Thursday, July 27, 2017

Disastrous Demise: Martin Landau, 1928-2017

We've spoken before about the group of actors who belong to a certain distinguished club (which exists only in my own mind!) due to their having appeared in one or more big-screen disaster movies between 1970 and 1980. Dubbed the (oh so creative) Disaster Movie Club, or DMC, these performers nearly always hold a special place in my heart, though in today's subject, Martin Landau, the interest level extends even beyond that. So today we supply a photo essay on a man who enjoyed a more than 60-year career before the camera and saw his share of career highs and lows.
Landau, who was born on June 28th, 1928 in Brooklyn, NY, was initially a young editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News until he opted to devote his attention to acting. A member of The Actor's Studio from 1955 on, he learned his craft alongside James Dean and Steve McQueen, among others. After appearing on TV in several 1950s series (including more than a few westerns), he landed on the big-screen in 1959 with a supporting role in Gregory Peck's Korean War drama, Pork Chop Hill.
That same year he made a rather indelible impression in Alfred Hitchcock's wildly successful chase drama North by Northwest. As chief henchman to the movie's villain James Mason, Landau's piercing eyes and sneering demeanor contained an element of simmering homosexuality and even jealousy of the leading lady Eva Marie Saint's relationship with Mason.
Surprisingly enough, he wasn't utilized in the cinema again for three years despite his (perhaps too creepily) effective performance in Northwest. Instead, he was relegated to television, busily playing a variety of guest roles until he was granted a co-starring role in the low-budget 1962 western Stagecoach to Dancer's Rock. He then became part of the imbroglio that was 1963's Cleopatra, whose adulterous stars made the movie an international sensation (even as it lost money thanks to the extraordinary waste of money during production.)
Regardless of his searing blue eyes, Landau often found himself cast as various ethnic types from Mexicans to Apache Indians. After working on still more episodic television, he was cast as Chief Walks-Stooped-Over in the unwieldy (and unfunny) big-screen action comedy western The Hallelujah Trail (1965.) That same year he played a rather understated Caiaphas in George Stevens equally bloated The Greatest Story Ever Told.
In 1966, he guest-starred on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Count Ladislaus Zark, a Dracula-like enemy agent working out of Transylvania. No one, not even Landau, could have known what this otherwise run-of-the-mill job was actually foreshadowing with regards to his career.
Still active in movies, Landau portrayed one of Steve McQueen's vicious enemies in 1966's Nevada Smith. As one of three men who killed McQueen's parents over some gold, he was hunted down and cornered in the movie's climax.
Next for Landau was a role on what would become a legendarily iconic TV series, Mission: Impossible. He'd very nearly been cast in Desilu Studios' Star Trek as Mr. Spock, but when Leonard Nimoy wound up in that role, he took part in Mission as part of a secret agent team who foiled various enemy plots each week, usually through elaborate schemes that kept viewers glued to their set in curiosity or fascination.
Also on board Mission as the team's principle device of feminine distraction was Landau's real-life wife (since 1957) Barbara Bain. Landau was initially meant to be a featured guest star, but wound up appearing as a regular, albeit on a year-to-year contract rather than for five years like his costars. For her part, Bain was a breakout star from the show and won three consecutive Emmy awards. (Landau was nominated each year, too, but never won.)
While appearing on Mission, Landau was a "master of disguise" and portrayed all sorts of characters in his efforts to thwart various dictators and evildoers. He and Bain had stayed through the axing of the series' initial star Stephen Hill, but when his replacement Peter Graves was to get a substantial raise in the fourth season and Landau wasn't, he walked and Bain walked with him. Ironically, his replacement on the show was Leonard Nimoy.
Landau had intended to do movies during his stint on Mission, but had little to no time to do that, so his first Hollywood film in four years was 1970's They Call Me Mister Tibbs! with Sidney Poitier, a follow-up to the superior In the Heat of the Night. Forthcoming offers were slim after the ugly parting with Mission and he found himself in low-rung fare like A Town Called Hell and the Jim Brown Blaxploitation movie Black Gunn.
He and his wife next moved to England in order to take part in what was intended to be a significant sci-fi program, riding the wave of increased interest in Star Trek, which took off in syndication. The 1975 show was Space: 1999. Expensive, elaborate, but troubled, the series was considered a bit too erudite and subdued in its first season, so it was revamped for its second, but thanks to jumbled distribution rights in the U.S., it never quite caught on enough to stay in production any further.
Among the projects he worked on during this lean time was the Canadian-made exploitation thriller Shadows in an Empty Room (which starred Stuart Whitman, seen here, along with John Saxon.)
Then, along with a couple of TV-movies, came the film that earned him a spot in the DMC, 1979's Meteor. Meteor starred Sean Connery and Natalie Wood as two folks attempting to deal with the title object, which is on a collision course with Earth and which keeps sending bits of debris down ahead of time, wreaking havoc. Landau chewed the scenery as an aggressive general with his own ideas of how to proceed. The movie tanked at the box office and was an embarrassment to most of the folks involved with it.
Now Landau was being hired to ham it up in low-budget horror and sci-fi flicks with titles like Without Warning, The Return, Alone in the Dark and The Being.
An unquestionable nadir, however, came when he and Bain appeared as bad guys in a television movie called The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, one of several TV-movies reuniting most of the cast of Bob Denver and Alan Hale's silly, but enduring, sitcom which had proven a big hit in syndication. This was one hell of a long way from Alfred Hitchcock.
Plenty of middling fare followed, be it TV-movies or straight-to-video clunkers along with occasional episodic TV. Another low-point came when he (with "prestige-billing" if you can have such a thing on a project like this) played the villain in a 1987 s-t-v movie called Cyclone, which starred The Fall Guy bimbo Heather Thomas.
All was not lost, however. in 1988, Francis Ford Coppola selected Landau for a key supporting role in his auto industry drama Tucker: The Man and his Dream, starring Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen. It was the first outright Jewish part that the real-life Jewish-born Landau had ever been cast in. But more importantly it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor! Kevin Kline won that year for A Fish Called Wanda, but at least it was a shot of much-needed industry recognition of his talent. 
Next Landau, who'd also been working as an acting teacher to the likes of Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston among many others, was cast in the 1989 Woody Allen ensemble film Crimes and Misdemeanors. He was working alongside Huston and others including Claire Bloom. Again, Landau found himself among the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominees, though this time he saw the statuette go to Denzel Washington for his heartfelt work in Glory.
Now on the way back up after more than a few lean, questionable years career-wise, Landau and his wife Bain stunned everyone by divorcing after 36 years of marriage, much of which was spent working together in various projects. Their two daughters also worked in the industry; one, Susan Landau Finch, behind the scenes and the other, Juliet Landau, as an actress.
When Tim Burton was looking to cast the role of down-on-his-luck Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, most famous for having played Dracula, in his upcoming biopic Ed Wood (1994), he could scarcely have found anyone better than Landau. Landau knew firsthand what it was like to enjoy success in movies only to fall out of favor and wind up in cheap drek. Only Landau had the great fortune (and talent to back it up) to emerge from the wreckage and reestablish a viable, remarkable career as an actor again. He received a third Best Supporting Actor nomination for his heavily-researched portrayal.
This time he was not denied the coveted statuette. Having stepped before the TV cameras as far back as 1953, he had worked for and with many of Hollywood's most notable names, yet fallen to having to earn a buck against some of its least-talented fly-by-nights. To come back and earn the industry's top accolade was a highly satisfying event. Landau continued to act as recently as this year, though he was eighty-eight years old. He even racked up three Emmy nominations as Outstanding Guest Actor in a variety of shows in the 2000s, having never been nominated as a guest before during all the decades prior. 
A heart attack claimed Mr. Landau just a few weeks after his eighty-ninth birthday. His series Mission: Impossible and Space: 1999 both still retain substantial cult followings while his movie roles endure, earning him new fans with every viewing.

4 comments:

Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

I personally think that Martin Landau's performance in Crimes & Misdemeanors is the best male performance in any Woody Allen movie, and I've pretty much seen them all. I was amazed at how much he was able to convey with such subtlety.

Martin Landau is the definition of professional Hollywood survivor.

Scooter said...

Despite his many notable performance, I will always remember Martin Landau as Commander Koenig from Space 1999.

Gingerguy said...

Nice tribute Poseidon. I recently read his obituary and was pleasantly surprised to read that he had dated Marilyn Monroe. I am guessing during her New York acting student period. He was so interesting and conveyed a lot with those blue eyes. Loved him as the peevish spy in North by Northwest, though I never picked up on his crush on James Mason until later viewings. Interesting choice. He and Barbara Bain were such a sexy couple. My Gerry Anderson obsession came later in life, so to me "Space 1999" was just something I watched at my Grandmother's house because "Star Trek" wasn't on. His career uptick was really heartwarming, I love when talented people get their due. Barbara Bain is even more beautiful older, and she was gorgeous in the 60's. I didn't realize he was 89, it's a bit disorienting to think that the upstart Actor's Studio types are in their 80's and 90's, wow. Great actor and he will be missed.

Poseidon3 said...

Dave, I'm never seen "Crimes & Misdemeanors!" Sounds like I need to... Thanks.

Scooter, as should come as no surprise, this is where I first knew him from as well. I even had the action figures (not dolls! LOL) of him and Barbara from that show. For some reason, her outfit was orange which upset my OCD mind. Ha!

I agree that it was neat of Landau to play Mason's henchman as gay (though Hitchcock seemed to have quite a bit of that in retrospect! "Rope" is very gay and "Strangers on a Train" has its share of homoerotica, too.) So much of "Space: 1999," particularly the first season, went right over my head as a kid. It was more austere and less colorful (and commercial, as it turned out) than "Trek." But, man, that one episode with the monster that devours anything and everything it finds... EEEKK!