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18 July 2017updated 14 Sep 2021 2:38pm

Martin Landau on Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and how not to be a bad actor

He turned down the role of Spock, and turned James Mason into a bisexual. An encounter with the late Hollywood great and Oscar-winning star of Ed Wood.

By Ryan Gilbey

I interviewed Martin Landau, the genial, generous actor who has died aged 89, back in 2000. He was 72 then and nowhere near running out of steam. His agent had advised me to place all my most important questions up front. “Martin likes to give elaborate answers,” she said affectionately. In fact, during the afternoon that I spent with Landau at his office on Sunset Boulevard, I didn’t actually get the opportunity to put many questions to him at all. Conversation for him was one delightful, never-ending after-dinner speech.

But then he had one of the more interesting careers in Hollywood. Not just because of the lives which intersected with his – yes, he dated Marilyn Monroe and was chums with James Dean – but because he still had so much to impart about acting technique.

It was not as if he had it in his bones. He was employed as a cartoonist on the New York Daily News at the age of 17, but later strayed toward acting, and in 1955 earned a place at the Actors’ Studio, one of only two to make it out of 1,000 hopefuls. (The other was Steve McQueen.)

In Landau’s case, there may have been some overlap between the professions of cartoonist and actor. As we talked, he proved himself to be a master mimic and caricaturist, slipping between accents and dialects – from Hungarian to Cockney to prim, crusted, John Mills English – like someone switching queues at the supermarket. “I’m like a parrot,” he told me. “I can’t help it.”

He did a mean Hitchcock too. The director had handpicked Landau for North By Northwest (1959) after catching him on Broadway. “Martin,” spluttered Hitchcock, “you have a circus going on inside you.” The role was Leonard, James Mason’s sinister right-hand man. Landau’s performance is all eyes. “Oh yes,” he agreed, “the eyes were everything. He only moved when he had to.”

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His distinctive take on the part was well-known. “If you read the script of North By Northwest, you’ll see it’s not a huge role. But I decided to play him as a homosexual, very subtly, because otherwise he would have been just a henchman. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was just trying to keep a relationship alive by getting rid of the woman who had usurped him. I realised that all of this would make him very dangerous. It made his grievance personal. The only person who didn’t like this was James Mason because it cast aspersions on his character; it basically turned him into a bisexual.”

For a long time after that, the parts didn’t stop coming. There was a lot of television. He was Gene Roddenberry’s first choice for Spock in Star Trek, but turned it down. “I respond to the duplicity in characters,” he explained, “and there was nothing to play there.”

But he did Mission: Impossible (1966-69), in which there was little else but duplicity, and later the very sweet Space: 1999 (1975-77), with its alabaster sets and alabaster optimism. He found himself appearing in barmy historical epics like Cleopatra (1963) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).

John Cleese cornered Landau in a disco in the early 1970s. “You’re fucking everywhere, Landau!,” he boomed. Cleese had been researching the genre in preparation for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and had been apparently unable to find a movie that Landau wasn’t in.

The salad days wilted eventually. In fact, there is a period of 15 years that is best left entirely unmentioned (a period that included parts in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island and The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman). Then suddenly Landau couldn’t walk down the street without a brilliant script falling into his hands – Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) preceded an aching, Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1995). (Both films cast him as flawed mentors to idealistic younger men.) In between those two came what remains his most complex and disturbing performance, as a pampered, complacent ophthalmologist who has his lover killed in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours (1990).

“When I met with Woody, I almost talked myself out of that role. He told me: ‘In days gone by, I would’ve cast Edward G Robinson in this part.’ I said, ‘But that’s just wrong. Your protagonist is a liar, a cheat, a spoiled brat, a coward, an embezzler, and a murderer. He doesn’t do a single redeeming thing. Whoever plays this, you need the audience to empathise, sympathise, see themselves in him, and be horrified all at same time. Or you don’t have a movie.’ It went very quiet for longer than I like it to be. He said ‘What time’s your plane?’ I said, ‘9am’. He said, ‘Can you make it four? I want to get you fitted for your costume.’”

The performance itself was another masterpiece of economy; Landau kept everything about this terrifying character stifled, bottled up, buried. “Dialogue is what people are willing to share,” he said. “The 90 per cent that’s left – well, that’s what I do for a living. It’s about concealment. Bad actors try to cry. Good actors try not to. Drunks don’t try to be drunk, they try to be sober. Sometimes I’ll watch a drunk reaching for his glass, and it’s the most studied reach in the world.”

The resurrection of Landau’s career was guaranteed by Tucker, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Ed Wood but there was no sense as he spoke that he was wallowing in his achievements. He gave the impression of still being grateful to be back in the business that he cherished. It was an honour to meet him.