from the film the studio wanted, resulting in a very small opening for the film.

That said, the ones who saw it and liked it...Well, they didn’t just like it, they loved it, making it a cult classic far more revered in retrospect than it ever was at the time of its original release.
Strangely, despite the day job of its star, The Man Who Fell to Earth didn’t actually feature any David Bowie music on its soundtrack, although that had been the original plan. When contractual issues forced him to drop out of contention, however, the gig went to John Phillips, best known for his work with The Mamas and The Papas, who worked with percussionist Stomu Yamash’ta and guitarist Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones. Given the name of film’s primary female character, it should come as no surprise Phillips and Taylor decided to record a cover of a certain Ricky Nelson song.

Many years later, The Man Who Fell to Earth was adapted for the stage as Lazarus; this production did use Bowie's songs throughout, including several songs he penned for the show. The singer's appearance at a New York preview in December of 2015 would be his last public appearance, a month before the release of his final album Blackstar and his passing from cancer only days later.

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