His résumé includes ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dream’ and ‘North by Northwest.’ It does not, however, include ‘Star Trek.’
Martin Landau, the all-purpose actor who showcased his versatility as a master of disguise on the Mission: Impossible TV series and as a broken-down Bela Lugosi in his Oscar-winning performance in Ed Wood, has died. He was 89.
Landau, who shot to fame by playing a homosexual henchman in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North by Northwest, died Saturday of “unexpected complications” after a brief stay at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, his rep confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter.
After he quit CBS’ Mission: Impossible after three seasons in 1969 because of a contract dispute, Landau’s career was on the rocks until he was picked by Francis Ford Coppola to play Abe Karatz, the business partner of visionary automaker Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988).
Landau received a best supporting actor nomination for that performance, then backed it up the following year with another nom for starring as Judah Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist who has his mistress (Angelica Huston) killed, in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
Landau lost out on Oscar night to Kevin Kline and Denzel Washington, respectively, in those years but finally prevailed for his larger-than-life portrayal of horror-movie legend Lugosi in the biopic Ed Wood (1994), directed by Tim Burton.
Landau also starred as Commander John Koenig on the 1970s science-fiction series Space: 1999 opposite his Mission: Impossible co-star Barbara Bain, his wife from 1957 until their divorce in 1993.
A former newspaper cartoonist, Landau turned down the role of Mr. Spock on the NBC series Star Trek, which went to Leonard Nimoy (who later effectively replaced Landau on Mission: Impossible after Trek was canceled).
Landau also was an admired acting teacher who taught the craft to the likes of Jack Nicholson. And in the 1950s, he was best friends with James Dean and, for several months, the boyfriend of Marilyn Monroe. “She could be wonderful, but she was incredibly insecure, to the point she could drive you crazy,” he told The New York Times in 1988.
Landau was born in Brooklyn on June 20, 1928. At age 17, he landed a job as a cartoonist for the New York Daily News, but he turned down a promotion and quit five years later to pursue acting.
“It was an impulsive move on my part to do that,” Landau told The Jewish Journal in 2013. “To become an actor was a dream I must’ve had so deeply and so strongly because I left a lucrative, well-paying job that I could do well to become an unemployed actor. It’s crazy if you think about it. To this day, I can still hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘You did what?!’ ”
“I turned down Star Trek. It would’ve been torturous,” he said during a 2011 edition of the PBS documentary series Pioneers of Television. “I would’ve probably died playing that role. I mean, even the thought of it now upsets me. It was the antithesis of why I became an actor. I mean, to play a character that Lenny (Nimoy) was better suited for, frankly, a guy who speaks in a monotone who never gets excited, never has any guilt, never has any fear or was affected on a visceral level. Who wants to do that?”
Landau found a kindred spirit in Burton, who also cast him in Sleepy Hollow (1999) and as the voice of a Vincent Price-like science teacher in the horror-movie homage, Frankenweenie (2012).
“Tim and I don’t finish a sentence,” Landau told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “There’s something oddly kinesthetic about it. We kind of understand each other.”
Landau played puppet master Geppetto in a pair of Pinocchio films and appeared in other films including Pork Chop Hill (1959), City Hall (1996), The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998), Rounders (1998), Edtv (1999), The Majestic (2001), Lovely, Still (2008) and Mysteria (2011).
On television, he starred in the Twilight Zone episodes “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and “The Jeopardy Room,” played the title role in the 1999 Showtime telefilm Bonnano: A Godfather’s Story and could be found on The Untouchables, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Maverick, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Wagon Train, I Spy and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
More recently, Landau earned Emmy noms for playing the father of Anthony LaPaglia’s character on CBS’ Without a Trace and guest-starring as an out-of-touch movie producer on HBO’s Entourage. He portrayed billionaire J. Howard Marshall, the 90-year-old husband of Anna Nicole Smith, in a 2013 Lifetime biopic about the sex symbol, and starred for Atom Egoyan opposite Christopher Plummer in Remember (2015).
Survivors include his daughters Susie (a writer-producer) and Juliet (an actress-dancer) from his marriage to Bain; sons-in-law Roy and Deverill; sister Elinor; granddaughter Aria; and godson Dylan. Donations can be made to the Actors Studio West.
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