An Actor’s Actor: RIP Martin Landau

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.

                                         In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)

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.

As Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible from 1966-69

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!

With then-wife Barbara Bain on Space: 1999 (1975-77)

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.

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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.

Landau as Bela Lugosi with Johnny Depp as Ed Wood (1994)

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.

The Zombie King: RIP George A. Romero

Way back in 1970, my cousins and I went to a horror double feature at the old Olympia Theater in New Bedford. The main attraction was called EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  Quite frankly, it sucked, but the bottom half of that double bill was an obscure black & white films that scared the shit out of us! That movie was George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

NOTLD (1968)

From the creepy opening in a cemetery (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) to the gross-out shots of zombies feasting on human entrails, from the little girl eating her father’s corpse to the tragic final scene when the hero (a black man, no less!) is shot by the cops, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was an edge-of-your-seat nightmare of horror. There were no stars in it, unless you count Bill Cardille, a local Pittsburgh DJ and horror host known around these parts as ‘The Voice of Professional Wrestling’. As a 12-year-old horror fanatic, I absolutely loved it, and still do today, thanks to the genius of George A. Romero.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

George Romero’s dark, apocalyptic vision opened the floodgates for zombie movies to come. He followed up NOTLD with 1978’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, set inside a suburban shopping mall (where I happened to see it!), and 1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD, the final chapter in his original “Zombie Trilogy” (though there’d be more walking dead to come). Born and raised in the Bronx, Romero attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which became his home base. Unlike other low-budget horror filmmakers (Tobe Hooper, for example), Romero stayed true to his roots, making all his movies in and around the Pittsburgh area, refusing to “go Hollywood”.

Martin (1978)

His movies are the stuff nightmares are made of: THE CRAZIES (1973) deals with a biological weapon accidentally unleashed, turning people into homicidal maniacs. MARTIN (1978), Romero’s personal favorite, features both religious fanaticism and vampirism. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) is the bizarre tale of a traveling medieval show with jousters on motorcycles. CREEPSHOW (1982), a collaboration with Stephen King, has a quintet of stories in the style of 50’s EC Comics like TALES FROM THE CRYPT and THE VAULT OF HORROR. MONKEY SHINES (1988) involves a bond between a quadriplegic man and a service monkey that turns deadly. TWO EVIL EYES (1990) is another collaboration, this time with Italian maestro Dario Argento, with each director taking on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. THE DARK HALF (1993) is one of the most successful adaptations of a Stephen King novel put to film.

NOTLD (1968)

But it’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that everyone will remember Romero for, a shocking masterpiece of terror that’s been often imitated, but never duplicated. It still scares the hell out of me, and I’m going to go dust off my VHS copy and watch it right now. I think George would’ve wanted it that way.

Confessions of a TV Addict #2: A Fan’s Appreciation of Adam West

Adam West, who died June 9th at age 88, will never be ranked among the world’s greatest thespians. He was no Brando or Olivier, no DeNiro or Pacino. His early career wasn’t very distinguished: one of Robert Taylor’s young charges in the final season of THE DETECTIVES, Paul Mantee’s doomed fellow astronaut in 1964’s ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, the bumbling romantic lead in The Three Stooges’ THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (1965). Were it not for one role, no one would be mourning his loss today. But that one role, as millionaire Bruce Wayne aka BATMAN, captured the imagination of an entire nation, and remains the hero of an entire generation.

It’s hard to describe to anyone who wasn’t a kid in 1966 just what BATMAN meant to us. The series was a comic book come to life, before comics became “dark and brooding” little psychodramas for fanboys. Comic Books were OUR medium, written for kids as escapist fare, full of color and action. When BATMAN first hit the airwaves on Wednesday, January 12, 1966, it was an event, and every kid was glued to their set for a half hour as Batman and his faithful sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder went up against The Riddler (a pitch-perfect Frank Gorshin) and his Mole Hill Mob. The episode features The Caped Crusader doing the “Batusi” at the What-A-Way-To-Go-Go Club, later aped by John Travolta in PULP FICTION. Meanwhile, Robin is captured by Riddler and strapped to an operating table and… TUNE IN TOMORROW, SAME BAT-TIME, SAME BAT-CHANNEL!!

That’s right, the series ran in two parts, on successive nights, a distinction held only by prime-time soap PEYTON PLACE. You can just imagine the buzz at school the next day; “Did you see Batman last night?”, “It was so cool!”, “Wonder what’s gonna happen tonight?”. Kids across America were instantly hooked, like little druggies ravenously awaiting their next fix. Everyone was singing our new national anthem: “Nananananananana-nananananananana BAT-MAN!!!”. High camp my ass; to us, BATMAN was high art!!

Paul Newman or Sean Connery couldn’t have done any better than Adam West. Playing the part completely straight amidst all the campiness going on around him, West’s Caped Crusader was the ultimate do-gooder, and straight as an arrow. His deadpan acting while wearing that silly costume and fiddling about with gadgetry like the Bat-Compute, flinging his Batarang high up a building and scaling the side, or admonishing Robin to always wear his safety belt, was the glue holding the series together.

West was the show’s moral compass, a total square in a mad pop-art world of florid villains and onomatopoeia sound effects. He held his own ground against a plethora of actors more colorful than he playing his dastardly foes. There were scene stealers galore: Cesar Romero  (Joker), Burgess Meredith  (Penguin), Vincent Price (Egghead), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), Victor Buono (King Tut), George Sanders/ Otto Preminger Eli Wallach (all taking turns as Mr. Freeze), Tallulah Bankhead (Black Widow), Shelley Winters (Ma Parker), and many more, all much more accomplished actors pitted against West and Burt Ward’s Dynamic Duo. Yet it was Adam West we all tuned in for week after week to watch and enjoy as he defeated the bad guys and made Gotham City’s citizens safe once again.

The camp superhero craze didn’t last long. Just three short seasons and America moved on to the next big thing, and Adam West’s career was kaput. I told you about his rise, fall, and rebirth as an ironic icon in yesterday’s post , so I won’t rehash his saga once again. I just want to say thank you to Adam West for making childhood enjoyable every Wednesday and Thursday night during those three seasons of scintillating 60’s superhero action. Job well done, citizen. You’ve earned your rest.

RIP ADAM WEST, TV’S CAPED CRUSADER

News has spread that Adam West, star of 60’s campy superhero series BATMAN, has passed away at the age of 88. In his memory, I’m reposting my piece on the documentary STARRING ADAM WEST, first published 7/22/15 on the website “Through the Shattered Lens”. I’ll have more on West’s career tomorrow:

Holy high camp! STARRING ADAM WEST is a fun documentary about the quest to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for 60’s TV star Adam BATMAN West. The film also serves as a biography of the cult actor, from his humble beginnings as a child in Walla Walla, Washington to his rise as TV’s biggest star of the mid-60s, and his fall after being typecast as the Caped Crusader, reduced to performing in crappy car shows and carnivals. West later resurrected his career as an ironic icon in the 90s and still does voice work today, notably on the animated FAMILY GUY. Through all the ups and downs, the star has retained both his sense of humor and love of family. An entertaining look at a down to earth guy in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of show biz, STARRING ADAM WEST is playing all this month on Showtime.

Remembering Roger Moore: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (United Artists 1974)

I didn’t realize Sir Roger Moore was 89 years old when I first heard he’d passed away on May 23. But as Mick Jagger once sang, time waits for no one, and Moore’s passing is another sad reminder of our own mortality. It seemed like Roger had been around forever though, from his TV stardom as Simon Templar in THE SAINT (1962-69) though his seven appearances as James Bond, Agent 007.

There’s always been a rift  between fans of original film Bond Sean Connery and fans of Moore’s interpretation. The Connery camp maintains Moore’s Bond movies rely too much on comedy, turning the superspy into a parody of himself. Many point to his second, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, as an example, but I disagree. I think the film strikes a good balance between humor and suspense, with Roger on-target as 007, and the great Christopher Lee (who’d guest starred in Moore’s syndicated 1958 TV series IVANHOE) in great form as the cold-blooded master assassin Francisco Scaramanga.

The prologue takes us to Scaramanga’s island hideaway off the coast of (Red) China. A Chicago-style hit man (gangster vet Marc Lawrence  ) is invited to engage in a deadly battle of wits in Scaramanga’s bizarre fun house, won by the international executioner. A wax figure of Bond let us know who his next target is to be. Roll credits, over the (admittedly lame) title tune warbled by pop singer Lulu.

Now the story proper begins. 007 is called into M’s office and shown a golden bullet etched with his number. It can mean only one thing: ex-KGB assassin Francisco Scaramanga, the man with the golden gun who charges a million dollars a hit, has set his sights on James Bond. This sets up the scene for action, as Bond travels to Beirut (giving the film an excuse for sex & violence in a belly dancer’s dressing room), Macau (where he delivers the famous “My name’s Bond… James Bond” line), Hong Kong (introducing us to Britt Eklund as klutzy assistant Mary Goodnight and Maud Adams, later to portray OCTOPUSSY, as Scaramanga’s mistress Andrea Anders), Bangkok (with a nod to the 70’s chop-sockey martial arts craze featuring Soon Taik-Oh and a pair of kung-fu fighting schoolgirls), and finally to Scaramanga’s island lair, where the two “best in the business” have their final showdown, echoing Welles’s LADY FROM SHANGHAI.

All the traditional Bond elements are in place. Bernard Lee, Desmond Llewelyn, and Lois Maxwell are back as M, Q, and Miss Moneypenny. There’s exotic locales, sexual innuendoes, hi-tech gadgetry, thrilling stunts, and plenty of action. The late Clifton James (who died April 15th this year) is also back from LIVE AND LET DIE as redneck sheriff J.W. Pepper, on vacation in Bangkok and accidentally caught up in a wild car chase (“Who you after this time, boy? Commies?”). Herve Villechaize is on hand as Scaramanga’s diminutive flunky Nick Nack, and long-time screen villain Richard Loo plays ultra-rich businessman Hai Fat, involved in the theft of the Solex Agitator, a super-powerful solar battery that could solve the world’s energy crisis and serves as the movie’s McGuffin.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN is fast and furious fun, and helped bring Christopher Lee out of the sinister shadow of Dracula and into the mainstream. It’s the last of Guy Hamilton’s four Bond films in the director’s chair (GOLDFINGER, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, LIVE AND LET DIE); he and Lewis Gilbert are the only two that directed both Connery and Moore in the role. James Bond may have a License to Kill, but he wasn’t meant to be a dour, brooding character on film (I’m talking to you, Daniel Craig!). The Moore/Bond films have a tongue-in-cheek charm to them, and are fondly remembered as much for their humor as for all the kiss-kiss-bang-bang action. Job well done, 007. And rest in peace, Sir Roger Moore.

RIP Roger Moore (1927-2017)

50 Years Ago Today: The Beatles’ SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (Capitol Records 1967)

June 2, 1967. The beginning of the so-called “Summer of Love”. The underground hippie culture was grooving toward the mainstream. And those four loveable mop tops, The Beatles , released their eighth album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, on America’s shores, ushering in the concept of “concept albums” that still reverberates in music today. The Fab Four were Fab no more, but genuine artists, with a little help from their friend, producer George Martin.

The Beatles had stopped touring  the previous year, tired of the grind and the hysterical screaming that drowned their music out. They had done some experimenting in the studio with “Revolver”, their previous LP, but “Sgt. Pepper” was something different. Martin and the band members, influenced by both The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out!” discs, utilized then cutting edge studio techniques (tape loops, sound effects, varying speeds) and instrumentations (sitar, harmonium, Mellotron, tubular bells, even a 40-piece orchestra) to create the album’s aural mood, with The Beatles using alter egos as a Edwardian Era marching band!

None of the tracks were released as singles, although two songs that didn’t make the cut (“Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”) were issued as a Double-A sided 45 (both were featured on their later ’67 LP, “Magical Mystery Tour”). After the hard-rocking albeit brief intro, Paul welcomes singer ‘Billy Shears’, actually Ringo crooning “With a Little Help from My Friends” (later a #1 hit for Joe Cocker). The next song, John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, is probably the most trippy. Lennon always claimed “Lucy” was taken from a picture drawn by his young son Julian, but seriously… with lyrics like “Picture yourself in a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies/Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly/A girl with Kaleidoscope eyes” what else could it be about than an acid trip? “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – right John, you cheeky little devil!

“Getting Better” is an uptempo rocker reminiscent of the band’s “Yesterday and Today” period, while “Fixing A Hole” toys with major and minor keys, to good effect. “She’s Leaving Home” is a sad number about a female youth running away, with Paul and John’s vocals augmented by a lush string orchestraition. The last song on Side 1, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, has a swirlingly fun circus-like atmosphere, influenced heavily by the  British Music Hall sounds the band grew up with.

Side 2 kicks off with George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”, a hypnotic, raga-based mediation on the nature of life and being I find hauntingly beautiful. Harrison shows off the sitar skills he learned from Indian master Ravi Shankar, while accompanied by traditional Indian instruments like the tabla and tambora. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is another Music Hall influenced number, Paul’s ode to growing old together, with a clarinet used to give it an old-timey feel. “Lovely Rita” is another rocker that finds John and Paul playing both kazoo and a comb-and-tissue combo! “Good Morning, Good Morning” puts John front and center for a peppy tune compete with crowing roosters!

After a reprise of “Sgt. Pepper”, it’s time for “A Day in the Life”, the album’s most ambitious track. A drug-soaked rumination on the nature of reality, with the refrain “I’d love to turn you on”, this avant-garde inspired piece features the most famous final chord in rock, a glorious forty-second noise with three pianos and a harmonium hitting an E-Major that vibrates off into space and the album’s ending.

Equally as famous as the music on “Sgt. Pepper”, and deservedly so, is the iconic album cover by artist Peter Blake, parodied and imitated for fifty years and counting. Among those standing in the picture you’ll find the likes of Fred Astaire, author William S. Burroughs, occultist Aleister Crowley, Lewis Carroll, Marlene Dietrich, Bob Dylan, W.C.Fields , Bowery Boy Huntz Hall Laurel & Hardy , socialist Karl Marx, cowboy star Tom Mix, Edgar Allan Poe, poet Dylan Thomas, Shirley Temple, H.G. Wells, and Mae West. Blake’s collage collected some of The Beatles’ biggest influences, and won a Grammy for Best Album Cover (Graphic Arts).

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a #1 smash, and definitely is the pinnacle of the psychedelic rock era. Fifty years on, both fans and musicians alike marvel at The Beatles’ stunning achievement, done in a time when studio tricks and sound sweetening were at a primitive level. The album has influenced everyone from Pink Floyd (“The Wall”) and The Who (“Tommy”, Quadrophenia”), to latter-day artists like Green Day (“American Idiot”), turning the ‘concept album’ (and rock itself) into an art form. It belong in any music lover’s collection, and if you haven’t heard it in a while (or, heaven forbid, ever!), today would be a good day to let The Beatles “turn you on”. (Just stay away from the wretched 1978 movie starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees!)