If he had only played Bela Lugosi in the marvelous Tim Burton film ED WOOD and nothing else, Martin Landau would hold a special place in the hearts of film lovers everywhere. But Landau, who passed away July 15 at age 89, was so much more than a one-note actor, leaving behind a body of work that saw him putting his personal stamp on every role he took. He worked with some of the giants of cinema, and slummed it with dreck like THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Mostly, he worked at what he loved best, the craft of acting.
Landau’s breakout role was in the Hitchcock classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), as the sinister sidekick of foreign spy James Mason, menacing stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Hollywood directors certainly took notice of his talents and cast Landau in some great films George Marshall’s THE GAZEBO (1959) is a delicious black comedy about blackmail and murder starring Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ all-star spectacle CLEOPATRA (1963) has him as Rufio, loyal soldier to Richard Burton’s Marc Antony. John Sturges’ underrated comedy-western THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL (1965) finds Landau playing great Chief Walks-Stooped-Over. Another all-star epic, George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) cast him as Caiaphus conspiring to kill Jesus Christ! In Henry Hathaway’s 1966 NEVADA SMITH, Landau got to work with his old pal Steve McQueen, as a nasty outlaw who gets killed by McQueen’s title character in a brutal (and well staged) knife fight.
During the 60’s, Landau costarred for three seasons on the hit show MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE as Rollin Hand, actor, make-up artist, and master of disguise. This gave him a chance to show off his knack for dialects, and (with the help of the Desilu make-up department) play two different roles per episode. Martin received “Special Guest Star” billing through his run on the series, and even spoofed himself on an episode of GET SMART. When he left he was replaced by Leonard Nimoy, who had accepted an earlier part Landau turned down – STAR TREK’s Spock!
Landau and his wife Barbara Bain (who also costarred with him in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) were at the helm for the cult sci-fi series SPACE: 1999. He played Commander Koenig, leader of Moonbase Alpha, a colony in peril as the moon itself blasts out of Earth’s orbit and into the outer edges of the Universe for fantastic adventures. Produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, better known for their marionette series STINGRAY, THUNDERBIRDS, and CAPTAIN SCARLET, this big budget TV spectacle failed to catch on, and was cancelled after two seasons. It’s still popular among sci-fi affecianadoes today.
After hitting a career slump that found him in the aforementioned “Globetrotters Meet Gilligan” fiasco (where he and Bain portrayed mad scientists), he made his “comeback” film, 1988’s TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM, as Abe Karatz, partner of Jeff Bridges’ Preston Tucker. Though Francis Ford Coppola’s ode to capitalism failed at the box office, Landau received his first Oscar nomination, followed by another in 1989’s CRIMES AND MSIDEMEANORS, Woody Allen’s dark tale. Martin is Judah Rosenthal, a philanderer who hires a hit man to kill his threatening lover (Angelica Huston), whose life criss-crosses with Allen’s filmmaker Cliff Stern.
Third time was the charm for Landau as he finally won his Oscar for Tim Burton’s 1994 ED WOOD, lovingly etching the part of horror icon Bela Lugosi. Historical inaccuracies aside, Landau gives us a touching performance as the screen’s greatest Dracula, forgotten and reduced to appearing in no-budget exploitation movies while struggling with an opiate addiction. Landau’s Bela is unforgettable, and when he won the Oscar fans stood in their living rooms and cheered not only for Landau, but for Bela Lugosi. I know I did!
More movies and television followed of varying degrees of quality. Landau always kept busy, whether teaching at his beloved Actor’s Studio or working on a film project. His last was an indie released at Tribeca this year, THE LAST POKER GAME with Paul Sorvino. Martin Landau died early Sunday morning at UCLA Medical Hospital. The Great Director has yelled “cut”, and his time before the cameras has ended.
Rest in peace, Martin Landau. An Actor’s Actor.