The versatile actor who fought against typecasting
Martin Landau 1928–2017
Martin Landau was no stranger to the peaks and valleys of a Hollywood career. During his seven decades in the industry, the actor starred in the hit 1960s TV drama Mission: Impossible, worked with directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola, and won an Oscar for playing the washed-up horror-film legend Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1995). But for long stretches of time, the lanky, intense Landau struggled to find roles outside of B-list disaster films, and was typecast as a villain. “There was a period when things weren’t coming my way,” he said in 1994. “I was a bad guy by profession, a heavy in a certain kind of tacky movie.”
A Brooklyn native, son of an Austrian-born machinist and his wife, Landau joined the New York Daily News as a cartoonist while still in high school, said The Washington Post. “A precociously gifted artist,” he turned down a promotion at the paper at age 22 to try his hand at acting. He applied for classes at the prestigious Actors Studio in Manhattan; of 2,000 applicants in 1955, “only he and Steve McQueen were accepted.” It was there that he befriended James Dean and briefly dated Marilyn Monroe, said The New York Times. After a series of theater and TV roles, Landau was cast as a homosexual henchman in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) and as a loyal Roman soldier alongside Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963). But he found wide fame on Mission: Impossible, playing master of disguise Rollin Hand from the show’s debut in 1966 until 1969, when he left during a contract dispute.
Landau’s career hit a fallow period after that, said the Los Angeles Times, with many of his paychecks coming “from cheap, direct-to-video movies and overseas television.” But directors came calling again after Landau landed back-toback Academy Award nominations in the late 1980s, playing a wheeler-dealer in Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and a philandering doctor in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Through it all, Landau remained dedicated to the craft of acting, serving for decades as the co–artistic director of Actors Studio West in West Hollywood, where he counted Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston among his pupils. “I take the Friday session every week,” he said in 2016. “What I am really doing is igniting something that’s going to stay.”