Martin Landau has about half a dozen movies in the works these days, including a reunion with Tim Burton, who directed Landau's Oscar-winning performance in 'Ed Wood.' Not a bad to-do list for an actor who turned 83 this week (June 20 to be precise).
It's apt that Landau's signature role is Rollin Hand, the master of disguise on TV's 'Mission: Impossible.' After all, as an actor, Landau has been a total chameleon. He's hard to pin down and has an intuitive grasp of character. Even his TV guest spots and his small character parts in forgettable movies feel thoroughly lived-in. He was known early in his career for playing sneering villains, but as he has aged, he's played wise, avuncular types as well, though they're also often men with a few tricks up their sleeves.
Landau has worked with many of film's greatest directors, from Alfred Hitchcock to George Stevens to Francis Ford Coppola to Woody Allen to Burton. Here's a look back at some of the best work of his six-decade career, as well as what's next for the still-busy octogenarian.
Landau started out as a TV and stage actor. His first big break in film was Hitchcock's 1959 classic 'North by Northwest.' In the spy thriller, he plays Leonard, henchman to the villain (James Mason), and he's the slyest, smartest, most sinister person in the movie. Landau boldly chose to play Leonard as gay (there's evident jealousy in his desire to get rid of Eva Marie Saint, his rival for Mason's attentions). After watching Landau's performance during the early part of the shoot, screenwriter Ernest Lehman even wrote Landau an extra line of dialogue that makes Leonard's orientation obvious to those paying attention: "Call it my woman's intuition, if you will." Landau tosses the line off so casually that it's no wonder the censors missed it, but Leonard's sexuality is evident throughout the film in his scenes with Mason. Of course, even without paying attention to Leonard's orientation, it's easy to enjoy Landau's performance for its sheer malice, for the sadistic joy he shows when he ignores the dangling Cary Grant's plea for rescue and steps on his hand instead.
Landau's colleagues were worried that he'd be typecast as gay. Instead, he was typecast as sinister heavies. He did play a heroic role in 1963's 'Cleopatra,' as a Roman officer whose loyalty to Mark Antony proves his undoing, but that legendary flop didn't really help anyone's career. He had another juicy part as Caiaphas, the Jewish priest who leads the legal charge against Jesus (Max von Sydow) in George Stevens' 'The Greatest Story Ever Told,' but that ponderous 1965 epic again failed to help any of its all-star cast of actors very much.
Landau spent much of the next couple of decades in bit parts in movies and major parts on TV. He also served as an acting coach to such future stars as Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. On the small screen, he had lead roles on both 'Mission: Impossible' (from 1966–69) and 'Space: 1999' (1975-78). On both shows, he co-starred with then-wife Barbara Bain. He also showed a commanding presence and charisma that he'd seldom had the opportunity to display in movies
The actor was 60 when his big-screen comeback began with a role in Coppola's 'Tucker: The Man and His Dream' (1988). As Abe Karatz, the mentor and financial backer of maverick 1940s auto designer Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), Landau is the voice of wisdom and caution, a grounding presence in a film about a wild-eyed dreamer. The movie wasn't a hit, but critics loved it, and so did the Academy, which honored Landau with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Landau was nominated again the following year for his role in Allen's 'Crimes and Misdemeanors.' In what has become a prototypical Landau role (a seemingly decent, venerable man with a secret dark side), he plays Judah Rosenthal, a prosperous optometrist who plots the murder of his mistress (Huston) after she threatens to expose their affair to his wife. The film is one of Allen's meditations on the absence of justice in the universe, and there's a comic subplot starring Allen and Mia Farrow that makes a similar point, but the movie as a whole wouldn't work without Landau's sympathetic and ultimately tragic performance as a good man who makes some very bad moral decisions.
Third time was the charm for Landau at the Oscars, when he won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Burton's 'Ed Wood' as Bela Lugosi. Landau is almost unrecognizable as the legendary monster-movie actor. He's made up to look like a scary, aged vampire who could still pass for the more dashing Dracula he played as a younger man. His Lugosi is also an addict and a man bitter over having been forgotten by Hollywood. So there's a deep pathos (and a surprising amount of humor) in his relationship with Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), a terribly untalented director who nonetheless succeeds in rescuing Lugosi from obscurity and letting him sink his fangs into a last shot at screen immortality. It's a thoroughly delightful, multifaceted performance that is justifiably seen as the crown jewel in Landau's career.
I was lucky enough to meet Landau shortly after watching a preview screening of the 1994 film, which had convinced the other critics and I that Landau was sure to win an Oscar. We told him so, and he responded to the compliment in typical actorly fashion, enjoying the praise while simultaneously too insecure to accept it at face value. "Do you really think so?" he asked, not nearly as certain as we were. Don't worry, we told him. You have it in the bag.
In recent years, Landau has largely returned to character parts in movies -- a law professor with a taste for high-stakes poker in 'Rounders,' a conspiracy-minded doctor in the first 'X-Files' movie, an ill-fated aristocrat in Burton's 'Sleepy Hollow,' the owner of a movie house that's the heart and soul of a small town in Frank Darabont's 'The Majestic.' He also had some recurring roles on popular TV series, as Anthony LaPaglia's father on 'Without a Trace' and as Bob Ryan, a Robert Evans-like producer itching to come out of retirement, on 'Entourage.'
His best recent role was in last year's 'Lovely, Still,' about a romance between two old timers (Landau and Ellen Burstyn), with an unexpected twist. Landau has said he helped writer/director Nik Fackler largely rewrite the script to streamline the plot and heighten the drama. As he was back in Hitchcock's day, Landau is still apparently full of inventive ideas for bringing out his characters and adding edge to the story.
Among the five or six movies to which Landau is attached that are going into production in the next couple of years, the most intriguing is 'Frankenweenie,' Burton's stop-motion animation feature adaptation of the 1984 cartoon short that launched his career, about a kid scientist reanimating his dead dog. Landau joins a voice cast that includes fellow Burton vets Winona Ryder, Martin Short, and Catherine O'Hara. At any rate, Landau certainly knows a lot about reviving what's dormant.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.