Martin Landau, an Oscar-winning actor whose Cheshire-cat grin and intense gaze made him ideally suited to play villains and enigmatic heroes, notably disguise-master Rollin Hand on the hit 1960s TV series “Mission: Impossible,” died July 15 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 89.
Dick Guttman, a publicist for Landau, told the Associated Press that the actor died of “unexpected complications,” but did not provide additional details.
Landau’s seven-decade career featured verdant artistic peaks — including his work for directors Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Tim Burton — and long stretches of arid desert.
The New Yorker once described him as “a survivor of B-movie hell,” noting his long midcareer run of disaster films, blaxploitation movies and fright flicks. “None of them were porno,” the actor once quipped, “though some were worse.”
A precociously gifted artist, Landau had been a cartoonist, illustrator and theater caricaturist at the New York Daily News in his teens before embarking on an acting career at 22. He had developed a strong talent for observing people’s expressions and movements, as well as a flair for imitations and accents. Of thousands of applicants, only he and Steve McQueen were accepted in that class at the prestigious Actors Studio in Manhattan.
The school employed the Method philosophy, which calls on a performer to draw from his own, often painful, memories to illuminate a character. The system helped mold a generation of brooding stars, including Marlon Brando and James Dean. The 6-foot-3 Landau distinguished himself with a more subtle charisma and command of his craft, emerging as a versatile journeyman TV actor in the 1950s and 1960s.
Hitchcock, an early admirer, cast him in his most memorable early role, as espionage ringleader James Mason’s closeted gay minion Leonard in “North by Northwest” (1959). The film starred Cary Grant as a New York adman accidentally ensnared in an international spy ring.
Landau had proposed making Leonard covertly gay and worked with screenwriter Ernest Lehman to craft a line about his “woman’s intuition” — to be delivered before the character demonstrates how Mason’s girlfriend (played by Eva Marie Saint) has betrayed them.
“It was quite a big risk in cinema at the time,” Landau told the London Daily Telegraph in 2012. “My logic was simply that he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, so it made sense for him to be in love with his boss, Vandamm . . . Every one of my friends thought I was crazy, but Hitchcock liked it.”
Landau became a full-fledged star in 1966 with “Mission: Impossible,” the CBS spy drama about an elite squad of government agents who infiltrate and destroy Cold War enemies. The cast included Steven Hill and later Peter Graves as the group’s boss and Barbara Bain, then Landau’s wife, as the sultry team member Cinnamon Carter. Lalo Schifrin’s pulse-quickening jazzy score — and the self-destructing instructions that set every episode in motion — helped make the program a popular success (as well as a target for parody).
Landau and his wife left the show — he quit in a salary dispute and she was fired in retaliation — three years into the show. “Mission: Impossible” ran another four years without them. Landau said he found himself adrift, reduced to playing heavies in low-budget dreck. A widely acknowledged nadir was the TV film “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” (1981).
His career was salvaged by Coppola, who cast Landau as an amiable elderly businessman with a huckster streak in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988). The film starred Jeff Bridges in the real-life story of industrialist Preston Tucker, who mounts a star-crossed attempt to challenge the Big Three automakers with a new car. Landau, almost unrecognizable with aging makeup and a mustache, played Tucker’s partner.
He received a supporting Oscar nomination for his touching and understated performance — the start of an acting renaissance in his 60s.
“Oh, ‘Tucker’ resurrected me,” Landau told the London Guardian. “Before that, I did several films that should be turned into toothpicks. I was being offered, you know, professional bad guys in the evil business, total comic-strip stuff. When I got ‘Tucker’ I thought, ‘Thank God, a human being.’ ”
A second Oscar nomination followed for Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989), in which Landau brought a sympathetic twist to a New York ophthalmologist and philanthropist who is also an embezzler and arranges to have his erratic mistress (Anjelica Huston) killed.
Newsweek arts writer Cathleen McGuigan spoke for many critics when she wrote that his “delicate, tortured performance as a successful man caught in the web of his deceits is a tour de force.”
He received the Academy Award for Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994), in which he had an impassioned supporting turn as the Hungarian-born, heroin-addicted, aging horror-film actor Bela Lugosi. Critics lauded the tragicomic poignancy Landau brought to the role of a once-big star reduced to appearing in movies directed by the bizarrely inept Wood, often labeled the worst director of all time.
Burton said Landau’s interpretation was pivotal to the film, which centers on the friendship between Lugosi and the title character, played by Johnny Depp. “I think he just could relate to it, and had been through enough ups and downs to understand Bela Lugosi,” the Turner Classic Movies website quoted Burton as saying about Landau.
Although well-reviewed, “Ed Wood” was not a commercial success, and Landau never fully capitalized on his renewed celebrity. He appeared in an uneven parade of films and TV shows, including the limp comedy “B.A.P.S.” (1997) as a rich sugar daddy to Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle, and Burton’s animated “Frankenweenie” (2012) as the voice of young Victor Frankenstein’s science teachers.
A highlight was his Emmy Award-nominated recurring role on the HBO comedy series “Entourage” as a washed-up Hollywood producer. His endearingly clueless character makes dubious and exaggerated movie pitches straight out of a 1950s playbook: “What if I told you [enter claim here]. Is that something you might be interested in?”
Martin Landau was born in Brooklyn on June 20, 1928. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, was a skilled machinist.
The younger Landau joined the Daily News while still in high school and, after five years, he turned down a promotion for fear that he would remain at the paper forever. Seeing bad actors had simply persuaded him that he could simply do it better.
“I told the picture editor I was going into the theater,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I think he thought I was going to be an usher.”
At the Actors Studio, he briefly dated Marilyn Monroe (who was taking classes) and married fellow student Bain.
Landau had small roles in movie epics such as “Cleopatra” (1963) and “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965) while pursuing a prolific TV career. He was John the Baptist in an “Omnibus” adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome” and a sadistic western gunman in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
He and Bain co-starred in the syndicated sci-fi series “Space: 1999” in the mid-1970s; although stylishly made, it flopped.
Landau’s marriage to Bain ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters: Susan, a writer and producer; and Juliet, an actress.
For years, Landau was a director of the Actors Studio’s West Coast branch, where Jack Nicholson and Harry Dean Stanton were among his earliest students.
Landau had a rare leading-man part in “Lovely, Still” (2008), a tepidly received romance co-starring Ellen Burstyn, about an older couple’s love affair. He co-starred with Christopher Plummer in Atom Egoyan’s thriller “Remember” (2015), about Holocaust survivors who plot to kill an aging Auschwitz camp commander.
“If I was an opera singer or a ballet dancer, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that any longer, but being an actor playing old guys is kind of a gift,” Landau told the Star, a South African publication. “Half of the people I came up with are gone, and the other half don’t remember what they had for breakfast, so I’m very lucky.”