Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau, most closely associated with scene-stealing character turns in such films as “North by Northwest,” “Crimes and Misdemeanours” and “Ed Wood” as well as the classic TV series “Mission: Impossible,” died Saturday in Los Angeles, according to his publicist. He had been hospitalized at UCLA where he experienced complications. He was 89.
The lanky, offbeat-looking veteran of the Actors Studio, for he which he was currently West Coast co-artistic director, had many ups and downs in his career. His greatest successes (three Oscar nominations and one win) came later in life when he returned to character roles like the one that first won him notice, as James Mason’s sinister gay henchman in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
He was Emmy-nominated five times, and most of his leading man roles came on television, most notably as Rollin Hand, a master of disguise on “Mission: Impossible.” He later spent a couple of years starring in syndicated sci-fi series “Space: 1999,” on which, as with “Mission: Impossible,” he co-starred with then-wife Barbara Bain.
After a dry spell, his career roared back to life in the late 1980s when Francis Ford Coppola cast him in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” which brought Landau the first of three supporting noms. It was, he reminded one journalist, the first time this “Jewish kid from Brooklyn” took a role that called for him to play Jewish.
An even more impressive turn as a successful Jewish ophthalmologist haunted by a secret in Woody Allen’s drama “Crimes and Misdemeanours” brought him an Oscar nomination for the second year in a row.
In 1994 came the part of a lifetime for a character actor, the dying, once-famous screen ghoul Bela Lugosi, in Tim Burton’s whacked-out “Ed Wood.” Landau won the supporting actor Oscar.
Landau made his first bigscreen impression in Alfred Hitchcock’s action suspenser “North by Northwest,” playing the villain who does Mason’s dirty work. The role led to a major supporting role in the epic “Cleopatra,” on which Landau spent a year, only to find most of his role as General Rufio on the cutting-room floor. “What could I do?” he later lamented. “They couldn’t cut Richard Burton or Elizabeth Taylor.”
During the 1960s he had character roles in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Nevada Smith” and “The Hallelujah Trail.”
Landau had been doing television work since the 1950s but got busy in TV in the mid-’60s, with several guest appearances on sci-fier “The Outer Limits” and spy skein “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” He was producer Gene Roddenberry’s first choice for the role of Spock on “Star Trek,” but the role wound up going to Leonard Nimoy after Landau opted for “Mission: Impossible.” (Nimoy would later take a recurring role on “Mission: Impossible.”)
On the enormously successful “Mission: Impossible,” Landau and Bain played well off one another and with the rest of the regular ensemble, which included Peter Graves. Landau stayed with the series for three years, through 1969, drawing Emmy nominations three years in a row. He said his reason for leaving (and Bain’s as well) was artistic differences over the general direction of the show, though others claim salary demands were the real problem.
However, roles in “A Town Called Hell,” “Operation Snafu” and another villain role in “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” didn’t result in major acclaim.
Television came to the rescue again with the two-year run of “Space: 1999” in the mid-’70s. Numerous TV movie turns reached a nadir with “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” in 1981.
He and Bain divorced, and Landau spent the ’80s in roles in mostly obscure films. He also worked as an acting teacher.
After the successes of “Tucker,” “Crimes and Misdemeanours” and “Ed Wood,” Landau had a steady stream of mostly supporting work on the bigscreen from the mid-’90s through the late 2000s.
He brought poignancy to his role as a judge in “City Hall” and played Gepetto in “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” He contributed a memorable turn to “The X-Files” movie in 1998, worked for Burton again in “Sleepy Hollow” and took roles in “Rounders,” “The Majestic” and “Hollywood Homicide.”
He had a series of roles in small films including 2006’s “David and Fatima” and starred in 2008’s “Harrison Montgomery.”
There was also higher-profile work: Landau starred with Judy Parfitt in 2004 Holocaust drama “The Aryan Couple.” He also had a role in “City of Ember” and did voicework for the 2009 animated feature “9” and 2012’s “Frankenweenie.”
Landau provided voices for the 1997 Oscar-winning documentary “The Long Way Home” and appeared as himself in the docus “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s,” “Cannes: Through the Eyes of the Hunter” and “Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There” (2003) as well as a 2011 “American Masters” documentary on Woody Allen.
He kept his hand in on the smallscreen as well, starring in the miniseries “Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story” and appearing as a series regular on the brief ABC series “The Evidence.” He recurring notably on “Without a Trace” as Anthony LaPaglia’s father with Alzheimer’s and on “Entourage” as a washed-up producer, drawing Emmy nominations in 2004 and 2005 for the former and in 2007 for the latter. Most recently he appeared in “The Last Poker Game” with Paul Sorvino, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, and in “Remember” for director Atom Egoyan.
Also in the 2000s, Landau worked as an acting coach in a venture with director Mark Rydell and screenwriter-playwriter Lyle Kessler.
The Brooklynite started out as a cartoonist, spending four years with the New York Daily News from 1948-51, then turned his attentions to acting. He claimed that he and Steve McQueen were the only two among 2,000 applicants whose auditions gained them admittance to the Actors Studio (of which Landau later became an officer).
Landau did some stage work, most notably touring with the Paddy Chayefsky play “Middle of the Night” in 1956-57. He married one of the understudies, Bain, whom he met in Curt Conway’s acting classes.
His film debut came in a small role in “Pork Chop Hill” in 1959, followed by a larger role in “The Gazebo.” Then he drew attention for his role in “North by Northwest.”
He is survived by two daughters, writer-producer-casting director Susan Landau Finch and thesp Juliet Landau of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame, a sister and a granddaughter.
Donations may be made to Actors Studio West, Attn: Helen Sanders, 8341 DeLongpre Ave., West Hollywood, Calif. 90069.
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