It’s fitting that Martin Landau played master of disguise Rollin Hand on the old Mission: Impossible series. As a character actor, he disappeared completely into his roles. Versatile enough to be anybody, he worked with everybody, from Alfred Hitchcock to Francis Ford Coppola to Woody Allen to Tim Burton. Long undervalued, he finally earned the recognition he deserved in his 60s, winning an Academy Award in 1995. Landau didn’t rest on his laurels, however; he continued to create memorable characters on the big and small screens until his death on July 15 at age 89.
Landau was born in Brooklyn on June 20, 1928. An artistic kid, he studied at the Pratt Institute and began working at 17 as a cartoonist at The Daily News, illustrating Billy Rose’s “Pitching Horseshoes” column and assisting “The Gumps” cartoonist Gus Edson. But he didn’t see a future in that line of work. Inspired by screen icons like Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, he quit cartooning after five years at The Daily News. “I told the picture editor I was going into the theater,” Landau recalled in 1989. “I think he thought I was going to be an usher.” As a struggling auditioner, he found a handful of small roles on TV, in summer stock, and Off-Broadway, and he became the best friend of another cattle-call regular, James Dean.
He made his Broadway debut in Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night alongside his idol, Robinson. Alfred Hitchcock saw the play and gave Landau his big break in movies, casting him in the 1959 classic North by Northwest. When Landau asked what inspired the director to hire him to play villainous henchman Leonard, Hitchcock told him, “Marty, you have a circus going on inside you. Obviously, if you can do that part I saw you do in the theater, you can do this little trinket.” In fact, Landau beefed up the role from the way Ernest Lehman wrote it. It was Landau’s idea to play Leonard as gay, thinking he’d have a stronger motivation to scheme against Eve (Eva Marie Saint) if Leonard were jealous of Vandamm’s (James Mason) attentions toward her. Lehman wrote him a line of dialogue that made Leonard’s orientation pretty clear, even in the closeted 1950s: “Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will.”
It was a daring artistic choice for that era, and the actor’s friends worried that he’d be typecast in effeminate roles after that. Instead, however, he was stuck in roles as sinister heavies. He did have a heroic part as ill-fated Roman officer Rufio in 1963’s Cleopatra and a meaty role as Jesus’s priestly antagonist Caiaphas in George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), but neither of those epics did much to help the careers of their massive ensemble casts.
Having been accepted into the Actors Studio in the mid-1950s, Landau became an acting coach at the urging of Actors Studio guru Lee Strasberg. Landau would ultimately be instrumental in opening a West Coast branch of the Studio, and he’d continue teaching for the rest of his life. His students included such future acting greats as Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, Harry Dean Stanton, and Shirley Knight, as well as filmmakers Oliver Stone and Robert Towne. “The reason I’m a good actor,” Nicholson once said, “is because Martin Landau put me through a series of exercises for three years before I could do them.”
Landau did see his star rise on TV, first as a lead on Mission: Impossible (1966-69), for which he earned three consecutive Emmy nominations for Best Dramatic Lead Actor, then as the moonbase captain on “Space: 1999” (1975-78). On both shows, he co-starred with Barbara Bain, his wife from 1957 to 1993. They had two daughters: actress Juliet Landau and filmmaker Susan Landau Finch.
Though he worked consistently, his movie career didn’t kick into high gear again until he was 60. In 1988, he played Abe Karatz, mentor to 1940s auto designer Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. (He also voiced the role of radio newsman Walter Winchell.) The movie earned Landau his first of three Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
He earned another one a year later for starring in Woody Allen’s classic Crimes and Misdemeanors, playing the tormented ophthalmologist who ponders killing his mistress (played by Landau’s former acting student, Anjelica Huston). The role of a seemingly decent, venerable man harboring a dark secret became a Landau specialty. Allen cited Landau as the one actor, “of all the actors I’ve ever worked with, he gives expression to my dialogue exactly as I hear it.” (The writer/director surmised that Landau’s gift for reciting Allen’s dialogue came from having grown up just blocks away from Allen’s childhood home in Brooklyn.)
Landau finally won the trophy a few years later for playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). The film is a comedy about the notoriously inept film director (played by Johnny Depp) who befriended the past-his-prime horror actor and cast him in such micro-budget 1950s movies as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Landau, however, brings both humor and pathos to the role of Lugosi, the Dracula star (Landau himself had played the vampire count on stage), now a frail drug addict trying once more to summon the terrifying charisma that had long ago made him famous. The desperation of a talented movie star reduced to appearing in such schlock must have come easily to Landau, who’d had to make do with mid-career roles in what he called “meaningless roles in mindless movies,” including The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island and monster movie The Being.
Like Depp, Landau would become part of Burton’s repertory company, appearing in such Burton projects as Sleepy Hollow, 9, and Frankenweenie. He also had prominent roles in the first X-Files movie (as a paranoid scientist), Rounders (as a poker-playing law professor), and The Majestic (as a bereaved gold-star father who mistakes amnesiac Jim Carrey for his long-lost son). In 2008, he had a lead role in the indie romance Lovely, Still, opposite Ellen Burstyn.
Back on TV, Landau earned Emmy nominations for two recurring roles: as Anthony LaPaglia’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father on Without a Trace and for Bob Ryan, a Robert Evans-like movie producer seeking a comeback, on Entourage. He co-starred in Lifetime’s biopic Anna Nicole (2013), playing Anna Nicole Smith’s octogenarian oil-tycoon husband, J. Howard Marshall.
What drove Landau’s tireless work ethic was his enjoyment of the challenges of teaching and working alongside actors decades younger than he was. “It keeps me young,” he said.
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