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.
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.