How David Bowie’s role as the Elephant Man was almost his last

Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke. During the 1970s, David Bowie slipped in and out of artistic disguises every few years, reinventing himself with almost every new project. But in 1980, when he added the role of serious theater actor to his repertoire, it almost ended his performing career.

Bowie’s rise to the Broadway stage began in late 1979, when he met director Jack Hofsiss, who was recasting his production of the Bernard Pomerance play. The Elephant Man. Set in Victorian times, it’s the true story of John Merrick, a disfigured man who was cruelly put in a carnival show, then rescued and given a dignified life by a young surgeon.

Hofsiss had been impressed with Bowie’s cinematic work in The man who fell to earth, and felt that he would understand Merrick’s sense of otherness and alienation. “David’s perceptions of the role and his interest were all so good that we decided to investigate the possibility of doing it,” Hofsiss said.

“I didn’t think I qualified,” Bowie said. “Nor that I had a particularly masterful technique that would put me anywhere near a stage believable, but he had the audacity or the courage to put me in that position.”

But as Bowie resumed his musical activities through the early 1980s, writing and recording the album that became scary monstersthe theatrical project was put on hold.

“I wasn’t lucky enough to have cold feet because everything was forgotten,” Bowie said. “I didn’t hear anything more until two weeks before the rehearsal. Hofsiss said, ‘You’re in – be here in two weeks.’ I had to say yes or no within 24 hours. I think he knew that if I had had time to think about it, I would have given up. He was very clever psychologically in forcing me to deal with a problem like that.

In the short time he had to prepare, Bowie memorized his lines and then visited the Royal London Hospital Museum, where they had Merrick’s skeleton and some related artefacts – his cap, burlap veil and his letters. Bowie interviewed one of the museum’s archivists about how Merrick spoke and walked.

In mid-July, he flew to San Francisco to attend the last performance of Philip Anglim, the actor he replaced in the main role. And then the rehearsals started. In a way, it was a throwback to Bowie’s life in the late ’60s, when he was studying mime and voice, and hanging out with theatrical types.

The show kicked off out of town in Denver for a month, then played another three weeks in Chicago. Word advanced about Bowie’s performance was encouraging, with box office records broken at theaters in both cities.

The Elephant Man began its Broadway run at the Booth Theater on September 23, 1980. A star-studded opening night audience included Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Diana Vreeland and David Hockney. The reviews were glowing. The New York Times hailed Bowie’s performance as “splendid, ethereal and supernaturally wise”, while daily news said it was “sharp and haunting”.

Over the next three months, sold-out performances ran six nights a week, with two additional matinees on Wednesday and Sunday. When Bowie looked back at his Broadway-era toast, he was in disbelief that “someone as grasshopper as I am” would be willing to devote so much time to a scripted show.

David Bowie and Gilda Radner laugh at a party

David Bowie and actress/comedian Gilda Radner at the Elephant Man opening night (Image credit: Ron Galella/Getty Images)

But then came the tragedy. On Monday, December 8, a night when the Booth Theater was dark, Bowie’s friend and collaborator John Lennon was gunned down outside his Dakota apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Apparently the murderer, Mark David Chapman, had gone to see The Elephant Man two nights prior and then photographed Bowie at the stage door. He bragged to his girlfriend that he could have killed Lennon or Bowie. When the police searched Chapman’s hotel room, they found a broadcast of The Elephant Man with Bowie’s name circled in black ink, along with the Polaroid photo.

“I was second on his list,” Bowie said in 2010. “Chapman had a front-row ticket to The Elephant Man the following night. John and Yoko were also supposed to sit in the front row for this show. So, the night after John was killed, there were three empty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how hard it was to keep going. I almost didn’t survive the performance.

A distraught Bowie continued the run of the play for another three weeks.

Longtime Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, speaking of that time, told me, “It was just destroyed by the death of John. You have to understand that David was living in New York with his son. He had just arrived at a great moment in his life when he was coming back. He felt comfortable walking around the city. And then you find out that your friend, who also felt comfortable walking around, got shot and you were next.

On his departure from The Elephant Man on January 4, Bowie had planned an international tour behind scary monsters, as well as a satellite link to the cinemas for certain shows. But he gave it all up and disappeared into solitary confinement in Switzerland. It would take two and a half years before he came back on stage.

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