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Photograph © Ron Scherl

The Elephant Man

February 1980

During a break in recording Scary Monsters in New York, Bowie visited the Booth Theatre and watched a performance of The Elephant Man.

Bowie was contacted by director Jack Hofsiss who told him that Philip Anglim, currently in the lead role of John Merrick, would be leaving the production in July.

Bowie (1980): He asked if I would take over the role. I had never met him and I didn’t know he knew anything about me, but he had apparently seen a few of my concerts and felt I’d be able to undertake the role successfully. I said, “If you want to take the risk, I’d love to take the plunge.” [145][Hilburn, Robert. David Bowie: The View From The Top (Los Angeles Times, 9 September 1980)]

Jack Hofsiss (1980): I was familiar with his music, and I had seen him in concert. But the piece of work he did that was most helpful in making the decision was The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which I thought he was wonderful, and in which the character he played had an isolation similar to the Elephant Man's. His perceptions about the part and his interest were all so good that we decided to investigate the possibility of doing it. [182][Loder, Kurt. Scary Monster on Broadway (Rolling Stone 130, 13 November 1980)]

Bowie (1980): The whole thing happened so fast when they finally decided to take me as Merrick. I’d forgotten about the whole thing after Hofsiss had seen me. But I got a call within two weeks of having to go over and start rehearsal. So I couldn’t do very much. 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. Nothing much that you can get from that, just the general atmosphere. [336][David Bowie interview (Andy Peebles, BBC Radio 1, December 1980)]

He flew to San Francisco to watch Philip Anglim’s last performance as John Merrick, then joined the company for a month of rehearsals. The role was notoriously difficult as Merrick's physical disabilities had to be expressed by the actor. Rehearsals went well with Bowie drawing on his training in mime to convey Merrick's physicality.

Hofsiss allowed Bowie to ease into the part with a weeklong run in Denver.

July 9

The New York Times announced that Bowie would be making his American stage debut in the touring company of The Elephant Man, playing a week in Denver followed by a month in Chicago.

Photographs © Ron Scherl

July 29 – August 3

The Elephant Man

Denver Centre of Performing Arts, Denver
Director: Jack Hofsiss

Richmond Crinkley, Elizabeth McCann, Nelle Nugent's presentation of a drama in two acts by Bernard Pomerance

Staged by Jack Hofsiss
Setting: David Jenkins
Costumes: Julie Weis
Lighting: Beverly Emmons


The Elephant Man opened at the Denver Centre of Performing Arts for a weeklong run with Bowie in the role of John Merrick.

At the stage door exit, Denver • Photographs by Jerry Tyler

The play was a sellout from the start, in its first week grossing $186,466, making it the biggest box-office attraction in the entire 38-year history of the Denver Centre of Performing Arts.

Bowie's opening night in Denver was reported in Variety (August 6):

"The acting debut on the American stage of rock singer David Bowie was greeted by a standing ovation in Denver when the singer, noted for his flamboyant musical style, took on the role of physically misshapen John Merrick, the human monster with a liking for culture. Drawing on an early mime background and the resourceful staging of his rock shows, Bowie displays the ability to project a complex character.

Playing a man too ugly to draw a freak audience, and too human to survive within a distorted body, Bowie shows a mastery of movement and of vocal projection. Bowie takes the stage with authority to create a stirring performance. Vocally, he is both quick and sensitive. In scene after scene he builds poignantly, crying for the chance to become civilised, though he knows he will always be a freak; pleading for a home; though he knows his presence disturbs; and questioning the rules of society; though his well being depends on their acceptance. Judging from his sensitive projection of this part, Bowie has the chance to achieve legit stardom … "

Despite the good reviews and a standing ovation, Bowie had misgivings about this performance.

Bowie (1980): I was furious with myself on the first night that the thing that was preoccupying me during the performance was how people were adjusting or relating to my body movements and that I hadn’t been considering the character at all. It took a good week to shake that feeling off and become interested and involved onstage with Merrick. [189][MacKinnon, Angus. The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be (NME, 13 September 1980)]

August 6 – 30

The Elephant Man

Blackstone Theatre, Chicago
Director: Jack Hofsiss

The Chicago run comprised 31 performances in 25 days, starting with a Wednesday night preview.

Bowie was interviewed by Kurt Loder (Rolling Stone), Angus McKinnon (NME) and Gordon Burn (The Sunday Times), RCA had the Brits flown over and installed at the luxurious Whitehall Hotel for five days.

Chris Charlesworth, RCA Press Officer: I was informed in no uncertain terms by Bowie’s people that each journalist would be allotted just one hour in which to talk with him. McKinnon wasn’t happy and – unbeknownst to me – had brought along the Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn to take pictures exclusively for NME. This, said Bowie’s people, was out of the question.

I told McKinnon, “If you can engage David in an interesting, stimulating interview and along the way make it clear to him that you need to talk for more than an hour, he might just overrule his minders. But if you bore him you’ll only get an hour. Oh – and mention Anton to him yourself.”

So McKinnon did just that and David granted him not only extra time on the day of the interview but a further two hours the following day. And he agreed to pose for Corbijn, both in his Elephant Man costume backstage at the theatre and in a bar where McKinnon’s interview took place.

Bowie’s ‘people’ were furious with me but I couldn’t care less. Next week’s NME had a Corbijn picture of DB on the cover and five pages of McKinnon’s interview inside, and a month or two later DB in his Elephant Man loincloth graced the front page of the Sunday Times Magazine. The point of the story is that David knew better than his advisors how to achieve maximum coverage. [086][Charlesworth, Chris. Watch That Man (Mojo: Bowie, November 2003)]

Bowie in Chicago • photographs © Anton Corbijn

August 30

The Elephant Man closes in Chicago, having set a box office record of $172,000.


September 3

Good Morning America
interviewed live on ABC at 7.30am

GMA: An awful lot of performers talk about how difficult it is to deal with what the public sees them as, and do you think you're alike, do you have a problem with that because you've been so many different people?

Bowie: Not really because I don't circulate in places where there's much public…

GMA: You're a private person?

Bowie: It's not that as much as that I prefer travelling than sticking in cities where you're sort of immersed in the rock 'n' roll circus. So I end up in Africa or Germany or Japan.. Mombassa, Berlin and Kyoto are my main ports of call.

GMA: Opening night, do you get jitters, I mean, I'm wondering about the play, but even in your concerts, are you a little nervous before you go on?

Bowie: Yes. I don't like riding in on a concert in too relaxed a state.

GMA: You like to have the adrenalin flowing then?

Bowie: Yes, very much so.

GMA: How about Elephant Man, did you have many jitters opening night?

Bowie: Yes, I was petrified. I didn't know what was going to happen, but once I got on stage, the supporting cast were just truly wonderful.

September 13

Cover photo by Anton Corbijn

September 17

The Elephant Man press conference
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York

Bowie: “It’s the most terrifying position I’ve ever put myself in. There isn’t any room for spontaneity – very different from rock and roll.”

September 23 – January 4, 1981

The Elephant Man
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York


Opening night attendees included Christopher Isherwood, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Lee Radziwill, John Belushi, May Pang, Tom Hoving, Diana Vreeland and Oona Chaplin, who flew from Switzerland for the occasion.

With co-star Patricia Elliott on opening night Photos Ron Galella

Patricia Elliott (to the press): David's real dynamite. Heavens, and so good in the role. I missed David's rock music trip, though I have recently bought Scary Monsters and what an album. I thought, I'm in the show with a household name.

December 9

The day after John Lennon's murder, Bowie was horrified to hear that Mark Chapman had been to one of the performances at the Booth and had photographed him outside the theatre. Chapman had later bragged that he could have killed either of them; police searched his hotel room and found a Booth Theatre program with Bowie’s name circled in black.

Bowie (2010): I was second on his list. Chapman had a front-row ticket to The Elephant Man the next night. John and Yoko were supposed to sit front-row for that show, too. So the night after John was killed there were three empty seats in the front row. I can’t tell you how difficult that was to go on. I almost didn’t make it through the performance. [407][ – In The Studio With Redbeard (30 August 2010)]

Jack Hofsiss, director (1985): We asked David if he wanted to miss performances but he insisted not, because it was very important for all aspects of the experience to keep playing the role and to appear. It must have been very frightening for him. [019][Juby, Kerry. In Other Words: David Bowie (Omnibus Press, 1986)]

Both Lennon and Bowie had tried to assume normal lives and thought they had succeeded. Two weeks earlier, Lennon had told Andy Peebles: “I can go out this door right now and go in a restaurant. Do you want to know how great that is?”

Bowie scrapped plans for a Scary Monsters tour in spring 1981 and told the producers of The Elephant Man that he would leave the play at the end of his contract on January 4.



Bowie Golden Years v1.0 created and designed by Roger Griffin 2000
Bowie Golden Years v2.0 2017-2020

Photographs and texts have been credited wherever possible

this page updated February 20, 2022