Martin Landau at the Academy Awards in 1996. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Martin Landau, Oscar-winning actor for “Ed Wood,” has died at 89.
He 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.
The Oscar-winning veteran appeared in classic films such as Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” and Alfred Hitchock’s “North By Northwest” and starred in the “Mission: Impossible” television series in the 1960s.
He won his Academy Award for his portrayal of washed-up Bela Lugosi in “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, 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. — Martin Landau
“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 fraternized 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 Mahtin,’” 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.
While 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.”