Bowie first appeared onscreen in 1968 on the BBC during an episode of the British TV drama Theater 625 titled “The Pistol Shot.” He went on to more than 30 eclectic and sometimes surprising roles, appearing in several critically acclaimed mainstream movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth and The Linguini Incident, all while making almost as many studio albums.
For Bowie, the two careers weren’t entirely unalike, a point underscored when he created musical alter egos in Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. “My performances have got to be theatrical experiences for me, as well as for the audience,” he told Rolling Stone in 1971. “I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up on stage: I want to take them on stage with me.”
As you’ll see in this list of David Bowie’s most compelling acting roles in television and movies, the common bond was his boundless creativity.
The Image (1969)
Bowie’s debut as an actor came in a 13-minute short from director Michael Armstrong. Unknown at the time, Bowie played a nondescript character simply called “The Boy” opposite actor Michael Byrne, who went on to star in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Sum of All Fears and Tomorrow Never Dies. In The Image, Bowie appears as a ghostly figure who comes to life from a painting.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
A larger role for Bowie came several years later in the science-fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth, about an alien that encounters complications as he tries to blend into the human race to save his own dying planet. For his role as Thomas Jerome Newton, Bowie won an award for best actor at the 1976 Saturn Awards.
Just a Gigolo (1978)
Another actor was originally set to appear in Just a Gigolo before Bowie became interested, screenwriter and executive producer Joshua Sinclair revealed to NME in 2021. Unfortunately, audiences ignored this poorly constructed tale about a Prussian officer named Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski who returns home to chaos. “Listen, you were disappointed, and you weren’t even in it. Imagine how we felt,” Bowie complained in 1980. “I mean, oh God, I really should have known better. Every real, legitimate actor that I’ve ever met has told me never to even approach a film unless you know the script is good. If the script isn’t any good, then there’s no way a film is going to be good.” Luckily, this flop didn’t keep other prominent movie roles from coming his way in the future.
Christiane F. (1981)
A 13-year-old girl in ’70s-era Berlin becomes addicted to heroin in an intense film that included a Bowie cameo. Things in the teen’s life gradually distort and disappear as she befriends a small crew of junkies and falls in love with a drug-abusing male prostitute. Christiane F. won a Golden Screen award in Germany and was voted most popular at the Montreal Film Festival the year it was released.
Bowie played the title role in the BBC Television adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play. After spending four weeks in rehearsals, the week-long shoot took place in August 1981 before Baal was broadcast the following March. As the protagonist, Bowie plays a drunken poet caught up in a downward spiral. He also contributed several songs to the corresponding EP.
The Hunger (1983)
The film that critic Roger Ebert described as an “agonizingly bad vampire movie” wasn’t a box-office smash. Still, it eventually achieved a cult following thanks to a cast that included Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. Deneuve played a vampire named Miriam in the movie, while Bowie was cast as her husband of 100 years. Stevie Nicks told Rolling Stone that it was one of her favorite moments of Bowie’s career, declaring his turn as John “creepy and strange and amazingly beautiful.”
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
A war film about the experiences of a troop of British soldiers captured by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, this Christmas movie was a far cry from current light-hearted Hallmark flicks. Bowie embodied a British officer named Major Jack Celliers who was interned by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence covered topics including culture shock, the dehumanization of war and homosexuality. The film earned critical acclaim for its message of finding common ground and bridging gaps across cultural divides.
Into the Night (1985)
Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer starred in this dark comedy action thriller, which also enlisted the help of comedian Dan Akroyd just before Spies Like Us and Dragnet were released. Into the Night follows Ed Orkin (Goldblum) as an insomniac with a cheating wife and a dull job who ends up on a wild journey with a mysterious woman named Diana (Pfeiffer) after she drops out of the sky onto the hood of his car. The adventure includes a memorable scene with Bowie, Carl Perkins and a particularly sharp weapon. Also making cameos were Muppets creator Jim Henson and the film’s director, John Landis.
Absolute Beginners (1986)
Director Julien Temple initially asked Bowie to supply music for the soundtrack to Absolute Beginners. After reading the script, however, Bowie asked to play the gender-bending character Vendice Partners instead. The musical is based on the book by Colin MacInnes, which is set in London in the late ’50s and concentrates on the youth culture that will eventually become the trend-influencing Mod movement. The title song, “Absolute Beginners,” served as Bowie’s final Top Five hit, reaching No. 2 in the U.K. The movie also featured the Kinks’ Ray Davies.
Jim Henson initially considered Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson for the role of Jareth the Goblin King in this musical fantasy, before deciding on Bowie. Labyrinth follows teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) through a surreal pursuit as she tries to rescue her baby brother from the clutches of the Goblin King. “It was like a wonderland for me, working on that film,” Connelly told ET in 2015. “And I loved Jim Henson. And David Bowie was so sweet to me.” Bowie wrote five songs for the soundtrack, including “As the World Falls Down” and “Magic Dance.”
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Bowie appeared in Martin Scorsese’s religious drama as Pontius Pilate, the high-ranking Roman official who the Gospels claim condemned Jesus to die on the cross. The Last Temptation of Christ caused a stir when it deviated from the Bible in retelling the story of Jesus (Willem Dafoe), focusing on the main character’s spiritual conflict as he wrestled with his divine nature. By the late ’80s, Bowie had become known for pushing the creative envelope. Unfortunately, his overall screen time in The Last Temptation of Christ accounted for less than four minutes in the 162-minute film.
The Linguini Incident (1991)
This American crime comedy starred Rosanna Arquette opposite Bowie as a fellow disgruntled New York City restaurant employee who set out to rob their mutual employer. The Linguini Incident wasn’t a commercial success or an award-winner. Still, Bowie was reportedly “quite happy” with the end result.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Bowie built a successful acting career through a series of brief but pivotal roles, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me served as more evidence. He appeared as FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries in the David Lynch-directed classic, delivering an iconic performance in just four minutes of onscreen work. In Bowie’s one scene, he and co-star Kyle MacLachlan imply disturbing ideas about mortality, self-control and the inability to escape from chaos.
It’s a tall task for any actor to take on the role of iconic pop artist Andy Warhol. But Bowie had admired Warhol’s work for much of his career, so the Basquiat character served as one just more eclectic role in a portfolio of exuberant characters. The movie also served as another mile-marker on Bowie’s well-documented journey of adventurous wigs.
Mr. Rice’s Secret (1999)
Bowie portrayed a mysterious 400-year-old man who helps a terminally ill teen find meaning in life, in another adventurous and challenging role. “I have quite a few years of my own to draw upon, though a year in Manhattan is good for fatigue resource,” Bowie quipped in 2002. “I don’t think you can ‘play’ 400. There are no precedents. A 400-year-old may well have the ability to project the characteristics of a 19-year-old. Who knows? I just settled for him to be relatively low-key.”
Bowie had no idea that this pivotal role in Ben Stiller‘s comedy classic was coming. “David Bowie, literally, we just came up with the idea of who would be funny to judge this ‘walk off.’ Bowie, with his song ‘Fashion,’ personified that,” Stiller later admitted. “We put it in the script and sent it to him, and he actually said yes. That was one of those out-of-the-blue things.” By the time Bowie appears in this action-comedy, tensions have peaked between rival models Derek Zoolander (Stiller) and Hansel McDonald (Owen Wilson) and they need a judge to settle the score. Enter a dapper-looking Bowie with “Let’s Dance” playing in the background, and the rest is slapstick gold. “If nobody has any objections, I believe I might be of service,” Bowie says, playing himself.
Arthur and the Invisibles (2007)
This animated flick based on the book by Luc Besson told the story of a young Arthur, who lives with his grandmother in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. To pass the time while his parents are away looking for work, Arthur reads his grandfather’s journals and becomes inspired by the details of his adventures around the globe. Bowie plays Emperor Maltazard, the father of Darkos, the emperor of Necropolis and the main antagonist. Arthur and the Invisibles was created in France for an English-speaking audience and included the voices of Madonna, Robert DeNiro, Chazz Palminteri and Harvey Keitel, in addition to Bowie.
The Prestige (2006)
Casting the small but vital role of Nikola Tesla was one of the most difficult aspects for director Christopher Nolan. Bowie actually turned him down the first time Nolan asked. The filmmaker said he “begged” Bowie to take the part, admitting that he had no idea how to move forward if the rocker didn’t accept. Bowie eventually relented and played the Serbian-born Tesla, a pioneer of electronic engineering who died in 1943.
Bowie didn’t even rehearse this part beforehand. “He showed up, knew his lines and was an absolute joy to work with,” director Austin Chick told the Reeler. August follows two brothers who are trying to keep their dot-com company afloat as the stock market begins to collapse in August 2001, right before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The siblings were portrayed by Josh Hartnett and Adam Scott, while Bowie played a supporting role. “He sees a bit of himself in Hartnett’s character and sees this as an opportunity to teach a young man a lesson — not destroy him forever,” Chick said. “But you can tell he sort of relishes it. I spent the whole day saying, ‘Oh my God; I’m directing David Bowie.'”
Bowie’s final movie role came in this PG-rated teen musical, which tells the story of a fledgling rock group looking for its big break in a local battle-of-the-bands competition. Bandslam delivered another cameo for Bowie, or at least a toned-down, Myspace-checking version of himself. As he sits in a coffee shop scrolling through his Top 8 in one of the last scenes, he comes across one of Vanessa Hudgens‘ pop-punk songs and becomes moved enough to email her: “I really like your band. You know, I’m starting an indie label.” It served as a happy ending for a teen musical that was never intended to be epic, while closing out Bowie’s career with another surprising role for underrated actor who was picky about his parts.
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