When David Bowie Starred in The Elephant Man on Broadway (1980)

Joseph Mer­rick, one of the most severe­ly deformed indi­vid­u­als record­ed in med­ical his­to­ry, would hard­ly seem like the role David Bowie was born to play. The lat­ter looked and act­ed as if des­tined for nine­teen-sev­en­ties rock star­dom; the for­mer so hor­ri­fied his fel­low Vic­to­ri­ans that he was exhib­it­ed under the name “The Ele­phant Man.” But what­ev­er their out­ward dif­fer­ences, these Eng­lish­men did both know fame, a con­di­tion Bowie rued along­side John Lennon in 1975. Yet in the fol­low­ing years he con­tin­ued to expand his pub­lic pro­file, not least by turn­ing to act­ing, and even came off as a viable movie star in Nico­las Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth — not that play­ing a frag­ile but mag­net­ic vis­i­tor from anoth­er world would have been much of a stretch.

In fact, it was The Man Who Fell to Earth that con­vinced the­ater direc­tor Jack Hof­siss to offer Bowie the lead in The Ele­phant Man, Bernard Pomer­ance’s play about the life of Joseph Mer­rick (referred to, in the script, as John Mer­rick). Hof­siss sus­pect­ed that Bowie “would under­stand Mer­rick­’s sense of oth­er­ness and alien­ation,” writes Loud­er’s Bill DeMain; he may or may not have known that Bowie’s expe­ri­ence study­ing mime, of which he made plen­ty of use in his con­certs, would place him well to evoke the char­ac­ter’s mis­shapen body.

The Ele­phant Man explic­it­ly calls for no pros­thet­ic make­up; begin­ning with David Schofield, who starred in its first pro­duc­tions, all the actors play­ing Joseph Mer­rick have had to embody him with their act­ing skills alone.

You can see how Bowie did it in clips above. “I got a call with­in two weeks of hav­ing to go over and start rehearsal,” his web site quotes him as say­ing. “So I went to the Lon­don Hos­pi­tal and went to the muse­um there. 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.” These arti­facts gave him enough suf­fi­cient sense of “the gen­er­al atmos­phere” of Mer­rick­’s life and times to make the role his own by the time of his first per­for­mances in Den­ver and Chica­go in the sum­mer of 1980. “Advance word on Bowie’s per­for­mance was encour­ag­ing, with box office records bro­ken at the the­aters in both cities,” writes DeMain; The Ele­phant Man soon made it to Broad­way, open­ing at the Booth The­atre in the fall.

It was there, in Decem­ber of 1980, that Mark David Chap­man saw Bowie play Mer­rick, just two nights before he assas­si­nat­ed Lennon — and he also had anoth­er tick­et, in the front row, for the very next night’s show. “John and Yoko were sup­posed to sit front-row for that show too,” said Bowie, “so the night after John was killed there were three emp­ty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how dif­fi­cult it was to go on. I almost did­n’t make it through the per­for­mance.” Hav­ing been num­ber two on Chap­man’s hit list sure­ly did its part to inspire Bowie’s deci­sion to recuse him­self from live per­for­mance — to stop dis­play­ing him­self for a liv­ing, as the char­ac­ter of Joseph Mer­rick would have put it — for the next few years. But it was only the ear­ly eight­ies, and Bowie could hard­ly have known that his real heights of fame, for bet­ter or worse, were yet to come.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch David Bowie Star in His First Film Role, a Short Hor­ror Flick Called The Image (1967)

David Bowie’s Mys­ti­cal Appear­ances in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks

The Thin White Duke: A Close Study of David Bowie’s Dark­est Char­ac­ter

How Nico­las Roeg (RIP) Used David Bowie, Mick Jag­ger & Art Gar­funkel in His Mind-Bend­ing Films

David Bowie Per­forms “Life on Mars?” and “Ash­es to Ash­es” on John­ny Carson’s “Tonight Show” (1980)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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Comments (4)
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  • Bob D says:

    It says ” Mark David Chap­man saw Bowie play Mer­rick, just two nights before he assas­si­nat­ed Lennon — and he also had anoth­er tick­et, in the front row, for the very next night’s show. John and Yoko were sup­posed to sit front-row for that show too,” said Bowie, “so the night after John was killed there were three emp­ty seats in the front row. “

    Why did­nt John and Yoko make it ? Lennon was alive for anoth­er day if Chap­man had a tick­et for 2 nights in a row . The emp­ty seats were there 3 days after Chap­man saw the show if Bowies state­ment is cor­rect . And why would a man with the mon­ey and con­nec­tions John Lennon had have the worst seats in the house instead of what are known as ” Pro­duc­ers seats ” 7th row cen­ter ? How did Chap­man ran­dom­ly get a tick­et next to John and Yoko , and in fact end up with front row tick­ets 2 nights in a row for a sold out run when he did­nt even know hed be in New York at the time tick­ets went on sale ? Is it pos­si­ble for us to see the orig­i­nal source for these ” facts ” ?

  • Jeannette B says:

    I had enjoyed Bowie’s music for years, but once I saw his per­for­mance in “The Ele­phant Man”, I became a tremen­dous fan. It became appar­ent­ly clear to me how diverse his tal­ents were.

  • Dannies says:

    We may nev­er know many things, but I won’t quit ask­ing ques­tions.

  • Dannies says:

    Seems to me that tal­ent = pas­sion.

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