In Memory of Martin Landau

July 22, 2017

Oscar-winning character actor Martin Landau passed away July 15th at the age of 89 in Los Angeles. His publisher stated he died from “unexpected complications during a short hospitalization.”

The versatile actor appeared in nearly 200 television shows and movies over the course of his career. His desire to act sprouted as he watched Charlie Chaplin movies in his youth. At the age of 27, he competed among a sea of 2,000 aspiring actors to be accepted into the Actors Studio. Remarkably, only two applicants made it into the prestigious school that year: Landau and Steve McQueen. Landau became close friends with fellow student James Dean as they dedicated themselves to learning the craft. “James Dean was my best friend. We were two young would-be and still-yet-to-work unemployed actors, dreaming out loud and enjoying every moment … We’d spend lots of time talking about the future, our craft and our chances of success in this newly different, ever-changing modern world we were living in,” he recalled.

Landau scored a choice supporting role in his first major film; cast in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest hits, North by Northwest, the Brooklyn native captivated audiences as the lethal henchman Leonard. “I wound up playing many, many bad guys in movies as a result of my looks,” Landau once told NPR, describing his physical appearance as “exceedingly thin,” “offbeat,” and “stark looking.”

Before long, Landau was cast in the popular TV series Mission: Impossible playing the covert operations agent and “man of a million faces” Rollin Hand. The part showcased his wide range of accents and characters which earned him several Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe award. But his career momentum took a turn for the worse when he was denied his request for higher pay and so he left the series. Unfortunately, work slowed down–so slow he moved to England in search of acting work with his then-wife and Mission: Impossible co-star Barbara Bain. While the two did land leading roles in the British science-fiction series Space: 1999, the show did not receive good reviews. That’s when Landau’s career really slowed to a crawl. Still he endured, making the most with whatever he was offered; infamously Landau and Bain appeared in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. It probably wasn’t one of the scenarios he’d envisioned so early on with his buddy James Dean.

Indeed, Landau says he went for about 20 years without a good role. But, alas, in late middle age the actor made a comeback! He was offered the refreshingly challenging part of Abe Karatz in Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who would have cast me in ‘Tucker’ other than Fred Roos, who was Francis Coppola’s producer, and Francis Coppola. It would not have been conventional thinking on anyone’s part for, you know,” Landau said. He received a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor as well as his first nomination for an Academy Award. And indeed this performance would go on to be just one in a series of great performances.

He received his second Oscar nomination for his starring role in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors playing ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal who suffers a crisis as a result of his infidelity. “Immediately after playing ‘Tucker,’ there were, you know, script after script after script with a lot of very ethnic, mostly Jewish, older men–were sent my way. It takes a Woody Allen to think of me as the character I played in ‘Crimes And Misdemeanors,’ again a departure from anything I’d ever done before and anything he’d seen me in before,” he said.

But it was Landau’s stunning performance as the aging morphine-addicted actor Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood that earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Through his extensive research on the classic actor, Landau came to feel a deep respect for the man. Landau explained his feelings towards Lugosi saying, “This, for me, became a love letter to him, because he never got a chance to get out of that. I got a chance to make a comeback in my career. And I’m giving him one. I’m giving him the last role he never got.”

Landau continued to perform in film and television, and headed the Hollywood branch of the Actors Studio until his death. His other accomplishments include serving as an acting coach to students including Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston.

Upon hearing the news of Landau’s passing, Barbara Bain said in a statement, “If one could examine his DNA, it would read ACTOR. He embraced every role with fire and fierce dedication. Playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s ‘Ed Wood’ was his loving tribute to all actors and garnered him a well-deserved Academy Award. His work was his joy and his legacy.”