Os­car-win­ning char­ac­ter ac­tor Martin Lan­dau was known for TV’s “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble.”

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY ADAM BERN­STEIN

Martin Lan­dau, an Os­car­win­ning char­ac­ter ac­tor whose dag­ger-like physique, Cheshire-cat grin and in­tense gaze made him ide­ally suited to play icy vil­lains and enig­matic he­roes, no­tably dis­guise mas­ter Rollin Hand on the hit 1960s TV se­ries “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble,” died July 15 at a hospi­tal in Los Angeles. He was 89.

In a state­ment, Dick Guttman, a pub­li­cist for Mr. Lan­dau, said the ac­tor died of “un­ex­pected com­pli­ca­tions,” but did not pro­vide ad­di­tional de­tails.

Mr. 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 mid­ca­reer run of dis­as­ter films, blax­ploita­tion movies and fright flicks. “None of them were porno,” the ac­tor once quipped, “though some were worse.”

A pre­co­ciously gifted artist, Mr. Lan­dau had been a car­toon­ist, il­lus­tra­tor and the­ater car­i­ca­tur­ist at the New York Daily News in his teens be­fore em­bark­ing on an act­ing ca­reer at 22. He had de­vel­oped a strong tal­ent for ob­serv­ing peo­ple’s ex­pres­sions and move­ments, as well as a flair for im­i­ta­tions and ac­cents. Of thou­sands of ap­pli­cants, only he and Steve McQueen were ac­cepted in a class at the pres­ti­gious Ac­tors Stu­dio in Man­hat­tan.

The school em­ployed the Method phi­los­o­phy, which calls on a per­former to draw from his own, of­ten painful mem­o­ries to il­lu­mi­nate a char­ac­ter. The sys­tem helped mold a gen­er­a­tion of brood­ing stars, in­clud­ing Mar­lon Brando and James Dean. The 6-foot-3 Mr. Lan­dau dis­tin­guished him­self with a more sub­tle charisma and com­mand of his craft, emerg­ing as a ver­sa­tile jour­ney­man TV ac­tor in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hitch­cock, an early ad­mirer, cast him in his most mem­o­rable early role, as es­pi­onage ring­leader James Mason’s clos­eted gay min­ion Leonard in “North by North­west” (1959). The film starred Cary Grant as a New York ad­man ac­ci­den­tally en­snared in an in­ter­na­tional spy ring.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Lan­dau be­came a fullfledged star in 1966 with “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble,” the CBS spy drama about an elite squad of gov­ern­ment agents who in­fil­trate and de­stroy Cold War ene­mies. The cast in­cluded Steven Hill and later Peter Graves as the group’s boss, and Bar­bara Bain, then Mr. Lan­dau’s wife, as sul­try team mem­ber Cin­na­mon Carter. Lalo Schifrin’s pulse-quick­en­ing, jazzy score — and the self-de­struc­t­ing in­struc­tions that set ev­ery episode in mo­tion — helped make the pro­gram a pop­u­lar suc­cess, as well as a tar­get for par­ody.

Mr. Lan­dau and his wife left the show — he quit in a salary dis­pute, and she was fired in re­tal­i­a­tion — three years into its run, at the peak of their fame. “Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble” ran an­other four years with­out them. Mr. Lan­dau said he found him­self adrift, re­duced to play­ing heav­ies in low-bud­get dreck. A widely ac­knowl­edged nadir was the TV film “The Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ters on Gil­li­gan’s Is­land” (1981).

His ca­reer was sal­vaged by Cop­pola, who cast Mr. Lan­dau as an ami­able el­derly busi­ness­man with a huck­ster streak in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988). The film starred Jeff Bridges in the re­al­life story of in­dus­tri­al­ist Pre­ston Tucker, who mounts a star-crossed at­tempt to chal­lenge the Big Three au­tomak­ers with a new car. Mr. Lan­dau, al­most un­rec­og­niz­able with ag­ing makeup and a mus­tache, played Tucker’s part­ner.

He re­ceived a sup­port­ing Os­car nom­i­na­tion for his touch­ing and un­der­stated per­for­mance — the start of an act­ing re­nais­sance in his 60s.

“Oh, ‘Tucker’ res­ur­rected me,” Mr. Lan­dau told the London Guardian. “Be­fore that, I did sev­eral films that should be turned into tooth­picks. I was be­ing of­fered, you know, pro­fes­sional bad guys in the evil busi­ness, to­tal comic-strip stuff. When I got ‘Tucker,’ I thought, ‘Thank God, a hu­man be­ing.’ ”

A sec­ond Os­car nom­i­na­tion fol­lowed for Allen’s “Crimes and Mis­de­meanors” (1989), in which Mr. Lan­dau brought a sym­pa­thetic twist to a New York oph­thal­mol­o­gist and phi­lan­thropist who is also an em­bez­zler and ar­ranges to have his er­ratic mis­tress (An­jel­ica Hus­ton) killed.

Newsweek arts writer Cath­leen McGuigan spoke for many crit­ics when she wrote that his “del­i­cate, tor­tured per­for­mance as a suc­cess­ful man caught in the web of his de­ceits is a tour de force.”

He re­ceived the Academy Award for Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994), in which he had an im­pas­sioned sup­port­ing turn as the Hun­gar­ian-born, heroin-ad­dicted, ag­ing hor­ror-film ac­tor Bela Lu­gosi. Crit­ics lauded the tragi­comic poignancy Mr. Lan­dau brought to the role of a once-big star re­duced to ap­pear­ing in movies di­rected by the bizarrely in­ept Wood, of­ten la­beled the worst di­rec­tor of all time.

Burton said Mr. Lan­dau’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion was piv­otal to the film, which cen­ters on the friend­ship be­tween Lu­gosi and the ti­tle char­ac­ter, played by Johnny Depp. “I think he just could re­late to it, and had been through enough ups and downs to un­der­stand Bela Lu­gosi,” the Turner Clas­sic Movies web­site quoted Burton as say­ing about Mr. Lan­dau.

Although well re­viewed, “Ed Wood” was not a com­mer­cial suc­cess, and Mr. Lan­dau never fully cap­i­tal­ized on his re­newed celebrity. He ap­peared in an un­even pa­rade of films and TV shows, in­clud­ing the limp com­edy “B.A.P.S.” (1997) as a rich sugar daddy to Halle Berry and Natalie Des­selle, and Burton’s an­i­mated “Franken­wee­nie” (2012) as the voice of young Vic­tor Franken­stein’s science teach­ers.

A high­light was his Emmy Award-nom­i­nated re­cur­ring role on the HBO com­edy se­ries “En­tourage” as a washed-up Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer. His en­dear­ingly clue­less char­ac­ter makes du­bi­ous and ex­ag­ger­ated movie pitches straight out of a 1950s play­book: “What if I told you [en­ter claim here]. Is that some­thing you might be in­ter­ested in?”

Martin Lan­dau was born in Brook­lyn on June 20, 1928. His fa­ther, a Jewish im­mi­grant from East­ern Europe, was a skilled ma­chin­ist.

The younger Lan­dau joined the Daily News while still in high school and, af­ter five years, he turned down a pro­mo­tion for fear that he would re­main at the paper for­ever. See­ing bad ac­tors had sim­ply per­suaded him that he could do it bet­ter.

“I told the pic­ture edi­tor I was go­ing into the the­ater,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I think he thought I was go­ing to be an usher.”

At the Ac­tors Stu­dio he briefly dated Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, who was tak­ing classes, and mar­ried fel­low stu­dent Bain.

Mr. Lan­dau had small roles in movie epics such as “Cleopa­tra” (1963) and “The Great­est Story Ever Told” (1965) while pur­su­ing a pro­lific TV ca­reer. He was John the Bap­tist in an “Om­nibus” adap­ta­tion of Os­car Wilde’s play “Salome” and a sadis­tic west­ern gun­man in an episode of “The Twi­light Zone.”

He and Bain co-starred in the syn­di­cated sci-fi se­ries “Space: 1999” in the mid-1970s; although stylishly made, it flopped.

Mr. Lan­dau’s mar­riage to Bain ended in di­vorce. Survivors in­clude two daugh­ters: writer and pro­ducer Susie Lan­dau Finch and ac­tress Juliet Lan­dau; a sis­ter; and a grand­daugh­ter.

For years, Mr. Lan­dau was a di­rec­tor of the Ac­tors Stu­dio’s West Coast branch, where Jack Ni­chol­son and Harry Dean Stan­ton were among his ear­li­est stu­dents.

Mr. Lan­dau had a rare lead­ing­man part in “Lovely, Still” (2008), a tepidly re­ceived ro­mance co-star­ring Ellen Burstyn, about an older cou­ple’s love af­fair. He co-starred with Christo­pher Plum­mer in Atom Egoyan’s thriller “Re­mem­ber” (2015), about Holo­caust survivors who plot to kill an ag­ing Auschwitz camp com­man­der.

“If I was an opera singer or a bal­let dancer, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be able to do that any longer, but be­ing an ac­tor play­ing old guys is kind of a gift,” Mr. Lan­dau told the Star, a South African pub­li­ca­tion. “Half of the peo­ple I came up with are gone, and the other half don’t re­mem­ber what they had for break­fast, so I’m very lucky.”

ROSE PROUSER/REUTERS

Martin Lan­dau in 2003. He worked for di­rec­tors Al­fred Hitch­cock, Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, Woody Allen and Tim Burton.

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