In my opinion, Martin Landau was one of the finest and most versatile actors of his time. He was successful in movies, on tv and on the stage. In addition, he was able to play a wide range of characters, such as “soft” characters, intellectuals, dictators and hard-nosed killers with equal aplomb.
Landau was born in 1928 in Brooklyn, NY. He graduated from James Madison High School and attended the Pratt Institute. At 17, he began working at the NY Daily News as an editorial cartoonist. But, he really wanted to become an actor, so after five years he quit to focus on becoming a stage actor.
In 1955 he auditioned for the Actors Studio, the famous school run by acting guru Lee Strasberg. In his class, some 500 would-be actors applied and only two were accepted – Landau and an fellow named Steve McQueen. It was a great learning experience for Landau as he got to hone his craft under professionals such as Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, Sydney Pollack, and, of course, Strasberg.
While at the studio he met and befriended another aspiring young actor named James Dean. Landau and Dean became “best friends.” Landau recalled “we were two young would-be and still yet-to-work unemployed actors dreaming out loud and enjoying every moment.”
Landau made his Broadway debut in 1957 in Middle of the Night. Later, he caught the eye of world renown director Alfred Hitchcock, who, in 1959, cast him in the hit movie North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant and James Mason. He played a criminal, alongside Mason. During the 1960s he appeared in Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, starring Max von Sydow and Charlton Heston.
Ironically, Landau turned down what could have been an epic role – Dr. Spock on Star Trek. As we know, eventually, that role went to Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy was fabulous in that role, but I could see Landau being successful in it also, as he could play any role.
His signature role was that of Rollin Hand, a master of disguise character in the hit tv show, Mission Impossible, starring Peter Graves and Barbara Bain, Landau’s wife. At first, Landau was reluctant to appear on the show, feeling the demands of a regular tv show would interfere with his movie opportunities. But, he relented when the producers offered him a one-year contract instead of the standard five-years. Playing Hand enabled Landau to demonstrate the full range of his acting abilities. He got to portray every type of character, and many times he played two roles in the same episode – Hand and the character Hand was supposedly impersonating. Landau left MI in 1969 following a salary dispute. MI continued until 1973 and, later, was reincarnated as a series of movies starring Tom Cruise.
Landau continued to work right to the end of his life. He was nominated for three best supporting actor Academy Awards for his roles in Tucker, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Ed Wood. He won for his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Additionally, he won a Screen Actors Guild award, a Golden Globe and a Saturn Award for the portrayal. Showing his aforementioned versatility, landau was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of an Alzheimer’s sufferer in the hit tv show Without a Trace.
In his later years Landau taught acting at the Actors’ Studio. Also, he collaborated with director Mark Rydell and writer Lyle Kessler to produce an educational seminar that taught the disciplines of acting, director and writing.
Landau passed away on July 15 at the age of 89. Rest in peace, Martin. You will be sorely missed.