Monday, July 17, 2017

The Late Great Martin Landau: Man of a Million Faces

There are those actors that you have never known life without. You cannot remember where you first saw them, because they have always been around as far as back as you can remember. Martin Landau was one of those actors for me. Mission: Impossible debuted when I was only three years old and my family watched it regularly throughout its run. Later I would see Martin Landau in his many guest appearances on the various syndicated reruns I loved. He was in everything from The Wild Wild West to Gunsmoke, as well as such movies as North by Northwest (1959) and Nevada Smith (1966). Only a little later I would see him as Commander John Koenig on the science fantasy TV series Space: 1999. He was always there throughout my adult years, appearing on TV shows like Murder, She Wrote and movies like Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work on Ed Wood (1994). Even in recent years he has still been active, guest starring on The Simpsons and providing his voice for Frankenweenie (2012). He even appeared at Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival this year. It then seems impossible that Martin Landau is gone. After all, he had always been with us and, what is more, he was still active. He was one of my favourite character actors of the modern era.

Sadly, Martin Landau died Saturday, July 15 2017 at the age of 89.

Martin Landau was born on June 20 1928 in Brooklyn, New York. He attended James Madison High School and the Pratt Institute. He had planned to become an illustrator. When he was only 17 he got a job at the New York Daily News as a cartoonist, illustrating Billy Rose's column "Pitching Horseshoes" and acting as an assistant to Gus Edson on the comic strip The Gumps. After five years he quit the New York Daily News to pursue acting.

Mr. Landau made his stage debut in 1951 at the Peaks Island Playhouse in Maine in Detective Story. That same year he appeared in First Love at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. He made his television debut in 1953 in an episode of The Goldbergs. In 1955 he enrolled at the Actors Studio. Out of the 2000 applicants to the Actors Studio that year, only he and Steve McQueen were admitted.

Martin Landau's career took off in the late Fifties. He made his film debut in Pork Chop Hill in 1959. That same year he appeared in what might be his most famous role in a feature film (outside of perhaps only Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood), playing the sinister Leonard in North by Northwest. He also appeared in the film The Gazebo (1959). Mr. Landau made frequent guest appearances on TV shows in the late Fifties. He guest starred on such shows as Omnibus, Armstrong Circle Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse, Maverick, Sugarfoot, Lawman, Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, Rawhide, Playhouse 90, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Wagon Train.

The Sixties saw Martin Landau play what might be his best known role, that of master of disguise Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. Rollin Hand was a professional quick change artist and impersonator who lent his skills to the Impossible Missions Force on a regular basis. Indeed, in addition to disguise and impersonation, he was also a skilled escape artist and skilled at sleight of hand. Mr. Landau was nominated three times for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series for his role as Rollin Hand. Sadly, after three seasons he and his wife Barbara Bain (who played Cinnamon Carter on the show) left Mission: Impossible due to a contract dispute.

In addition to his regular role on Mission: Impossible, Martin Landau was busy in the Sixties making guest appearances on other shows. He guest starred on such shows as Bonanza, Checkmate, The Rifleman, The Detectives, The Untouchables, The Defenders, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, I Spy, The Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Get Smart. He continued to appear in films as well, including Stagecoach to Dancers' Rock (1962), Decision at Midnight (1963), Cleopatra (1963), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Nevada Smith (1966), and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970).

In the Seventies Martin Landau starred on the cult science fiction TV series Space: 1999. On the show he played Commander John Koenig, the commanding officer of Moonbase Alpha. The show only ran for two seasons. He also guest starred on Columbo. Mr. Landau appeared in the TV movies The Fall of the House of Usher (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island (1981). He appeared in the films A Town Called Bastard (1971), Black Gunn (1972), Una Magnum Special per Tony Saitta (1976), Meteor (1979), The Last Word (1979), The Return (1980), and Without Warning (1980).

The Eighties saw Martin Landau's career revitalised after he played New York financier Abe Karatz in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). For the role he was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He received another nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). He also appeared in such films as Alone in the Dark (1982), Trial by Terror (1983), The Being (1983), Access Code (1984), Treasure Island (1985), Sweet Revenge (1987), Empire State (1987), Run If You Can (1988),  and The Colour of Evening (1990). He guest starred on such TV shows as Matt Houston; Hotel; Murder, She Wrote; the revival of The Twilight Zone; and the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

It was in 1994 that Martin Landau played Bela Lugosi in the movie Ed Wood. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the part. He also appeared in such films as Firehead (1991), Mistress (1992), No Place to Hide (1992), Sliver (1993), Eye of the Stranger (1993), Time Is Money (1994), City Hall (1996), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), The X Files (1998), Rounders (1998), Carlo's Wake (1999), Edtv (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Shiner (2000). On television he played Woodrow Wilson in the mini-series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. He voiced The Scorpion in the animated series Spider-Man.

In the Naughts Martin Landau had recurring roles on the TV shows The Evidence, Entourage, and Without a Trace. He guest starred on In Plain Sight. He appeared in such films as The Majestic (2001), Hollywood Homicide (2003), Love Made Easy (2006), David & Fatima (2008), City of Ember (2008), and Finding Grandma (2010).  In the Teens he appeared in such films as Mysteria (2011), Entourage (2015), Remember (2015), and The Red Maple Leaf (2016). He was the voice of Mr. Rzykruski in the animated film Frankenweenie. There are several films in post-production in which he starred that are set to come out later this year or next year. On television he guest starred on Hallmark Hall of Fame.

I have to admit I will always remember Martin Landau best as Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. I have to believe it was the first role in which I first saw him, and it was certainly the role in which I saw him most often in the early part of my childhood. In many ways it is perhaps fitting that I remember him best as Rollin Hand. Rollin Hand was billed on stage as "the Man of a Million Faces", and "the Man of a Million Faces" could just as easily describe Martin Landau himself. Indeed, in the role of Rollin Hand, Martin Landau often found himself also playing the character that Rollin was impersonating!

As an actor Mr. Landau was a chameleon, able to transform himself into anything a role called for. It was something he did throughout his career, even before he played Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible. He played a wide variety of historical figures in his career, including Bob Ford, Doc Holliday, Caiaphas, Edwin Booth, Abe Karatz, Simon Wiesenthal, Bela Lugsoi, and Woodrow Wilson. He was well known for playing a number of heavies in his career, but even then there was a good deal of variety. He played the dirty coward Bob Ford in an episode of Lawman only a year before he appeared as the menacing Leonard in North by Northwest. He played General Grimm, a megalomaniac with his own private army, in The Wild Wild West episode "The Night of the Red-Eyed Madmen" only a year before he played stone cold gunman, thief, and killer in Nevada Smith. Martin Landau did play a lot of heavies, but no two were ever alike.

The simple fact is that while many actors are known for one particular type of role, the roles Martin Landau played were so varied that it is very difficult to say that he was known for only one type of role. This can be seen by looking at his best known roles. Leonard in North by Northwest was a well-dressed, cold-hearted killer who might just be in love with his boss. Rollin Hand was considerably more light hearted, a serious master of disguise, escape artist, and prestidigitator with a bit of a sense of humour. Commander Koenig on Space: 1999 was serious and at times emotional, but also had a good sense of humour. Bela Lugosi was a once great actor at the end of his career, addicted to drugs and only a shadow of his former self. The variety in Martin Landau's best known roles reflected the roles he played throughout his career. Every role Mr. Landau ever played was different from ones he had played before. And even when a particular movie or TV show wasn't very good, Martin Landau always was. In the end he truly was a Man of a Million Faces, one of the greatest character actors of the modern era.. 

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