Martin Landau, the Oscar-winning veteran who appeared in classic films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” and starred in the “Mission: Impossible” television series in the 1960s, has died. He was 89.
Landau died Saturday at UCLA Medical Center, where he experienced “unexpected complications” during a short hospitalization, his publicist confirmed.
“We are overcome with sadness to report the death of iconic actor Martin Landau,” a statement said.
He won his Academy Award for his portrayal of washed-up Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.”
Throughout his prolific career, the tall, lean actor remained enthusiastic about his craft, which saw him inhabit roles that included a master spy, a space commander, former Hollywood heavyweights, the prophet Abraham and a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor. Landau’s dedication was apparent during his tenure as co-artistic director for Actors Studio West with Oscar-nominated director Mark Rydell. He recently starred in the CBS police procedural “Without a Trace,” playing Jack’s father with Alzheimer’s disease, and HBO’s “Entourage,” playing bumbling film producer Bob Ryan.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Landau began his career as a newspaperman at age 17, working for five years at the New York Daily News as a staff cartoonist and illustrator while studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. After five years at the News, Landau suddenly quit to try his hand at acting.
“I told the picture editor I was going into the theater. I think he thought I was going to be an usher,” he said in a 1989 interview with The Times.
Landau had few job prospects and lived on $5 a week from his savings as he made the rounds. He was hired for a summer stock company on an island off Portland, Me., did 12 shows — including musicals — in 13 weeks, and had a swell time.
While living in New York in the 1950s, he hung out with pal James Dean and competed for roles with the likes of Sydney Pollack and John Cassavetes.
“I would meet them in offices and waiting rooms before readings,” he told The Times.
Shifting to theater, Landau auditioned with 2,000 other actors for Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actors Studio in 1955. Only he and a young Steve McQueen were accepted.
“Steve and I got in the same night,” Landau said in a 2016 interview with The Times. “Lee Strasberg was gentle with Steve because he was rough with Jimmy [Dean]. Jimmy stopped working at the studio. He didn’t want that to happen to Steve.”
That wasn’t the case for Landau. Strasberg berated him for an hour in front of famed studio members Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Marilyn Monroe and Patricia Neal regarding acting choices he had made in a recent TV production.
“Retrospectively, it was good for me,” Landau said, because Strasberg taught him that a “certain actor’s arrogance is needed. Play the truth. Actors need to trust themselves. If you trust yourself, you can trust others and leave the director outside.”
He made his film debut in “Pork Chop Hill” (1959), but few can forget his breakout role as Leonard, the villainous henchman stalking Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s classic thriller “North by Northwest” (1959).
“I had tea with Mr. Hitchcock one afternoon and asked him how he could have cast me in that part, because what I was playing in [the play] ‘Middle of the Night’ was so different,” Landau recalled. “‘My dear Mah-tin,’” he said, impersonating the legendary filmmaker, “‘you have a circus going on inside you. If you can do that part in the play, you can do this little trinket of mine.’”
But Landau became wildly popular for his role as Rollin Hand, the “Man of a Million Faces” sleuth on the 1960s hit series “Mission: Impossible,” with then-wife Barbara Bain. The actor was not meant to be a regular on the show but became so popular that he went on to receive Emmy nominations for each of the three seasons in which he appeared, and in 1968 won a Golden Globe for male TV star. He quit the show in a contract dispute and went on to costar with Bain in Britain’s short-lived sci-fi drama “Space: 1999.” The couple had two daughters together — actress and ballerina Juliet Landau and producer Susan Landau — before they divorced in 1993.
Though the small screen provided the kind of the indelible success some actors dream about, Landau said “it was a nightmare too.”
“If a show is a hit, it’s the kiss of death as far as doing anything else is concerned,” he said.
In the early “golden years” of television, Landau told The Times in 1992, “no one knew who was in charge yet. There weren’t that many sets and ad agencies didn’t butt in.” As time went by, however, television lost its ability to be original, he said. “It copycats itself so much. The sense of adventure and risk-taking is much less.”
“I’d worked for the giants at the beginning — George Stevens, Hitchcock,” Landau said. “And then it all stopped because I was a television actor.”
He spent a year working on Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 epic “Cleopatra,” playing the loyal right-hand man to Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton). When the film marked its 50th anniversary in 2013, Landau recalled the monumentally mediocre movie’s other headlining scandal: Elizabeth Taylor’s adulterous affair with Burton.
On a day that only he and Burton were scheduled to work, Landau was shocked to see Taylor when he showed up to have his makeup applied.
“I am sitting there looking in the mirror and Burton comes in in a half-tunic, goes to Elizabeth and kisses her on the forehead and then says ‘good morning’ to me. I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God.’ They had not gone to their respective homes that night. Around 11 a.m., [Taylor’s husband] Eddie Fisher shows up,” Landau said. Thirty minutes later, Burton’s wife, Sybil Burton, arrived: “They came to see what happened to their spouses. Mankiewicz and I were rolling our eyeballs a little bit.”
TV curse aside, Landau went on to play numerous roles in film, including the wheeler-dealer Abe Karatz in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988), for which he was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for supporting actor. On “Tucker,” he put his old illustrating skills to work, drawing a sketch for makeup man Richard Dean of how he thought Abe ought to look. Dean and Coppola agreed.
The next year, he was lauded for his role as the philandering Judah Rosenthal, the doctor who has his mistress murdered and gets away with it, in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989). He was nominated for his second consecutive supporting actor Oscar.
“In any age range, there are some limitations in terms of good, good parts,” Landau said in 1992. After the Oscar nods, the “good, good parts” for actors in their late 50s and early 60s came his way. However, many of his paychecks came from cheap, direct-to-video movies and overseas television. Which, coincidentally, was one of the reasons why director Tim Burton wanted him to play morphine-addicted “Dracula” star Lugosi in 1994’s “Ed Wood,” starring Johnny Depp as the memorably inept, low-budget filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. (Landau’s daughter Juliet also appeared in the film.)
“It’s weird,” Landau told The Times about Lugosi in 1994. “Tim called me out of the blue. He said, ‘You’ve worked with everybody, you’ve done very good movies with major directors, you’ve done tacky, rotten movies with awful directors. You have a presence and there are a lot of things that coincide [with Bela].’ That’s how he came to me. I was shocked. He said, ‘You popped into my head and I couldn’t get you out.’”
The 63-year-old Landau played the aging 1930s star as a colorful, feisty old man crippled by a profound sadness.Denise Di Novi, who produced the film with Burton, said she realized how good Landau’s performance was going to be “in the first screen test, the makeup test. He gave a look to the camera, said a line of dialogue, and I was ecstatic. It gave me shivers. From that first makeup test, he was Bela. He found a niche that made him sympathetic, complex, funny, tragic — he brought it so many colors.”
Despite the fact that Bela Lugosi Jr. decried the film’s portrayal of his father, Landau said: “I don’t ridicule him. If anything, it’s almost a love letter to him. I never talked to his son, and from what I hear, he did not approve of some of the language. But that’s not the point. I don’t think I demean him at all. I salute him.”
For the role, Landau finally won the supporting actor Oscar and his third Golden Globe Award. During his Oscar speech, he hit the podium and shouted “No!” when the orchestra attempted to truncate his speech. He also received top honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics for his performance.
He followed up his Oscar win playing woodcarver Gepetto in 1995’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” which landed a sequel in 1999. He also voiced Woodrow Wilson in the mini-series “1914-1918,” Scorpion in the animated “Spider-Man,” and #2 in the animated “9.” He reunited with Burton in 2012 to voice science teacher Mr. Rzykruski in “Frankenweenie.”
In 1998, he starred in “Rounders,” playing poker hustler Matt Damon’s professor-mentor, mirroring his real-life role with young film talent: “Ed Wood” also laid the foundation for his friendships with Depp and Burton.
In 2000, Landau, who is of Jewish descent, played Abraham, father of the Israelites, in “In the Beginning,” which chronicled the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus. Jacqueline Bisset played his wife, Sarah.
“I’ll tell you something interesting: I haven’t been directed by anybody in probably 30 or 35 years, whether it be Francis Ford Coppola or Tim Burton,” Landau said in 2016. “I come in with stuff, and I have ideas. I think if they don’t like what I’m doing, they’ll say something. They don’t say anything. So I hit the mark, say the words and get the hell out of there.”t.”
After a few TV movies, he took on meatier small screen roles in the quickly canceled “The Evidence.” In “Without a Trace” he played Frank Malone, Jack’s (Anthony LaPaglia) Alzheimer’s-riddled father from 2004 to 2009. He also found a new audience playing the memorably out of touch producer Bob Ryan, a parody of legendary “Chinatown” and “Godfather” producer Robert Evans, in HBO’s “Entourage” series and subsequent film.
In 2008, he produced and costarred with fellow Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn in the December-December romance “Lovely, Still.” He did a short stint as on ABC’s 2011 series “Have a Little Faith” playing a beloved rabbi to writer Mitch Albom. In 2015, he costarred with Christopher Plummer in the thriller “Remember,” playing an Auschwitz survivor out to take down the man responsible for killing his family.
Landau received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was honored with the Israel Film Festival’s Career Achievement Award in 2013.
As artistic director Actors Studio West, his students have included Jack Nicholson and Oliver Stone.
“I take the Friday session every week,” he said. “The people whom I teach are teachers. What I am really doing is igniting something that’s going to stay.”
Landau is survived by daughters Juliet Landau and Susan Landau Finch. (Courtesy LA Times)