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How David Bowie beat Lou Reed for the role in Martin Scorsese film 'The Last Temptation of Christ'


While the closest of friends for a relentlessly long time, David Bowie and Lou Reed had their fair share of competitive tension. During the seventies, as well as flourishing as Ziggy Stardust and turning the rock and roll stage on its head, Bowie was also finding time to save the careers of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Mott The Hoople with his impeccable work at the mixing desk. Bowie was clearly a source of inspiration for the trio of acts but, with the sincerity came with a large dose of creative rivalry. 

There’s no doubting that Bowie was heavily influenced by Lou Reed and his work with The Velvet Underground and, while both would go on to create music in their own lanes, quite often their creative desires would crossover. While the two remained best of friends for decades, Bowie and Reed indeed went through some exceptionally tricky moments in their relationship, most notably when The Velvet Underground man attempted to punch the Thin White Duke square in the nose after tensions became fraught over dinner.

Although the moment of fisticuffs would prove to be the most dangerous of physical encounters between the two, they did rub shoulders in a creative race in many other situations; most notably when the pair of rockers competed against one another for the attention of direction Martin Scorsese. The Raging Bull director once revealed that Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed auditioned for a role in his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ but was edged out by David Bowie.

The film, which was written by Paul Schrader, is an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial 1955 novel and stars the likes of Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton and, of course, David Bowie. 

Shot entirely in Morocco, the film depicts the life of Jesus Christ and his struggle with various forms of temptation. The project, given a big budget for Scorsese to work with, suffered numerous setbacks in pre-production with a series of casting reworks due to repeated breakdowns in negotiations. While Dafoe’s performance as Christ garnered positive reviews, he only landed the role after Aidan Quinn passed on the job. Likewise, with the role of Pontius Pilate, musician Sting had initially been lined up before he decided not to be involved which resulted in Bowie stepping in.

If the upheaval wasn’t tricky enough for the production team, Scorsese was tasked with the tricky predicament of picking between two close friends in his casting decision as Lou Reed and Bowie auditioned for the same part. “Lou and I got to know each other over the years,” the director revealed in a new article for The Guardian. “I was so touched when he wrote a song about me and Sam Shepard on his 1984 album New Sensations – actually, it was about our work and how much it meant to him.

“In 1987, he auditioned for the role of Pontius Pilate in my film The Last Temptation of Christ, but his old friend David Bowie ended up playing the part,” Scorsese added.

The filmmaker would go on to explain that while his and Reed’s paths would cross numerous times in the years that followed, they were unable to turn their friendship into a working relationship: “In the 90s, we tried to get a film made based on Dirty Boulevard from Lou’s album New York, from a script by Reinaldo Povod, who had written a play called Cuba and His Teddy Bear with Bob De Niro and who later passed away at a very young age. We were never able to get that picture into production.”

While Bowie was well and truly immersed within the world of cinema prior to the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, the role would light more ambition from the Starman who would continue to work in the big screen for years afterwards. Lou Reed, meanwhile, opted against the art form and returned to the studio.