For Martin Landau, the turning point came when he found himself watching the 1984 Academy Awards, “having a beer in my underwear, saying: ‘I should be there.’”
In 2012, Landau—then 84—recalled this to me in an interview for the Times of London as the moment he knew he wanted to save his career.
Starring roles as a Hitchcock villain or in the TV series of Mission: Impossible were lost to the mists of time. Agents had told Landau he was “finished.”
“It was frustrating. I knew what I was able to do, I was at the height of my powers but no one was giving me the chance,” the charming and wry Landau told me. And so his fightback began, not simply for recognition and glory, but also just to act—his true and abiding passion.
The career of the Academy Award-winning actor—who died Sunday at 89 after unexpected complications during a stay at the UCLA Medical Center—spanned many generations, many peaks and troughs, and many characters on our TV and cinema screens.
Perhaps you remember him as Rollin Hand in the original TV series of Mission: Impossible (for which Landau won a TV Golden Globe for Best Male TV Star in 1968), or—as it is for me—the tunic-wearing silver fox Commander John Koenig in the 1970s drama Space: 1999.
Yet, as that 1984 nadir showed, Landau’s career was uneven to say the least, going from playing the villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)—which he later told me he deliberately played as a gay man—to a role in the 1981 TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.
The serious movie awards came later in Landau’s life, after he had roused himself from the mid-1980s doldrums.
First came a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and an Oscar nomination, for his performance as a financier in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Landau’s second Oscar nomination came for playing a shifty and panicked adulterer in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
He finally won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as horror movie star Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), and he won the corresponding Golden Globe for that too, as well as many other laurels. Landau also amassed six Emmy nominations, including one for appearing in Entourage.
“It was like an out-of-body experience,” Landau told me of winning the Oscar. There are wonderful pictures of him kissing the statuette and giving a humble salute as he holds it. That humility, and a gentleness, was evident the day we met.
“I felt I knew Lugosi,” Landau told me. “Like him I had worked for good directors and terrible directors. I went thinking I was going to have a nice dinner and probably be miserable at the end of the night.”
“When I win you can see Samuel L. Jackson [nominated for Pulp Fiction] say ‘Shit,’ probably the most honest reaction one can have.”
When I met Landau in 2012, it was connected to Burton’s Frankenweenie, the first black and white animation shot in 3-D, which had just been released.
In what was a remake of a 1984 Burton short film, Landau voiced a science teacher who, by electrocuting a dead frog into life, inspired a 10-year-old Victor Frankenstein in ’60s American suburbia to reanimate his beloved dead dog.
Naturally, chaos of the comic and fairly gruesome kind ensued, all the magnificently weird visions of Burton distilled into a unique format; the 3-D element making it particularly eye-popping for cinema audiences.
Landau was happy: Though he was a well-known name, his fame was not of the supersonic kind enjoyed by his one-time best friend James Dean or his one-time paramour Marilyn Monroe. Landau was a link to old Hollywood, and after a career that zig-zagged around film and TV, in his later years he finally gained critical lionization.
And so, of course, Landau had tales to tell in a nondescript conference room of his agent Dick Guttman’s Los Angeles office, all in his magnificently gravelly voice. He was both warm, wonderful company and a candid raconteur.
He had met Monroe—she a couple of years his senior—under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York.
“She was there because she was dissatisfied,” Landau told me. “People perceived her as a Hollywood blonde bimbo. She was very needy and would go from being on top of her game to absolutely bereft of any self-belief or confidence. She see-sawed between those two personalities.”
Landau told me that when he and Monroe would go to the theater, she would change her outfits many times. “We’d never see the first act of the play.”
I asked if he desired her. “She was terrific… I don’t talk about those things,” he replied quietly.
Did he have a relationship with her, I asked.
“I had a relationship with her. It was just before Arthur [Miller, the playwright; he and Monroe married in 1956]. It was an interesting relationship, I look at it very differently than the way I did then. She was incredibly attractive but very difficult.”
I asked how he coped with that. “You can’t. That’s why I didn’t.” It lasted “several months,” he said, he not able to negotiate the poles of her personality. “Yeah, you didn’t know which one would show up in the middle of something.” I asked if he ended the relationship. “I did, by becoming more busy.” Was she upset by that? “I don’t know, probably. I didn’t want to upset her.” Because she was fragile? “Yes. I busied myself with other things.”
After the relationship ended, Landau and Monroe saw each other “a couple of times in passing” in New York and Los Angeles, he told me.
I asked Landau if he was in love with Monroe.
“I don’t know if I was in love with her or fascinated by her or flattered by her. She was incredibly attractive and fun to be with much of the time. When she wasn’t she wasn’t. I mean, that was the problem. She could get very withdrawn.”
Did he want to marry her, I asked. “No, no. It was almost a form of purgatory. I never knew who [ie, which Marilyn] I was going to be with.”
Landau told me he had been changing planes in Rome in 1962 when he read that Monroe had died.
“I was heartbroken. As the mystery unfolded I was more and more shocked. It didn’t seem possible that she killed herself intentionally. It was possible she took more barbiturates than necessary, just losing count, or possibly it was foul play. Nobody knows.”
‘Martin, You Have a Circus Going on Inside You’
Landau grew up in Brooklyn: his father had been a machinist; his mother, he told me, took him to the movies. He was sensitive, and loved acting and drawing. When he listened to radio dramas like The Shadow with Orson Welles, it “allowed you to create a set of images and characters.”
Landau studied art at the Pratt Institute and became a cartoonist for the Daily News in New York. (“Tim and I work well together,” Landau said of Burton. “I understand him, we both started as cartoonists.”)
Landau quit that job after seeing a friend act and deciding he could do better. He attended the Actors Studio (Steve McQueen was a fellow student), and later he became its artistic director, tutoring such stars as Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. He headed the Hollywood branch until his death.
Hitchcock saw Landau’s stage performance in Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night and cast him in North by Northwest (1959), saying: “Martin, you have a circus going on inside you. Obviously if you can do that part you can play this little trinket.”
In the movie, Landau’s character wants to get rid of Eva Marie Saint’s because, Landau decided, his character “had to be gay; she was interfering with his relationship” with James Mason’s character. “I made it subtle; I knew in big cities they’d get it. Hitch loved it. People told me: ‘Don’t play gay. It will affect your career.’ I said: ‘I’m an actor.’”
He recalled to me meeting his friend James Dean—“he was a farm boy, I was a New Yorker”—at an open casting call. Dean asked him how the process worked, and Landau, observing how different they looked, deduced they would not compete for roles.
Regarding Monroe and Dean’s early deaths, Landau told me: “It’s so hard because everyone else I’ve known who died got old—they’re both frozen in time.”
Landau was married to the actress Barbara Bain from 1957 until their divorce in 1993: a “natural end,” he told me.
They had met at an acting class, and Space: 1999 fans will remember they starred opposite each other in that show. (They had first starred alongside one another in Mission: Impossible.) Landau is survived by Bain and their two daughters Susie and Juliet.
Facing Ageism in Hollywood
Landau cherished his late-career renaissance. “Ageism is something that does exist,” he told Deadline in April. “As a young actor, I was working much more readily, and being offered more things. I don’t like to do what I call ‘the grunters’—a character who sits at a table and grunts, and young people make fun of. I turn a lot of those down. I like a character that is still alive, and is necessarily thinking, and either grows or diminishes, or whatever.”
As for never making the A-list, Landau seemed sanguine. “I think it would have held me back in a certain way,” he told me. “I played a wide variety of roles.” Others had “great careers and became major stars, but I played more things, had more fun, and I’m still doing it.”
Indeed he was. After Frankenweenie came more roles: in The Red Maple Leaf with Kris Kristofferson and James Caan; Remember, alongside Christopher Plummer; and, most recently, The Last Poker Game opposite Paul Sorvino. Three other projects are listed at various stages of production on Landau’s IMDb page: Herstory, Without Ward, and Nate & Al.
‘An Actor’s Actor’
When it came time to say farewell that day in 2012, Landau told me he had greatly enjoyed our conversation. He suggested to me and to Guttman that, should he ever come to write it, would I like to work on his memoir with him?
Nothing ever came to pass, although I was extremely heartened to read tonight, via Deadline, that Landau had been working on a memoir at the time of his death. A documentary, appropriately titled An Actor’s Actor: The Life of Martin Landau, is also apparently in development.
Landau was both quite the storyteller and also a true actor’s actor, so both projects, should they reach fruition will be fascinating. Landau believed in acting, rather than stardom, passionately—as both craft and vocation. That might explain his longevity and late-in-life triumphs. It certainly illuminates why it was an honor and pleasure to meet and spend time with Martin Landau.