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Film

Watch footage of David Bowie playing 'The Elephant Man'

The influence of David Bowie is simply inescapable. While he is mostly remembered for his pioneering contributions to music, Bowie also found other meaningful modes of artistic expression. An unforgettable cultural icon who has been immortalised in the memories of fans all over the world, Bowie’s legacy extends far beyond his achievements in the realm of music.

Over the course of a remarkable career, Bowie made waves in the world of cinema as well by collaborating with legendary filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima and Nicolas Roeg. Masterpieces such as Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Man Who Fell to Earth have become indispensable parts of Bowie’s trailblazing artistic trajectory.

In addition to his work on cinema, Bowie was also active in the domain of theatre. In fact, his acting career began before he even made his commercial breakthrough as a musician since he was involved with avant-garde theatre and he even played a role in Lindsay Kemp’s 1967 production Pierrot in Turquoise which was later made into a TV film.

One of his most memorable theatrical roles was his incredible run as Joseph Merrick in a production of The Elephant Man. While David Lynch’s famous film version became an iconic work because of the grotesque physical appearance of John Hurt who played the same role, Bowie did not use any stage make-up while undertaking the challenge.

Between his acting work in Just a Gigolo and Christine F., Bowie played the role 157 times between 1980 and ’81. For his wonderful performance as Merrick, Bowie earned critical acclaim from critics as well as audience members who were equally moved by his ability to deliver an expressive interpretation of the Merrick’s internal conflicts.

“He asked me if I’d think about taking the role at the end of the year,” David Bowie recalled in an interview while talking about how he was completely surprised when the part had been offered to him. He added: “I was blown away! I’d never been asked to do anything so – supposedly – legitimate. And I said I’d love to do it.”

An adaptation of the play by Bernard Pomerance, the production that Bowie was involved with was directed by Jack Hofsiss and produced by Richmond Crinkley and Nelle Nugent. Many still consider Bowie’s starring turn in The Elephant Man to be his breakthrough role since he masterfully used voice modulations and physical contortions.

In order to research the role, he even went to the museum at the London Hospital. Bowie revealed: “[We] found the plaster casts of the bits of Merrick’s body that were interesting to the medical profession and the little church that he’d made, and his cap and his cloak. Nothing much that you can get from that, just the general atmosphere. We didn’t know if I was going to get to New York, but for me, it was the idea of doing a straight play that had the greater appeal.”

Watch David Bowie’s fantastic performance in The Elephant Man below.