When actress Candy Clark talks about co-starring with David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi masterpiece “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” the 40 years that have passed since the film’s New Mexico production melt away and the vibrancy of the experience is alive with details and insights.
“Nic’s (Roeg) original idea for the role of the alien, Thomas Jerome Newton was the author Michael Crichton, because he was tall and a little bit unworldly. But my recollection is that film producers Arlene Sellers and Alex Winitsky were talking to Nic and I about the casting and I believe it was Alex who said, “Have you thought about David Bowie?”
That was quickly followed-up, says Clark, who had previously co-starred in John Huston’s “Fat City” with Jeff Bridges and the hit George Lucas ‘50s homage, “American Graffiti,” with a real-live Bowie encounter.
“We were fortunate in that Bowie was staying in L.A. at the time, so Nic and I went over to his place on Doheny. I remember Nic brought a bottle of wine. It was a nice meeting and the next thing I knew, I was starring in a movie with David Bowie.”
Clark knew of Bowie’s musical achievements, but she says today that having not seen him perform was essential to their working relationship. “I went to one of his concerts after we finished the film and thank God I didn’t see him before the movie. I would have been in awe, a complete groupie!”
Once the film went into production, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and shooting in and around Santa Fe, the experience of working with Bowie only got better. According to Clark that was due in no small measure to Bowie’s approach to the challenge of his first starring role in a film, as well as his uncanny appropriateness for conveying the character of an alien stranded on earth.
“David wasn’t a person who ever expressed what he was feeling,” recalls Clark. “He never revealed anything he was feeling, such as ‘I’m so nervous,’ so you never knew what was going on inside him. Plus, he only spent time with what I would call ‘his entourage.’ So outside of acting together, we never had dinner or spent any non-working time together. He was very removed and quiet and of course this was perfect for me, because my character, Mary-Lou, (his lover) never knew what was going on inside Thomas Newton.”
While other cast members such as Bernie Casey, Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Clark all had signficant experience in films, Clark says Bowie the novice actor already had the habits and instincts that made working with him “a joy.”
“David loved to run dialogue, which,” explains Clark, “was a key component of how I needed to work. We’d run it backwards and forwards. He wanted to get it perfect. We’d wrap a scene and instead of going off to rest, we’d start running dialogue on the next scene that was coming up while the crew was setting up the shot. And the dialogue in this film was so good, none of us wanted to improvise a word.”
In Clark’s view, this made total sense, even though Bowie did not have the acting experience, but it was “because he was a musician. Musician go through the songs over and over. They rehearse and they play a set and they go back either the same night or the next town and they go through it again. It was second nature to David and it made working with him a joy.”
In addition to the on-set chemistry and working habits, Clark notes that Bowie was determined to make this film experience successful, even though he was just coming out of a life-threatening drug problem that was documented vividly in Alan Yentob’s British documentary, “Cracked Actor.”
“David vowed to Nic, ‘No drug use,’’ says Clark and he was a man of his word, “clear as a bell, focused, friendly and professional and leading the team.” She also notes that Roeg brought “an entirely British crew with him to New Mexico and I remember David was very happy about that.”
Clark says that if anyone doubts her recollection of Bowie’s dedication to showing up healthy and ready to shoot, there’s an easy way to confirm her version, noting “You can see it clearly because of (DP) Tony Richmond’s brilliant cinematography. Look at David: his skin is luminescent. He’s gorgeous, angelic, heavenly. He was absolutely perfect as the man from another planet.”
But for all of the “joy” of shooting, the aftermath of the film’s production was a terminally troubled release.
“Cinema 5 (the film’s distributor) took pride in never cutting a director’s work,” says Clark, “but (Cinema 5 chief) Don Rugoff cut this film to smithereens. Nic took an entire year editing the picture and I got into a preview screening and had to call Nic and tell him, ‘They’ve chopped our film to bits. They’ve destroyed it.’ So it was a complete, shocking surprise and of course the film made no sense, so they couldn’t sell the product at all when it was first released.”
Thankfully for Bowie fans and movie fans, there is a happy ending because of Candy Clark and what has become known as “director’s cut.”
“In the ‘90s,” recalls Clark, “I found out who owned the film rights and I called them and said, ‘You know I think you’re missing the boat here. I keep getting a lot of questions about this film and I’ll make you a deal. I’ll do all the publicity you need, just use the old poster for the film and let’s put this out as a director’s cut.’ But they told me the negative was chopped to bits and it was impossible. That’s when I said, ‘I know where the original negative is in England.” Cut to the 1992 Criterion laserdisc release, replete with audio commentary, a version and package that is now lovingly restored on the Criterion BluRay release.
As pleased as Clark is that the work of David Bowie, Nic Roeg, Clark and all of “Earth’s” creative team survived the catastrophe of the original release, she sounds like the film was shot last week when she regales the listener with a couple of little known facts from the film.
“Do you know the scene where I play David Bowie playing Thomas Jerome Newton?” she asks mischievously. “Here’s something special to me,” she adds. “Do you remember the scene where Thomas Newton is back on his home planet with his wife and children? That’s me. I got to be something Mary-Lou never got to be: I was Thomas Newton’s wife.”