The Oscar winner who coached Jack Nicholson
Martin Landau, actor: b New York, June 20, 1928; m Barbara Bain, 2d; d Los Angeles, July 15, 2017, aged 89.
Martin Landau’s 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.
The Oscar-winning character actor’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, Landau had been a cartoonist, illustrator and theatre 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 that 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 1.9m 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.
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.’’
Landau became a full-fledged 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 Landau’s wife, as the 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 programme a popular success (as well as a target for parody).
Landau and his wife left the show – he quit in a salary dispute and she was fired in retaliation – after three years, at the peak of their fame. Landau said he then found himself adrift, reduced to playing heavies in low-budget dreck.
His career was salvaged by Coppola, who cast 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 real-life story of industrialist Preston Tucker, who mounts a star-crossed attempt to challenge the Big Three car makers with a new car. Landau, almost unrecognisable with ageing 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,’’ 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 comicstrip 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 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, ageing horror-film actor Bela Lugosi.
Burton said Landau’s interpretation was pivotal to the film, which centres 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 Landau.
Although well-reviewed, Ed Wood was not a commercial success, and Landau never fully capitalised on his renewed celebrity.
Martin Landau was born in the New York borough of Brooklyn in 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 theatre,’’ 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).
Landau had small roles in movie epics such as Cleopatra (1963) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) while pursuing a prolific TV career.
In addition to the 76 episodes of Mission: Impossible in which he appeared and 48 episodes of Space: 1999, he had parts in Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone, and Murder She Wrote. He also had a voice role in The Simpsons.
For years, Landau was a director of the Actors Studio’s West Coast branch, where Jack Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton were among his earliest students.
Landau had a rare leading-man part in Lovely, Still (2008), a tepidly received romance co-starring Ellen Burstyn, about an older couple’s love affair. He costarred with Christopher Plummer in Atom Egoyan’s thriller Remember (2015), about Holocaust survivors who plot to kill an ageing 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,’’ 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.’’ – The Washington Post