October 11, 2012

Man of a Million Faces - Martin Landau in conversation

Martin Landau in conversation
Q&A at the BFI South Bank, October 9th, 2012

I've been watching Martin Landau for decades in TV and film. As a teenager, I was scared by him as 'The Man Who Never Was' in The Outer Limits and impressed by his leadership of Moonbase Alpha as Commander Koenig in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999. It has remained a treat to see him in everything from religious epics to sleazy horrors. Even after winning an Oscar in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) he's never stopped working - more recently cropping up in The X-Files movie (1998) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). A chance to see him in person wasn't to be missed...

As the closing event of the BFI South Bank's Alfred Hitchcock celebration, Martin Landau appeared in a conversation that raced through his incredible acting career. The initial reason being that his first big screen role was as James Mason's henchman in North by Northwest (1959).

But Brooklyn-born Landau had started off as a fan of comic strips, becoming an amateur artist while soaking up the wide range of international accents in his local neighbourhood. Landing a job at a New York newspaper, he could have had a cushy career caricaturing stars of the stage by attending every major opening night at the theatre. But realising that this could be a lifelong rut, he turned down the job (leaving his mother in shock) and instead turned to acting. However, he still carries a sketchpad and pens (which he flashed from inside his jacket) and continues to draw.

With James Dean
On his doorstep was The Actor's Studio where he was deemed talented enough to rub shoulders with Lee J Cobb, Elia Kazan and his new best friend the young James Dean! Even now, he still enjoys giving his time to there, now as a tutor rather than a student. He also helps choose the new faces lucky enough to be enrolled out of thousands of applicants.

Back in the 1950s, a hit play took him to the west coast of America, where Alfred Hitchcock caught a performance and cast him in North by Northwest. Landau defended the director's cheeky comment that "actors are like cattle" and praised his hands-off approach, enabling actors to flesh out roles for themselves. Open to their ideas, Hitchcock would only interject when he didn't like something.

With James Mason in North By Northwest
In the role of the sneaky Leonard, Landau wanted a motivation for his hatred of Eva Marie Saint's character, and suggested to Hitchcock that he infer that his character was gay. Subtly suggested in his performance, at a time when the subject was still relatively taboo, the tactic imperilled the sexuality of James Mason's character!

A later question from the audience tested whether Landau considered his method acting was better than Cary Grant's more traditional approach. But Landau only had praise for the star's hard work (always available for long rehearsals) and professionalism (like being generous to other actors).

Two other major roles, in the epics Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told, should have cemented Landau's movie career. But Cleopatra flopped, lambasted because of its bloated budget, and many major scenes, most of Landau's best, were cut completely when Cleopatra was reduced from two three-hour movies, down to one four-hour movie. He noted that they were hardly going to cut out anything with Richard Burton or Elizabeth Taylor, who were scandalising the world's press with an openly extra-marital affair.

With Peter Graves and Barbara Bain
in Mission: Impossible
Instead, he settled down to a long run of quality TV work. His continued enthusiasm for science-fiction started with roles in The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. But he talked about turning down the role of Mr Spock in the original Star Trek (!!!) because he didn't want to play a character who had no emotions. Also, he would have had to turn down Mission: Impossible (that also started in 1966), which gave him the chance to play two (or more) characters every week, as master of disguise, Rollin' Hand. He noted that the Tom Cruise films are nothing like the TV series, each episode resembling "a puzzle".

With Catherine Schell and Barbara Bain in Space: 1999
His other big TV series was Space: 1999 (that started in 1975). A later question from the audience prompted him to confirm that he enjoyed the first season far more. Although it was cancelled after two, he said he would have stayed on for a third season if it had returned to the hard sci-fi stories of the first, rather than the less consistent approach backed by Fred Freiberger (a producer who also oversaw the demise of the original Star Trek).

After that, roles in the 1980s weren't so good for him, with a run of low budget movies and far less TV work. This 'fallow period' was broken by his Oscar-nominated work for Coppola's Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988) and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Landau finally won a supporting actor Academy Award in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.

Researching his role as Bela Lugosi, Landau surprised me with his incisiveness. Recognising that so many of Lugosi's films were available on home video, the audience might know more about the actor than him. Landau therefore watched over thirty Lugosi movies, as well as any available newsreel footage. Despite the awfulness of some of Lugosi's work (he cited the 1952 Brooklyn Gorilla), Landau praised the actor's continued dedication and seriousness in any role. He also visited all the places that Lugosi lived, noting the steady reduction in the size of the houses as his career dwindled.

A couple of hilarious clips from Ed Wood reminded us of its brilliance. Landau noted how Burton may have cast him knowing that the actor had himself been through bad times as well as good. I can't wait to see it again.

Landau provides the voice and mannerisms
of Frankenweenie's Mr. Rzykruski
He's back in London for the premiere of the new Tim Burton film. The feature-length version of Frankenweenie, Landau providing the voice for an animated character. Look out for interviews with him in the press and on TV over the next few days. This weekend he'll also appear over the weekend at Autographica at the Birmingham NEC.

Now 84, he needed a little help to ascend the three steps onto the stage, (there was no banister). He may carry a walking stick, but his energy sustained us all for two hours. He loved impersonating the actors and directors he'd worked with and mentioned many other names, to remember them rather than 'name drop'. Film clips were also shown from the Mission: Impossible pilot episode, the opening titles of the very first Space: 1999, Tucker, and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Unusually, the interview wasn't filmed by the BFI, so don't expect a record of the event to appear on their website.

Martin Landau interview in Movieline about his role in Frankenweenie...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this write up - sounds like it was entertaining evening in the company of a good storyteller.