One of the great chameleons of contemporary pop music, David Bowie long displayed a gift for remaking his image to suit his creative needs, which, when coupled with an approach that carried far more intellectual and creative weight than that of the average rock star, made him a better candidate than most musicians to become a solid screen actor. While David Bowie never graduated into a full-fledged movie star, over the years he established himself as a gifted (if idiosyncratic) thespian with a taste for offbeat projects.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones in the multi-cultural working-class city of Brixton, England on January 8, 1947. Jones developed an interest in creative matters early on, and picked up the saxophone at age 13. At 16, Jones left school and began a career as a commercial artist, while singing and playing sax with rock bands in his spare time. By 1966, Jones had recorded singles with three different combos, none of which fared well commercially, when he decided to set out on his own as a solo act; he also took on the stage name David Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones, who had just become an international star with the pre-fab pop group the Monkees. After recording an unsuccessful solo album, Bowie dropped out of the music business for a spell and began to study mime with Lindsay Kemp; in 1969, Bowie even formed his own mime troupe, Feathers, as well as an experimental art ensemble, the Beckenham Arts Lab. Neither was a sure moneymaker by any stretch of the imagination, so Bowie signed a deal to record another album, which included an offbeat number called "Space Odyssey." Around the same time, Bowie made his screen-acting debut with a very small part in the film The Virgin Soldiers; that same year, he also appeared in an obscure experimental film called The Image, as well a promotional reel called David Bowie: Love You Till Tuesday, which remained unseen until the early 1970s; the film includes footage of Bowie playing his music and performing with the Feathers group.
Bowie's next album, 1970's The Man Who Sold the World, represented a move toward a harder rock sound, and in 1972, he'd score his breakthrough with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, a concept album about a gender-bending rock star from outer space. Released as the glam rock scene was beginning to peak, Ziggy Stardust made Bowie a full-fledged superstar in both England and the United States, and D.A. Pennebaker shot a celebrated documentary about the final date of the group's 1973 tour. In 1976, with Bowie confirmed as a major international pop star, director Nicolas Roeg cast Bowie in his first leading role as an unhappy alien who becomes a famous industrialist and pop star as he tries to find a way home in The Man Who Fell to Earth; while the film was a few shades too arty and offbeat to become a box-office blockbuster, the story seemed made-to-order for Bowie's public persona, and he gave a fine performance which helped the film become a modest box-office success. Bowie's busy touring and recording schedule, however, kept him from taking another major film role until 1979, when he played Paul in Just a Gigolo, an ambitious but unsuccessful film best remembered for featuring Marlene Dietrich's final screen performance. For the next few years, Bowie's screen work was for the most part limited to contributing music to films, most notably Cat People, for which he provided the theme song, and Christane F., in which Bowie briefly appeared as himself in a concert sequence.
In 1983, Bowie's album Let's Dance brought him to new heights of commercial success, and his next major film, Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence found him receiving top billing for what was essentially a supporting role. Despite Bowie's busy touring schedule, he continued pursuing film work, playing a key role in the offbeat vampire film The Hunger and lending a cameo to the comedy Yellowbeard, while also providing music for Hero, The Falcon and the Snowman, and Boy Meets Girl. In 1986, Bowie scored one of his rare leading roles in a mainstream film when he starred in the big-budget fantasy Labyrinth, which found George Lucas collaborating with Jim Henson; Bowie also played a small but highly distinctive role in the British pop-culture musical Absolute Beginners that same year, as well as penning and performing the title tune. Two years later, Bowie landed perhaps his most unusual role, playing Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese's controversial adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ.
In the 1990s, while Bowie remained an international star in music circles, his following began to scale itself back, and as he spent less time on the road, he began devoting more time to his acting, playing mostly supporting roles in idiosyncratic projects such as The Linguini Incident, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Basquiat, the latter of which found him playing pop art icon Andy Warhol. Bowie also continued to provide music for films, most notably the British satire The Buddha of Suburbia.
He turned in a very amusing cameo as himself judging the "walk-off" between Hansel and Zoolander, and his music was used rather distinctly by Wes Anderson in The Life Aquatic. Bowie tackled his largest acting role in quite some time in 2006 when he was cast in Christopher Nolan's film about magicians, The Prestige. He lent his voice to an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, appeared in various music documentaries and concert films, and appeared as himself in the teen comedy Bandslam in 2009. Bowie released a new album, Blackstar, on his 69th birthday in January 2016; he succumbed to cancer only two days later.