Martin Landau, 1928–2017

“Martin Landau, the tall, intense, sometimes mischievously sinister actor best known for his role in the television series Mission: Impossible and his Oscar-winning portrayal of Bela Lugosi in the film Ed Wood, died Saturday in Los Angeles,” reports Anita Gates for the New York Times. In Mission: Impossible, Landau starred as Rollin Hand, “a versatile covert-operations agent, from its debut in 1966 until 1969. After the show’s third season, he and Barbara Bain, his wife and co-star, left because of a contractual dispute. But the series had served its purpose. Because Mr. Landau’s character was a master of disguise, morphing into a different character every week, casting people began to think of him for a variety of roles, not only the villains he had so often played earlier in his career.”

“The Brooklynite started out as a cartoonist, spending four years with the New York Daily News from 1948-51, then turned his attentions to acting,” writes Carmel Dagan for Variety. “He claimed that he and Steve McQueen were the only two among 2,000 applicants whose auditions gained them admittance to the Actors Studio (of which Landau later became an officer).”

“He made his Broadway debut in Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night alongside his idol, [Edgar G.] Robinson,” writes Gary Susan for Vanity Fair. “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.’”

“Though the small screen provided the kind of the indelible success some actors dream about, Landau said ‘it was a nightmare, too,’” notes Nardine Saad in the Los Angeles Times. “‘I’d worked for the giants at the beginning—George Stevens, Hitchcock,’ Landau said. ‘And then it all stopped because I was a television actor.’ . . . TV curse aside, Landau went on to play numerous roles in film, including the wheeler-dealer Abe Karatz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) . . . The next year, he was lauded for his role as the philandering Judah Rosenthal, the doctor who has his mistress murdered and gets away with it, in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) [image above]. He was nominated for his second consecutive supporting actor Oscar.”

“Arguably Landau’s career high point arrived in 1995, when he won the best supporting actor Oscar for his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, the Burton-directed biopic of the infamous director of Plan 9 From Outer Space and other notorious films,” writes the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver. “In Lugosi, the washed-up former star of 1930s horror films such as Dracula, Landau found a forerunner he could relate to. ‘Lugosi . . . had a palpable intensity and a presence that you can’t buy,’ Landau said, just prior to his Oscar win. ‘But this fuckin’ town shat on him . . . And I can relate to that. I’ve seen it happen a lot. I’ve seen it happen to me.’”

Joe Leydon recalls talking with Landau about working with Steven Spielberg on Savage, a pilot for a projected series that never got off the ground. Last year, Gary M. Kramer spoke with Landau for Salon about his role in Atom Egoyan’s Remember. And in January, Landau was a guest on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast (87’26”), talking about “his early days in New York City at The Actors Studio studying under Lee Strasberg alongside fellow students like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.”

Martin Landau was eighty-nine.

Updates: Writing for, Dan Callahan dwells a bit on “probably his most demanding role,” Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors. “Point by point, moment by moment, Landau lets us see how a man might put his big toe into the water of evil and then slowly and surely immerse himself in that water until he finds he can swim in it. At the end, Landau carries the shock of the scene where Judah admits that he has no pangs of conscience. This was the same sort of daring that let him play Leonard as gay and in love in North by Northwest thirty years before. . . . He has nearly 200 credits on IMDb, and that was in addition to his work for and championing of the Actors Studio, where he was a respected figure all of his life. He exercised his craft, and this led him to Leonard, Judah, and Bela Lugosi, three performances that can stand as a testament to his work and his love of acting.”

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw praises Landau’s performances in Tucker and Ed Wood, but he, too, focuses primarily on Crimes: “For me, Judah’s criminal plunge, and Martin Landau’s performance, are the more unforgettable because they do not appear in a conventional thriller or noir, but because they are in a Woody Allen movie, in a story overtly juxtaposed with the more absurdly comic tale that occupies the film’s other half—a filmmaker forced to earn a living by celebrating someone he loathes. Landau’s cold-sweat despair at what he has done, his gaze into the abyss, his Dostoyevskian agony: it is all compelling.”

“At the Actors Studio,” writes Chris Wiegand for the Guardian, “Landau was taught by the best—Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman—and began a relationship with a fellow student, Marilyn Monroe. They split up after several months; Landau found Monroe too complicated and was defeated by her frequent costume changes on their dates. When he became a teacher himself, Landau’s students included Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston and Harry Dean Stanton. With Mark Rydell, he later ran the Hollywood-based branch of the Actors Studio, set up in 1967.”

“When I sat down with Martin Landau in April to discuss his storied career as part of a series of legacy interviews for Film Comment, I had no reason to suspect I was capturing some of his final reflections,” writes Steven Mears at the top of an excerpt from an unpublished interview. “Obviously no single scene can sum up a career, especially one as prolific as Landau’s, but my mind keeps returning to one near the end of Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. The once-indefatigable man (Jeff Bridges) is faced with the broken pieces of his shiny automotive dream, and his once-disparaging partner (Landau), by way of a farewell, recalls his mother warning him not to get too close to people, for fear of catching their dreams. Years later he realized he’d misheard—it was their germs you might catch—but the damage was done: he’d stood too close to a dreamer, and despite himself had caught the bug. Anyone who stood close to Martin Landau invariably ran the same risk, and for my part, I will always cherish the brief time I spent catching his dreams.”

Updates, 7/20: “I can't even remember not knowing Martin,” Ellen Burstyn tells Scott Feinberg in the Hollywood Reporter. “As an actor, he had a real sense of reality—he never seemed to be acting; he was just always one with the character he was playing—something that I got to know better and more deeply when I eventually worked with him [on the 2008 film Lovely, Still]. When you look into the eyes of another actor and you see that he's totally there—that he's not running his lines in his head, he's just completely in the moment—it's a rare thing, and he had it.”

“For decades,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “Landau was such a sly, versatile and hardworking actor that it sounds borderline absurd to call him a late bloomer. Yet he was the ultimate late bloomer. What might have been a minor comeback role in Tucker: The Man and His Dream won Landau critical plaudits and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He was 60, and it added up to a gold-watch moment. What no one guessed is that his career—his real career, as an actor of lacerating greatness—was just taking off.”

Updates, 7/21: “When Landau expressed a splintered psyche, he was both chilling and sympathetic, and in some cases he challenged our presumption—making us recognize darker aspects within ourselves,” writes Kim Morgan for Sight & Sound. “For an actor, that kind of complexity is much harder than it looks. But for Landau . . . this kind of well-honed but unforced understanding of human behavior (both externally and internally) was important. Don’t show it all. Real people hide. As he said in 2010:

People do not necessarily reveal what is going on—only bad actors do. Bad actors try to cry, and good actors try not to. Bad actors try to laugh, and good actors try not to. Only bad actors play drunk—good actors play drunks playing sober! They don’t want everyone in the room to know they’re drunk, and if you’ve ever seen a drunk pick up a glass to his mouth at a bar, it’s the most studied, controlled thing you’d ever see . . .

NPR’s posted Terry Gross’s 1990 Fresh Air interview.

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