“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Showtime’s new series starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomi Harris, is based on the 1976 movie starring David Bowie and Candy Clark — which made a splash with its onscreen nudity and trippy take on a humanoid who arrives on Earth in a bid to save his planet from extinction.
“It’s kind of about what’s happening today in its depiction of a planet that’s dying from a drought,” Clark, 74, told The Post about director Nicolas Roeg’s film, which was based on Walter Nevis’ 1963 sci-fi novel. “It’s definitely the highlight of my acting career.”
“The Man Who Fell to Earth” began shooting in New Mexico in July 1975. Clark was coming off her Oscar-nominated role (as Debbie Dunham) in “American Graffiti”; Bowie, 28, was an iconic rock star (“Space Oddity,” and Ziggy Stardust) and starring in his first big-screen role — a la Mick Jagger in the 1970 movie “Performance,” also directed by Roeg.
Bowie played Thomas Newton, who lands on Earth with a plan to earn enough money with his brilliant patents to return to his planet and save his wife and children from certain death. He encounters waitress Mary-Lou (Clark), who is unaware of his origins (he says he’s from England; Bowie uses his real British accent) or how he appears under his human exterior. They fall in love before everything unravels over the ensuing decades (it’s complicated). Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Bernie Casey co-star.
(Clark also plays Newton’s wife in the ethereal, silent scenes depicting his parched home planet.)
“I was familiar with his music but hadn’t ever seen him in concert and I’m glad I never did because I would have been too awestruck during our scenes,” Clark said of Bowie. “He was basically just another actor in front of me, but after we shot the film and it was coming out I saw him [in concert] as [his stage persona] The Thin White Duke and I turned into one of those gaga fans. I didn’t know how to talk to him anymore.”
Roeg used an all-British crew to shoot the movie — “which was very unusual,” Clark said — and she and Bowie spent two months together during filming. “What I really liked and found really challenging was the time span in the film and all the makeup and appliances we had to wear,” she said. “The only one who never got old was David … he stayed forever young and it was really nice because I’m a fan … just to see him at the height of his beauty, unchanged with no appliances except when he was [his extraterrestrial self].”
She said that Bowie did not seem flustered despite “The Man Who Fell to Earth” being his first headlining movie role.
“If he was ever nervous he didn’t express that,” Clark said. “He was very willing to run lines and we had a million lines. He was very willing to rehearse and I attribute that to his training and touring and doing the same songs over and over so it was no big deal for him to run the dialogue. We’d be working on [rehearsing] one scene while shooting another scene, and back then it took a long time to set up the lights so we had a lot of downtime. So we’d be sitting on the floor running the next scene over and over again and he was really good about doing that, which was a huge help for me.”
While Bowie said later that he was “totally insecure with about 10 grams [of cocaine] a day in me” during the shoot, Clark disputes that notion.
“He was just playing with his myth,” she said. “He promised Nick Roeg that he wouldn’t do any drugs. There was never a noticeable ‘I gotta go to the bathroom’ or hiding behind the furniture type of thing — nothing. And he was very focused.”
Clark and Bowie had to be in close physical contact, due to the nature of the storyline. “It was the ’70s and that was cutting edge,” she said of their nude scenes. “Now, it’s a dime a dozen. I was never ‘in the moment’ doing those scenes and David wasn’t, either. It was very awkward. Those [scenes] are never easy to do. Even though they ‘close the set’ you’ve still got the cinematographer and the director there and a few other people but that’s a few too many — it’s like ‘eeww.’ You try being naked while they film you. Some people are exhibitionists but I’m not one of them. I very much cared, but it was the ’70s and that was kind of mandatory at the time if you wanted an acting job.”
Clark said she and Bowie once ran into each other on the streets of New York years later and “had coffee together,” but there’s one memorable interaction she remembers in vivid detail.
“After we shot the film it was Christmas and I was living in my little apartment on Vista Street [in LA] … and there was a knock at the door,” she said. “I don’t know how he found my address but it was David Bowie, and there, behind him, was the [blue] limousine from the movie [in which Thomas Newtown was driven around].
“He gave me this little rhinestone pin for Christmas and he didn’t stick around; he kind of stayed at the door and then left.
“It was like, ‘Wow!’”