By Michael Schwartz/New York Post Archives/NYP Holdings, Inc./.
Partying with James Dean, dating Marilyn Monroe, and teaching Jack Nicholson how to act—this was the kind of life Martin Landau lived. The revered character actor, who died on July 15 at age 89, is best remembered for his impressive on-screen performances—but it was his behind-the-scenes life that gave color to his magnificent career. Landau came into acting during a particular kind of New York golden age, making the kinds of friends and memories most performers can only dream of.
When he was in his early twenties, he quit his job as a cartoonist for the New York Daily News and decided to give the acting thing a try. The decision came at a fortuitous time: the 20-something auditioned for the Actors Studio in the Lee Strasberg era, and he was only one of two students to be admitted that year. (The other was some guy named Steve McQueen.) It was there that Landau nurtured some formative friendships, including becoming best friends with celluloid perma-teen James Dean, and dating the one and only Marilyn Monroe.
He dated the blonde icon for “months,” he told The New York Times in 1988, but it was a difficult relationship. “She could be wonderful, but she was incredibly insecure, to the point she could drive you crazy.”
Landau noted the bombshell’s tendency to change outfits four or five times before dates due to those insecurities. “It was exhausting; but then at other times she could be wonderful; she was bright, intuitively bright . . . [but] I found her too complicated, complicated to the point I couldn’t hack it.”
In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, he ruminated on Monroe’s legacy, emphasizing that the problems that would manifest later in her life—and lead to an early death via overdose at 36—weren’t evident in her younger years. “There’s always a lot of conjecture about Marilyn’s death,” he said. “It’s still a mystery; no one seems to know exactly what happened. Yes, there were ongoing issues with Marilyn, but they did not support the idea of suicide in any way, shape or form.”
In that same Times interview, Landau also mused about his best friendship with James Dean. The two met during their stint at the Studio, quickly bonding over their shared acting struggles, before Dean’s untimely death at 24 in 1955. The pair would pal around New York, zipping around on the back of Dean’s motorcycle. One day, when the motorcycle started breaking down, they pulled into a garage on 10th Avenue to get it fixed, Landau told podcast host Marc Maron.
“One of the mechanics was a young guy . . . whose name was Steve McQueen, and he fixed Jimmy’s motorcyle,” he recalled. Yes, it was that McQueen. It was the first time Landau met the future acting star, who would later be his acting studio partner. But McQueen wasn’t too keen on Dean.
“He hated Jimmy, because Jimmy was getting all the parts on television,” Landau recalls.
In those days, these were the kinds of peers Landau was chopping it up with—beyond McQueen, Dean, and Monroe, Landau could also count Marlon Brando among his acting circle. In his later years, he continued working with the Actors Studio, auditioning and teaching students, shaping the next wave of Hollywood talent, including a young Jack Nicholson**.** The future triple Oscar-winner was talented, Landau recalled in a 2012 interview with Movieline, but he had some “problems.”
“He would kind of surround a moment that he didn’t want to embrace,” he says. Landau helped the actor tap into abilities by putting him through a series of exercises that would “connect his voice, his body, and emotions.” Nicholson would later credit those exercises for helping him become a great actor. And he was far from the last actor to benefit from Landau’s extraordinary teaching ability.
“Harry Dean Stanton, Anjelica Huston—a lot of people have studied with me,” Landau says. “It’s paying my dues.”
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