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.

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)

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American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

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Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood Karl Malden Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired of the formula and its various permutations, leaving METEOR to crumble like so much space dust.

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A brief summary: former NASA scientist Paul Bradley (Connery), creator of America’s secret nuclear missile defense satellite Hercules, is plucked from his yacht race and brought back into service by ex-boss Harry Sherwood (Malden). A wayward comet has struck the asteroid belt, and now the aforementioned five-mile-wide meteor (nicknamed Orpheus) threatens good ol’ Mother Earth. The President (Fonda) holds a televised speech admitting they have the nuclear satellite, and asks for Russia’s cooperation, knowing they too have one (code name Peter The Great). The Ruskies send scientist Dr. Dubov (Keith) and his astrophysicist interpreter Tatiana (Wood) to help, much to the chagrin of commie-hating General Adlan (Landau). Now that the two superpowers have joined together, can they put aside their differences and turn their respective missiles at Orpheus instead of each other in time to avert a global catastrophe?

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It’s not exciting as it may sound. Connery looks bored, Malden and Landau overact, and Fonda’s obviously only there for the paycheck. Only Keith and Wood seem engaged in the material, though Trevor Howard does okay in his tiny role as a British astronomer. Besides the big names, there are other, lesser Familiar Faces in lesser roles: Joseph Campanella, Richard Dysart, Bibi Besch, Sybil Danning, Gregory Gaye, Clyde Kusatsu, newscaster Clete Roberts, and Uncle Walt’s nephew Roy Disney (wait… how’d he get in here??). They even got THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE’s Ronald Neame to direct, hoping to capture some of that movie’s popularity. Didn’t work- the new film was nowhere near that early disaster classic in terms of character development, script, or excitement.

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The special effects scenes are good, not great. There’s a tsunami in Hong Kong, an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, and a meteor fragment that destroys a large swath of New York City. There are some unintentionally funny moments, like watching Connery and Malden slog through a muddy flood in a subway tunnel, Malden’s comb-over flopping down his shoulder. We get ominous music every time Orpheus appears onscreen, kind of like when “Bruce” shows up in JAWS. It’s all silly and overwrought, and by the next year AIP founder Samuel Arkoff, his big-budget gambles all gone sour, sold the company to Filmways, which was later bought out by Orion, which in turn was sold to MGM, who now own the rights to the AIP catalog. Old Sam should’ve stuck with beach parties and monster movies.

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