As London audiences are learning right now, Thomas Jerome Newton was a character with whom David Bowie remained fascinated, right through to the end of his life. And the person who first spotted the resonance between the alien and the reclusive, enigmatic rock star was Maggie Abbott, the agent who suggested to Man Who Fell To Earth director Nic Roeg that Bowie would be perfect for the role.
Maggie was one of the many people among my 220 interviewees who added a new, distinct angle to the history; it was always a constant surprise to me how the truth could often be more complex, or different, from the stories that have been repeated again and again. However, in Maggie’s case, due to space constraints I glossed over one new aspect: although it’s often said that Roeg decided to cast Bowie after seeing him in the Cracked Actor documentary, Bowie’s name came up before the interview was screened. And when Roeg watched the documentary, it was at a special screening, organised by Maggie before the broadcast. The movie industry, like the music industry, moved much faster in those days. I’m happy to clarify and add more meat to the story of the origins of David’s Thomas Jerome Newton here.
You had actually known David some time before a movie was even mentioned.
I knew David very well, although he wasn’t a friend like Mick Jagger was. One of the reasons I saw him so often was because Angie was always trying to get us together. I had the reputation of getting things done. Also before then… we came up with the idea of Spiderman, and I called Stan Lee, a darling man, Angie and I met with him, his wife is from Northumberland, so we all became fast friends.
So David was up for being Spiderman? Did you discuss that prospect with him?
David knew everything. We were having one of our many many dinners and talked about it. I would go around and natter, hang out, and have tea and toast.
In Starman, I mention you first in the wake of the Cracked Actor documentary, which showed what a good Newton David would make. But it’s important to add that you had the idea of casting him before then, before the documentary was actually screened, and were the first person to imagine David as Newton.
David getting that role did 100 per cent come from me. I don’t dwell on these things… but I do deserve and need to get the credit! I’ve read stories where Nic Roeg said he saw the documentary on TV, but that’s not true. I checked my 1975 diary; I met Nic and Si Litvinoff on January 20 , and the documentary wasn’t shown on TV until the 26th. I met them for lunch at the Connaught, they had phoned me at the office and were asking about Peter O’Toole. I had suggested Mick [Jagger], Nic said Mick is too strong – he knew him from Performance. He said we need somebody frail, there’s a scene where it looks like he has no bones, Candy has to pick him up. And I said, David Bowie. And they both looked at me and said, Who? I explained who he was, and said “there’s a documentary coming out and I’ll see if I can get hold of a copy.” I had the script by now, took it home, got to page 3 and thought, Oh my God, this is perfect. So I called Angie immediately.
It was you who actually got hold of a copy of Cracked Actor, and arranged a screening for Nic before it was broadcast.
It hadn’t been shown [yet] but I called someone working on the documentary at the BBC who arranged to sneak it out… I was good at getting on the phone, that’s what I did! I called an ad agency I knew, as it was on a large format video, and we watched this on the VCR. This was on Tuesday the 21st . I can’t pin down reactions to the rest of the documentary, but my memory zooms into the scene in the black hat. That’s when they said, Oh it’s him. Even his voice sounded… a little metallic. Robotish. He looked so isolated and alien. Imagine all three of us seeing it for the first time. It was brilliant. I felt very happy. I thought, I nailed it. I was very excited as it had all come out of the blue.
Then you went to see David, once you’d got them committed?
We arranged I would go to New York to see David. I flew on Feb 1 and I saw him that day, then again the next day. And what we arranged was, first I would get him as committed as possible then arranged for them to meet David. That all happened as planned. Then they had another meeting, just the three of them later where they’d do blow or whatever guys do when together. So that’s going on and we worked it out. I worked out a deal – not with Michael Lippman, with Si and Michael Deeley – they were already there as partners. They were in there but needed a studio. I didn’t deal with Michael Lippman, I argued with him, he was forcing his way in, as his manager or agent or whatever.
Tell me about when you saw David in New York. How did he seem?
He’d definitely deteriorated. He was just as friendly casual and familiar as he’d ever been, but he was incredibly thin and I made a joke… I wore these hats and he was wearing a one piece, I said I can hang my hat on these [hips]. And I remember that he just laughed. But the upside was he was very excited. He’d been running late, I sat there waiting, he’d done the tracks with John Lennon, he was very excited and played it to me four it six times… I told him all about the script, about Performance, he was very pleased to hear that information. He was committed. He really really needed it. Plus the fact… his contract, he was breaking up with Tony Defries, and within that week or two he’d found Tony had complete control over all his income and activity. Except movies.
In Starman, I explained how in the end Michael Lippman took over and tried to take control, sending you a Cease and Desist letter – but you still succeeded in getting your commission, 10 per cent of his $75,000 fee. But you thought the way I’d described your last meeting with David didn’t render what happened accurately.
It was a U2 wrap party at a little hotel in Sydney, in 1989. I was friends with Paul McGuinness. In comes David Bowie wearing his famous bright blue jacket. I just thought, I don’t want to deal with him. It wasn’t that I couldn’t face him. I simply thought, I don’t want to deal with this. There was a point when we passed each other at the buffet. I looked at him, he looked at me and I pretended I didn’t know him. And I think the same thing happened with him, there’s that Maggie Abbott I can’t deal with her. I wasn’t saving face – I made a decision not to deal with it
How do you feel, knowing that David Bowie remained fascinated with Thomas Newton, right to the end?
I think it’s a wonderful confirmation of my own taste and instincts! Because when I saw Thomas Newton running down those rocks at the beginning of the movie I completely identified David with Thomas Newton. I’m glad he did too. It wasn’t hard to get him to read the screenplay… I had it in my hand, read things to him, described about the man desperate to save his family. Then he read it. He probably stayed up overnight but the next day when I took them over he’d read it all.
I’m really thrilled he identified. Of course he did. That movie made his career. I watched him create these mythic characters. He was brilliant it it. Creating these unreachable characters.