Perhaps Bowie's most famous incarnation came with the release of his fifth album "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" in 1972. He performed as Ziggy Stardust, a flame-haired, androgynous alien rock-star intent on bringing a message of hope to young people on Earth.
When Bowie and his band played the album's hit single, "Starman," on the British music show "Top of the Pops" in 1972, Bowie draped his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson. Bowie had recently told British music magazine Melody Maker he was gay, and in a later interview said that he was bisexual.
The gesture towards his male guitarist was seen by many at the time as overly effeminate, but later heralded as a important moment in a country grappling with changing attitudes on sexuality.
See photos of David Bowie from throughout his life:
David Bowie through the years
David Bowie's best-loved characters: Ziggy Stardust to Goblin King
FILE i In this Sept. 17, 1980, file photo, David Bowie listens during a news conference after a rehearsal at the Booth Theater in New York. Bowie was appearing in the Broadway production of "The Elephant Man." Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades, died Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, after battling cancer for 18 months. He was 69. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, FIle)
February 1970: Pop singer David Bowie at the 'Disc and Music Echo' Valentine Awards ceremony at the Cafe Royal in London. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
9th July 1973: Pop singer David Bowie prepares to do some mileage with British Rail. (Photo by Smith/Express/Getty Images)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 07: NEWCASTLE CITY HALL Photo of David BOWIE, performing live onstage on Ziggy Stardust tour (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns)
FILE - This is an Oct. 1972 file photo of British singer David Bowie. Bowie, the other-worldly musician who broke pop and rock boundaries with his creative musicianship, nonconformity, striking visuals and a genre-bending persona he christened Ziggy Stardust, died of cancer Sunday Jan. 10, 2016. He was 69 and had just released a new album. (AP Photo/ File)
FILE - This is a Dec. 1, 1972 file photo of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period pictured in Philadelphia. Bowie, the other-worldly musician who broke pop and rock boundaries with his creative musicianship, nonconformity, striking visuals and a genre-bending persona he christened Ziggy Stardust, died of cancer Sunday Jan. 10, 2016. He was 69 and had just released a new album. (AP Photo, Brian Horton, File)
LOS ANGELES - 1973: Musician David Bowie performs onstage during his 'Ziggy Stardust' era in 1973 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
3rd July 1973: David Bowie on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in London at the last of the Ziggy Stardust concerts. (Photo by Steve Wood/Express/Getty Images)
LONDON - MAY 12: David Bowie performs live on stage at Earls Court Arena on May 12 1973 during the Ziggy Stardust tour (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
British rock singer David Bowie performs with an acoustic guitar on stage, in costume as 'Ziggy Stardust,' circa 1973. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
David Bowie (wearing an eyepatch) appears at a press conference at the Amstel Hotel on 7th February 1974 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
HILVERSUM, NETHERLANDS - FEBRUARY 13: David Bowie, with eye patch, performs ÂRebel RebelÂ in the Top Pop Studios, Hilversum, Netherlands on February 13 1974. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
1976: David Bowie poses for a portrait in 1976. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: David Bowie wears sunglasses on in 1974 in London, England. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)
British rock singer David Bowie is photographed at a news conference to announce the signing of a multi-million dollar contract with EMI-America in Manhattan, New York City, on Jan. 27, 1983. (AP Photo)
Rock superstar David Bowie, making his first musical performance in America in half a decade, performs on stage at the U.S. Festival on May 31, 1983 at Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore, Calif. Bowie performed on closing night at the festival. (AP Photo/stf/Lennox McLendon)
A portrait taken on May 13, 1983 shows British singer David Bowie during a press conference at the 36th Cannes Film Festival. He is the main actor in Nagisa Oshima's film 'Furyo (Merry christmas Mr. Lawrence)', official selection in Cannes. He is also with French actress Catherine Deneuve maina ctor in Tony Scott's film 'The hunger' presented out competition at the festival. AFP PHOTO RALPH GATTI (Photo credit should read RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images)
Paul McCartney, center, and his wife Linda McCartney, applaud David Bowie, left, and Bob Geldof, right, at the end of the London part of the Live Aid famine relief concert at Wembley Stadium, Saturday, July 13, 1985. At far left is Pete Townsend of The Who. The concert continued being broadcast around the world on TV from Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joe Schaber))
Actors David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in a scene from the movie 'Labyrinth', 1986. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Rock stars David Bowie, left, and Peter Frampton are seen at a news conference in New York where Bowie announced his North American tour, March 18, 1987. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Musician David Bowie performs in concert circa 1987 in New York City. (Photo by L. Busacca/WireImage)
Rocker David Bowie, right, points to the hamburger that he wants for lunch during a barbecue for his crew at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, July 27, 1987. Bowie will kickoff the U.S. portion of his "Glass Spider" tour in Philadelphia this Thursday and Friday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Singer David Bowie performs before an estimated 61,000 fans Sept. 3, 1987 at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. (AP Photo/stf-Elise Amendola)
David Bowie, vocal, performs at the Ahoy hal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on 30th March 1990. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)
LONDON - 23rd JANUARY: David Bowie appears at a press conference to promote his Sound + Vision tour at the Rainbow Theatre in London on 23rd January 1990. (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)
Musician David Bowie and model Iman attend Seventh on Sale AIDS Benefit on November 29, 1990 at the Armory in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
UNITED KINGDOM - CIRCA 1991: David Bowie Concert And Party, Astoria Theatre, Club Top, Davidbowieretro (Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Annie Lennox and David Bowie perform 'Under Pressure' (Photo by Kevin Mazur Archive/WireImage)
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 7 -- Aired 11/23/1991 -- Pictured: Musical guest David Bowie performs -- Photo by: Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 221 -- Pictured: (l-r) Musical guest David Bowie during an interview with host Jay Leno on May 10, 1993-- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
David Bowie (Photo by Ke.Mazur/WireImage)
FILE - In this Sept. 14, 1995, file photo, David Bowie performs in Hartford, Conn. Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades, died Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, after battling cancer for 18 months. He was 69. (AP Photo/Bob Child, File)
Singers David Bowie (L) and Eric Clapton pose for photographers during the 1995 Q Music Awards in London 07 November. Clapton was decorated with the order of British Empire (OBE) at a Buckingham Palace ceremony 07 November. AFP PHOTO Sean DEMPSEY (Photo credit should read SEAN DEMPSEY/AFP/Getty Images)
Rock star David Bowie poses for photgraphers upon his arrival to a Tel Aviv airport Tuesday July 2, 1996. Bowie is in Israel as part of his European concert tour. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 09: MADISON SQUARE GARDEN Photo of David BOWIE, David Bowie performing at Madison Square Garden, New York City on 9th January 1996 (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)
David Bowie during David Bowie Honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by Magma Agency/WireImage)
NETHERLANDS - JULY 16: Singer David Bowie performs on stage at the Ahoy in Rotterdam during the Outside tour on July 16, 1996. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)
(GERMANY OUT) (eigentlich David Robert Jones)*08.01.1947-SÃ¤nger, Musiker, Schauspieler, GrossbritannienKonzertauftritt- 1996 (Photo by Martin Lengemann/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - JUNE 10: David Bowie, vocal, performs at the Paradiso on 10th June 1997 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)
Entertainer David Bowie performs during a concert celebrating his 50th birthday Thursday, Jan. 9, 1997, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)
NEW YORK - JANUARY 09 : Singer David Bowie performs on stage during his 50th birthday benefit concert held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 09, 1997. (Photo by George De Sota/Redferns)
Rock and roll legend David Bowie gestures to the crowd before receiving the 2,083rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 1997, as his wife, supermodel Iman, looks on. Bowie released his latest album, "Earthling," on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
FILE - In this Jan. 9, 1997, file photo, David Bowie performs during a concert celebrating his 50th birthday, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades, died Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, after battling cancer for 18 months. He was 69. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm, File)
FRANCE - OCTOBER 14: David Bowie In Concert Of Paris On October 14th, 1999 In Paris,France (Photo by Frederic REGLAIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN -- Episode 1182 -- Air Date 11/16/1999 -- Pictured: Musical guest David Bowie performs on November 16, 1999 -- Photo by: Lesly Weiner/NBCU Photo Bank
David Bowie during David Bowie 'Reality Tour' at Madison Square Garden - Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
David Bowie Performing At The Tweeter Centre, Boston, America - Aug 2002, David Bowie (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)
(FILES) In this file picture taken on September 24, 2002 British singer David Bowie performs during a concert at the Zenith in Paris. British rock icon David Bowie broke a decade-long musical silence on January 8, 2013, unveiling a new single to coincide with his 66th birthday and announcing that he will release an album in March. The outlandish star surprised fans by posting a video for the single, entitled 'Where are We Now?', on his website, and it will also be available to download on iTunes. AFP PHOTO MARTIN BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this June 3, 2002, file photo, Iman, left, and her husband, singer David Bowie arrive at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards in New York. Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades, died Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, after battling cancer for 18 months. He was 69. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2003 file photo, singer/songwriter David Bowie launches his United States leg of his worldwide tour called "A Reality Tour," at Madison Square Garden in New York. Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades, died Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, after battling cancer for 18 months. He was 69 (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
David Bowie during David Bowie Performs on 'The Today Show' Summer Concert Series - September 18, 2003 at NBC Studios, Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
NEWPORT, ENGLAND - JUNE 13: David Bowie performs on stage on the third and final day of 'The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004' at Seaclose Park, on June 13, 2004 in Newport, UK. The third annual rock festival takes place during the Isle of Wight Festival which runs from June 4-19. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images)
FILE - In this June 6, 2005 file photo, singer David Bowie and his wife Iman pose at the 2005 CFDA Fashion Awards in New York. Bowie, the innovative and iconic singer whose illustrious career lasted five decades, died Monday, Jan. 11, 2015, after battling cancer for 18 months. He was 69 (AP Photo/Stuart Ramson, File)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Model Iman and musician David Bowie arrive at the party for Iman's new book 'The Beauty of Color' hosted by Naomi Campbell October 18, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - APRIL 26: Singer David Bowie attends the Vanity Fair Tribeca Film Festival Party at The State Supreme Courthouse April 26, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images for TFF)
David Bowie during David Bowie in Concert - October 14, 2007 at Capital Theater in Port Chester, New York, United States. (Photo by Ke.Mazur/WireImage)
FILE In this Oct. 25, 2007 file photo, David Bowie arrives at the Fourth Annual Black Ball Concert for "Keep A Child Alive" in New York. Musical chameleon David Bowie is starting the year with two nominations for Britain's leading music awards, the Brits. Bowie, who turned 67 on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, is up for male British artist of the year and album of the year, for his first release in a decade, "The Next Day." (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin, File)
FILE - In this June 7, 2010 file photo, David Bowie attends the 2010 CFDA Fashion Awards in New York. The New York Theatre Workshop said Thursday, April 2, 2015, that Bowie will team up with âOnceâ playwright Enda Walsh to create the musical âLazarusâ this winter. The show is inspired by Walter Tevisâ 1963 novel âThe Man Who Fell to Earth,â which was adapted into a 1976 film starring Bowie. The new musical will have new and old Bowie songs . (AP Photo/Peter Kramer, File)
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2. Thin White Duke
Just four years after the dazzling Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had ditched the extravagant hair, makeup and jumpsuit in favor of a far more restrained white shirt, black waistcoat and blond, slicked-back hair. This character was the Thin White Duke, a moniker still used as a nickname for Bowie to this day. It was around that time he he scored his first U.S. No. 1 hit, with "Fame," which was co-written by John Lennon.
He was living on a diet of red and green peppers washed down with milk, and engaged in erratic behavior such as storing his urine in the fridge so that "no other wizard could use it to enchant him," according to the book.
3. Major Tom
Bowie first announced his penchant for character creation with the 1969 song "Space Oddity," the story of a fictional astronaut called Major Tom who gets stranded in space. It was released the same year as the first Moon landings and captured the cosmos-obsessed zeitgeist. This theme of looking to the stars was to be a theme that ran through Bowie's career.
Major Tom was given a 21st-century reboot when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield performed the song aboard the International Space Station. The accompanying video recorded on the ISS has been watched more than 27 million times on YouTube.
See celebrities' reactions to David Bowie's death:
Celebs react to David Bowie death
David Bowie's best-loved characters: Ziggy Stardust to Goblin King
I just lost a hero. RIP David Bowie.
David Bowie was one of my most important inspirations, so fearless, so creative, he gave us magic for a lifetime.
David Bowie. 💔 rip - you rock our souls https://t.co/xCt8GrStsP
RIP. There will only ever be 1 David Bowie. We love you. 🙏🏼⚡️ https://t.co/P9KfRmj7yZ
deeply sad to hear about david bowie / his work means more to me than I can express. what incredible things he did that last forever
Such shocking, awful news.
RIP David Bowie.
R.I.P. David Bowie. You were an icon, you changed the idea of what a man should be, your musical genius will live on https://t.co/29ijZOh6Kp
Just hearing about #DavidBowie! My condolences to his family and love ones! Your music will remain with this always!🙏
RIP David Bowie. When he said he didn't like children & I told him he was once one, he said, No, I was born a Rock God. 😜Rock 'em in heaven!
Songwriting, music owes David Bowie a great debt. Such sad sad news. RIP Bowie.
Oh God, rest in peace the genius that was David Bowie.
RIP David Bowie :( this was taken last night at my gig.. He was such an icon.. There is no other like him and there likely never will be. Big inspiration for me growing up.
He never seemed of this earth. Now he's left it. He bent rules, gender, genres, and our minds. RIP David Bowie. One. Of. A. Kind.
Find it hard to believe David Bowie has died. What an incredible life
Very saddened to hear about David Bowie. Timeless music by a fearless artist...thank you.-RP
Hoping this news about #DavidBowie isn't true
2016 is off to a bad start. Another one of my musical idols gone, may his legacy live on forever… https://t.co/7HxhAL7HV4
Devastated to hear about David Bowie. A true legend who will live forever in his cultural impact. Wow.
What a great loss... I was fortunate to work with a genius on "Cat People." #DavidBowie 💔 https://t.co/uWCTrJSs69
#davidBowie R.I.P you were one of the great ones! Glad I got to host you on yahoo awards first show!
RIP #DavidBowie you taught me it was okay to be different. https://t.co/xRwQIvg0hG
Damn. Will miss #DavidBowie he was already eternally cool. Thx for the music and style. https://t.co/EfrMgWbMbr
You were my all time. You were the greatest. We'll miss you more than you'll ever know. #DavidBowie
We're all Aladdin Sane
A LEGEND IS GONE✨🌟✨
Rip Father of all us freaks. Sad sad day. Love always Legendary singer David Bowie dies at 69 https://t.co/ezRx7NVhSC # via HuffPostEnt
The entirety of my David Bowie gestalt begins and ends with this movie right here.
Peace Out! https://t.co/g8pfQvFEeD
I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.
Never imagined a world without him. He has ascended into the cosmos from whence he came. Farewell, David Bowie
David Has Gone To Mars. Earth Thanks You https://t.co/r37aKrZQCH
David Bowie, you will be sorely missed.
Bowie's “Changes” and the Ziggy story songs were a major influence for me. https://t.co/N1nkD9h82W
Thank you for everything. R.I.P. https://t.co/sxtGpAS0Ok
Rest in peace David Bowie... Universe traveler dream bringer song singer... I'm glad you were here and will keep listening, as always...❤️
As I get older my respect 4 Bowie grows.He transcended every genre & generation during his career-We lost a good one https://t.co/WcuyypsOGc
I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me - I was not ready for this. RIP Bowie.
RIP David . I loved your music. I loved you. One of the greatest performance artists to have ever lived. #sorrow
Time may change me
But I can't trace time.
NO NO NO! Not David Bowie! No!
Hero, kind, funny, awesome, groundbreaking legend. No! Not David Bowie! No!
Our world just became a little less colorful. Wherever you are, the excitement is. Rest in Peace David Bowie ❤️ https://t.co/KhXmiymOe6
David Bowie has been my musical north star my entire life. This hurts even more for people close to me. He will NEVER be surpassed, never.
Rest In Song David Bowie.
Deeply saddened. We've lost one of the greatest artists that's ever lived. My love for all you've created is immeasurable. RIP David Bowie.
Deeply saddened to hear of David Bowie's passing. What an artist, an inspiration. I'd like to think the lights shone bright for him tonight✨
Very sad to hear about the death of David Bowie but through his music he will live forever
"Time may change me. But you can't trace time." Gosh. David Bowie. One of the greats. Thank you. https://t.co/dJgnDoi1Ua
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4. Aladdin Sane
Inspiring constume-partygoers for decades, Aladdin Sane was defined by the red and blue bolt of lightning painted across his face. The character's eponymous album in 1973 was the follow-up to "Ziggy Stardust...," and while it was met with less critical acclaim, the character — whose name is a pun on "A Lad Insane" — has endured. The album reached number 17 in the U.S. album charts and solidified his celebrity in America.
5. Jareth the Goblin King
As well as recording a staggering 25 studio albums, Bowie made several notable forays into the world of cinema. He played the 19th-century physicist Nikola Tesla in the 2006 movie "The Prestige," which was directed by Christopher Nolan and starred Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Scarlett Johansson.
However, he is best known for his portrayal of Jareth the Goblin King in the 1986 fantasy epic "Labyrinth." The movie's cult status was cemented with Bowie's performance of the song "Magic Dance."