In a career spanning more than half a century of roles on television and film, Landau may have been best known for his run as undercover operative Rollin Hand in the Mission: Impossible TV series or his Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Landau was the consummate actor, always feeling present. The fact that his career spanned seven decades spread across any genre in the book makes the passing of Martin Landau all the more saddening.
Born in Brooklyn, New York Landau juggled a dozen roles throughout his early career. Auditioning for the Actors Studio in New York, it was only Landau and a small fry by the name of Steve McQueen who were admitted from a batch of 2,000 applicants in 1955. After a handful of TV appearances, Landau broke into film when Alfred Hitchcock saw him in a play in Los Angeles.
Hitchcock cast him opposite Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason in North By Northwest (1959). When Landau asked why he had been chosen for the role of James Mason’s right-hand man, Hitchcock replied: “Martin, you have a circus going on inside you.” Landau decided to make the character gay, adding an extra dimension to the relationship between boss and henchman.
After his role in one of Hitchcock’s more famous films, Landau went onto Mission: Impossible, which brought him huge prime time exposure and the opportunity to work with Barbara Bain, his wife whom he married in 1957. After 70 episodes, three Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe, Landau left the series as the man with a thousand faces, Rollin Hand, after contract disputes.
Landau then went on to star in another (albeit slightly lesser known) genre series, Space: 1999. The British science-fiction television series which ran for two seasons from 1975 to 1977 was set in the year 1999, nuclear waste stored on the Moon’s far side explodes, knocking the Moon out of orbit and sending it, as well as the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha, hurtling uncontrollably into space. The series is notable as the last production by the partnership of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the creators of the marionette-based world of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Stingray.
Landau may have become a household name a lot sooner if he had decided to take one particular job offered to him by Gene Roddenberry. “I turned down Star Trek. It would’ve been torturous,” he said during a 2011 edition of the PBS documentary series Pioneers of Television. “I would’ve probably died playing that role. I mean, even the thought of it now upsets me. It was the antithesis of why I became an actor. I mean, to play a character that Lenny (Nimoy) was better suited for, frankly, a guy who speaks in a monotone who never gets excited, never has any guilt, never has any fear or was affected on a visceral level. Who wants to do that?”
But his career was rehabilitated by three films for quality directors: Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man And His Dream (1988), Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989) and Ed Wood. All three earned Landau Oscar nominations for Best-Supporting Actor; the third resulted in victory.
He was recognized for his acting abilities in 1995 when he finally won an Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Burton’s biopic, Ed Wood (to this date, perhaps Burton’s best film), about the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space and other notoriously weird movies. “Lugosi… had a palpable intensity and a presence that you can’t buy,” Landau said in 1995 before his Oscar win. “But this town f$%^&’ town shat on him… And I can relate to that. I’ve seen it happen a lot. I’ve seen it happen to me.” Lugosi was, as Landau said in his Oscar acceptance speech, “the part of my life”. In addition to the Academy Award, Landau also won a SAG award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Saturn Award for his genius portrayal of Bela Lugosi.
It was in Tim Burton that Landau found a kindred spirit. Burton would go on to cast the actor in Sleepy Hollow (1999) and as the voice of a Vincent Price-like science teacher in the horror-movie homage, Frankenweenie (2012).
Other notable Landau roles included Pork Chop Hill (1959), City Hall (1996), The X-Files: Fight The Future (1998), Rounders (1998), Edtv (1999), The Majestic (2001), Lovely, Still (2008) and Mysteria (2011). He was also the voice of the Scorpion (Mac Gargan) on the ’90s animated Spider-Man series.
Reactions have been pouring into from the entertainment community. Landau’s long, illustrious career afforded him some big name fans. Here’s but a sample of what has been hitting online:
Crimes & Misdemeanors – these two as brothers, perfect. And the single take scene w/Angelica Huston in her apartment… RIP Martin Landau pic.twitter.com/qBhinnaHuq
— Joss Whedon (@joss) July 17, 2017
— Patricia Arquette (@PattyArquette) July 17, 2017
Condolences to the family of Martin Landau.
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) July 17, 2017
What the hell? Now Martin Landau has died. Sucks. Around the time of Ed Wood I ran a into him at… https://t.co/HnDoYrKmN2
— Rob Zombie (@RobZombie) July 17, 2017
The great Martin Landau has died. Long time member of the actor's studio and brilliant craftsman in our tradition. I will miss his work.
— David Harbour (@DavidKHarbour) July 17, 2017
So sad to read about the passing of Martin Landau. A great talent with a kind heart; always so warm to me. I will miss you. RIP.
— Marlee Matlin (@MarleeMatlin) July 17, 2017
As a writer, Landau was working on a yet-untitled memoir which detailed his accomplishments in theatre, film and television. It is unknown at this time whether the book will ever hit shelves in any semi-completed form.
More recently, he starred opposite with Paul Sorvino in the dramedy The Last Poker Game, which bowed earlier this year at Tribeca Film Festival. He also starred with legendary actor Christopher Plummer in the 2015 indie Holocaust drama Remember from Canadian director Atom Egoyan, and in The Red Maple Leaf with Kris Kristofferson and James Caan, as well as the critically acclaimed Lovely with Ellen Burstyn. Acting all the way until the end, Landau knew how to keep busy.
Passing away at the age of 89, Landau is survived by his daughters Susie Landau Finch and Juliet Landau, his sons-in-law Roy Finch and Deverill Weekes, former wife and co-star Barbara Bain, godson Dylan Becker, friend Gretchen Becker, sister Elinor Schwartz and his 8-year-old granddaughter Aria Isabel Landau Finch.
Images: MGM, Warner Bros., Beuna Vista,
Disney, Anderson Productions, CBS, Paramount