On July 15th, 2017, Martin Landau passed away at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, CA. He died of “unexpected complications” during a brief stay at the facility.
Martin Landau’s Career
In 1955, Martin Landau began as a student at The Actors Studio, a world-renowned acting school. He studied under legends like Elia Kazan and Lee Strausburg. And befriended future greats like Steve McQueen and James Dean. While his fellow classmates and teachers focused on technical prowess and realism, Landau concerned himself with physicality and escapism. He cited Charlie Chaplin as a major influence and the reason he chose to pursue acting.
Martin Landau made his Broadway debut in Middle of the Night in 1957. Two years later, he landed his first major film role. Of course, the film was Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, a masterpiece of the spy/thriller genre. Landau played Leonard, the right-hand man of James Mason’s Phillip Vandamm.
Certainly, his most iconic role as Rollin Hand, the master of disguise on Mission: Impossible. He signed on to the first season as a recurring guest so that his commitment to the show did not overcrowd his film making schedule. However, his character was an instant fan favorite and he was upgraded to a full-time cast member in the second season. Although, his contract was renewed year-to-year rather than a static contract for multiple seasons. From there, Martin Landau found over 5 decades of steady work as a character actor. Obviously, his talents are far beyond that of a typical character actor, But, Landau found the work comfortable and steady. And then, in 1988, he received his first Academy Award nomination.
The film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a stylized biopic about Preston Tucker and his attempt at marketing the Tucker Sedan. Landau played Abe Karatz, Tucker’s financier. He lost the award to Kevin Kline. However, he landed another nomination for Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors one year later. And, he lost to Denzel Washington. In the midst of losses, Landau found his career more fulfilling than ever, and he kept a steady amount of work into the 1990’s. And, in 1995, he finally won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.
Martin Landau’s Legacy
I’ve talked before about character actors not getting their due. Fortunately, Martin Landau broke that vicious cycle and earned an Oscar for an incredible performance. His performance in Ed Wood is absolutely phenomenal and it’s one of Tim Burton’s best films. The story is a celebration of the creative spirit and its many forms. Yes, it’s one of the most inaccurate biopics ever made. But, it’s a pastiche instead of a historical drama. Also, his role is minor in North by Northwest, but the film is rock solid top to bottom.
Of course, if you’d like to be a little more adventurous, Landau played a supporting role in the BBC show Space 1999. It plays like a weaker version of the original Battlestar Galactica. Landau often criticized the shows scripts and story lines but loved working with the cast and crew so much that he stayed until the show’s cancellation.
Martin Landau was an absolute powerhouse in the entertainment industry. And he leaves behind a wonderful body of work. The tapestry of characters he embodied would make anyone proud. And the crown jewel of his career not only garnered an Oscar but honored one of Hollywood’s forgotten legends. I’ll leave you with my favorite scene from Ed Wood. Landau fully embodies the icon in this moment and demonstrates how talented Bela Lugosi truly was. Enjoy!