TV, movie actor Landau, 89, dies
LOS ANGELES — Martin
Landau, the chameleon-like actor who gained fame as the crafty master of disguise in the 1960s TV show Mission: Impossible, then capped a long and versatile career with an Oscar for his poignant portrayal of aging horror movie star Bela Lugosi in 1994’s Ed Wood, has died. He was 89.
Landau died Saturday of unexpected complications during a short stay at UCLA Medical Center, his publicist Dick Guttman said.
Landau’s seven-decade career featured verdant artistic peaks — including his work for directors Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Tim Burton — and long stretches of arid desert.
The New Yorker once described him as “a survivor of B-movie hell,” noting his long mid-career run of disaster films, blaxploitation movies and fright flicks.
“None of them were porno,” the actor once quipped, “though some were worse.”
Mission: Impossible, which also starred Landau’s wife, Barbara Bain, became an immediate hit upon its debut in 1966. It remained on the air until 1973, but Landau and Bain left at the end of the show’s third season amid a financial dispute with the producers. They starred in the British-made sci-fi series
Space: 1999 from 1975 to 1977. Landau might have been a superstar but for a role he didn’t play — the starship Enterprise’s pointy-eared science officer, Mr. Spock. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had offered him the role of the half-Vulcan, half-human who attempts to rid his life of all emotion. Landau turned it down.
“A character without emotions would have driven me crazy; I would have had to be lobotomized,” he said in 2001. Instead, he chose Mission: Impossible, and Leonard Nimoy went on to everlasting fame as Spock.
Ironically, Nimoy replaced Landau on Mission: Impossible.
After a brief but impressive Broadway career, Landau made his film debut in the late 1950s, playing a soldier in Pork Chop Hill.
Hitchcock, an early admirer, cast him in his most memorable early role, as espionage ringleader James Mason’s closeted gay minion Leonard in 1959’s North by Northwest.
The film starred Cary Grant as a New York adman accidentally ensnared in an international spy ring.
Landau had proposed making Leonard covertly gay and worked with screenwriter Ernest Lehman to craft a line about his “woman’s intuition” — to be delivered before the character demonstrates how Mason’s girlfriend, played by Eva Marie Saint, has betrayed them.
“It was quite a big risk in cinema at the time,” Landau told the London Daily Telegraph in 2012. “My logic was simply that he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, so it made sense for him to be in love with his boss, Vandamm. … Every one of my friends thought I was crazy, but Hitchcock liked it.”
After Mission: Impossible, however, he enjoyed far less success, finding he had been typecast as Rollin Hand, the top-secret mission team’s disguise wizard. His film career languished for more than a decade, reaching its nadir with his appearance in the 1981 TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.
He began to find redemption with a sympathetic role in Tucker: The Man and his Dream, the 1988 film by Coppola that garnered Landau his first Oscar nomination.
He was nominated again the next year for his turn as the adulterous husband in Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
His third nomination was for Ed Wood, Burton’s affectionate tribute to a man widely viewed as the worst Hollywood filmmaker of all time.