032 : mpm : apr : may



Martin Landau has been places, both in actuality and in his imagination. And at this point in his five-decade career, he’s the kind of actor for whom the distinction between the worlds he’s experienced and those he can conjure, like a kind of sorcerer, is marvelously fluid.

Yes, he steeped himself in the famous actor’s Method—was a protégé, in fact, of its main guru, Lee Strasberg, at The Actors Studio, where his best friend for a time was James Dean—which had as its mission a recreation of real life down to its tiniest detail. The Brooklyn neighborhood in which he grew up was filled with the kind of outsized characters he can still flip through like a sort of actor’s Rolodex, and into whose personae and accents he’ll go at the drop of an anecdote: Italian goombahs, Irish upstarts, Jewish kvetchers. And New York
City’s hustle and bustle provided a virtual laboratory of walks, voices, types and quirks to observe and imitate.

For evidence of how well he learned the lessons of Method-style realism, his Oscar-nominated performance as a quietly anguished philanderer in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors stands as a model of acting economy—of maximum emotional impact with minimum histrionic fuss.

But the role for which he won the Oscar—aging Hungarian horror star Bela Lugosi, in Tim Burton’s elegiac comedy Ed Wood—is an appropriately theatrical, even fanciful, creation. While that performance is finely detailed enough to honor the rigorous tenets of the Method, it is nevertheless a brilliant act of sustained imaginative creativity on Landau’s part.


This skill—for “going places” he’s never been—is one he developed over decades, traveling everywhere from dusty Western streets to Space: 1999, inhabiting everyone from Simon Wiesenthal (in the TV movie Max and Helen) to toy-maker Geppetto (in a series of live-action Pinocchio movies), from sleek superspy Rollin Hand (in the series Mission: Impossible) to Hebrew patriarch Abraham (in the biblical film
In the Beginning).

The gift of a wide-ranging imagination began not on the mean streets of Landau’s childhood, however, but in the Sunday color comics.

“New York had a lot of newspapers in those days, and all had color comic sections,” Landau recalls with relish. “On Sunday morning, there was this short pile of comic sections—Mickey Mouse, Bringing Up Father, Dick Tracy, Krazy Kat. I couldn’t read yet, but those strange worlds—the Krazy Kat world, the Willie Winkie world—were all in color and all strange, and the people were all unique and different. I could sit and look at these pictures for hours.”

At 17, Landau took some drawings of his own to the New York Daily News and—in what may have been his first successful acting performance—lied about his age and got a job as staff artist, working a four-to-midnight shift after his high school classes. For a time, he thrived on the breakneck pace of the newsroom.

“In those days it was still about scooping the town, and re-plates, and extra editions, and getting the newspaper out, and beating the other papers,” Landau recounts. “There was a sense of drama, because if a story broke, they would stop the presses.” But one day he realized that grind wasn’t for him.

“I was doing at 17 what these guys who were 45 or 50 were doing,” Landau recalls. “And I looked around at these guys, and said, ‘You know, I don’t wanna be doing this when I’m their age.’”