Nicolas Roeg, Director of David Bowie's 'The Man Who Fell to Earth,' Dies at 90

Courtesy of Photofest
Nicolas Roeg

The London native, who started out as a cinematographer, also guided Mick Jagger in 'Performance' and helmed 'Walkabout,' 'Don't Look Now' and 'Bad Timing.'

Nicolas Roeg, the British cinematographer turned director who employed his visual flair on such films as David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and the horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now, has died. He was 90. 

Roeg, who also called the shots for two other rock stars, Mick Jagger in Performance (1970) and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing/A Sensual Obsession (1980), died Friday night, his son, Nicolas Roeg Jr., told the BBC.

Roeg, known for the lighting composition, color imagery, manipulation of time and erotic sensibility in his films, spent two decades as a camera operator and cinematographer before graduating to director.

He was David Lean’s second-unit director/cameraman on Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago (but was fired from the latter) and served as the DP for Francois Truffaut (on Fahrenheit 451), Richard Lester (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and John Schlesinger (Far From the Madding Crowd).

Fiercely independent, Roeg worked his actors hard and prided himself on not being subservient to anyone. When the head of the U.K.’s Rank Organisation called Bad Timing “a sick film made by sick people for sick people,” the director refused to have his movie shown on the Rank circuit.

Roeg married actress Theresa Russell in 1982, and she starred as a Czech intelligence officer who has a tragic affair in Vienna with Garfunkel, as an American psychiatrist, in the X-rated Bad Timing. He also directed her in Eureka (1983), the Marilyn Monroe film Insignificance (1985), Track 29 (1988) and Cold Heaven (1991) before they divorced.

For The Man Who Fell to Earth, Roeg gave Bowie his first big shot at the movies, with the rock star portraying the humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton, who crash-lands in New Mexico and becomes a businessman hooked on alcohol, sex and television.

Roeg “has chosen the garish, translucent, androgynous-mannered rock star, David Bowie, for his space visitor,” Richard Eder wrote in his New York Times review. “The choice is inspired.”

“David’s performance was something quite unique,” Roeg said in a 2013 interview. “He never came on like a rock star — he used his part to explore ideas of rock idolatry and celebrity. David was very clever and creative in that way.”

A still from the stylish film, with Bowie in orange hair, was used as the cover of his ethereal 1977 album, Low.

For the Venice-set psychological thriller Don’t Look Now (1973), which starred Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as grief-stricken parents, Roeg used color correlatives in its story palette. The film, based on a Daphne du Maurier short story, also featured the actors in a torrid love scene.

Critic Roger Ebert admired the way Roeg played with chronology in this film as well as in the crime- and sex-laden Performance and Walkabout (1971), the story of a sister (Jenny Agutter) and brother (played by Roeg’s son, Luc Roeg) who get lost in the Australian outback.

“He doesn’t always enter his stories at the beginning and leave at the end,” Ebert wrote, “but rummages around in them, as if separated moments can shed light on one another.”

Roeg made Walkabout from a script by Edward Bond that was just 14 handwritten pages.

Nicolas Jack Roeg was born in London on Aug. 15, 1928. He served in the Army, began his movie career by working in the cutting rooms of MGM British Studios and was on cinematographer Freddie Young’s crew for Ivanhoe (1952) and Bhowani Junction (1956).

He made his feature debut as a cinematographer in 1960 with Jazz Boat, which starred Anthony Newley, and shot such films as The Guest (1963), Dr. Crippen (1963), Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Nothing but the Best (1964), for which he earned acclaim for his use of color.

In 1966, Roeg directed the second unit for the Israel-set Judith, starring Sophia Loren and Peter Finch.

Roeg’s first helming credit came with Performance (1970), for which he was credited as co-director with Donald Cammell. Warner Bros. execs hated his version, threatened to sue for not getting what they were promised and delayed the release of the film for two years.

More recently, Roeg directed the 1989 NBC telefilm Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Elizabeth Taylor; a 1993 episode of ABC’s The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles; and the films Two Deaths (1995) and Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball (2007).

Before he wed Russell, Noeg was married to English actress Susan Stephen for 20 years. Survivors include his third wife, Harriet, and his six children.

In a 2005 interview, the determined Roeg recalled a “furious row” he once had with a studio executive.

"He said, 'They won’t get it, Nic,' and I said, 'No, they'll get it; it’s you who’s not getting it, because you’re trying to force something that’s different into being the same,'" Roeg said. "People usually arrive to see something with an open mind. I want to make them feel something emotionally, but not by planning how to get them there."