In a sad addition to the week’s first death notice, the passing of Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero, it was announced Sunday night that Martin Landau, Academy Award-winning actor, had joined Romero in the afterlife. Landau passed away after “unexpected complications” ensured during a brief stay at the UCLA Medical Center, according to his publicist Dick Guttman. Working steadily since the 60s, Landau’s life, as summed up by Guttman, is “living proof that Hollywood will find great roles for great actors at any stage of their careers.”
Landau’s career spans all stages from the theatre to TV and movies, but like a lot of actors of his generation he got his break in the business by appearing in the nascent days of broadcast television as a day player on a number of programs including The Goldbergs, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and Rawhide. His big break was as Leonard, one of the goons chasing Cary Grant cross-country in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, and the espionage tinged thriller got Landau work in similarly themed shows like I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and his ongoing role as master of disguise Roland Hand on the original Mission: Impossible.
After leaving the Impossible Missions Force in 1969, Landau worked steadily in film and TV, but would return full time to series work for two seasons on Space: 1999 as Commander John Koenig. Once that series was over, Landau would make guest appearances on shows like Murder She Wrote and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and appear in movies like Meteor and Alone in the Dark. By the late 1980s, Landau was transitioning into the golden years of his career, but it seem to come with even greater notoriety. He was nominated for Oscars twice in two years for Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Crimes and Misdemeanours, but he didn’t win one till he worked for, of all people, Tim Burton.
Landau took up the role of the aging Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, which focused on the Dracula actor’s later years, his deep resentment for how he was treated in Hollywood, and his cult film renaissance after meeting Edward D. Wood Jr. before his death. Burton found the story inspiring and saw the parallels between Wood’s relationship with Lugosi and his own friendship with Vincent Price. Ed Wood is widely considered to be one of Burton’s best films, and that’s thanks to no small way to the brilliantly bitter, Academy Award-winning performance of Landau. “Lugosi was theatrical, but I never wanted the audience to feel I was an actor chewing the scenery… I felt it had to be Lugosi’s theatricality, not mine,” Landau said of his performance.
After securing his Oscar, Landau enjoyed many more years of employment as an elder statesman in Hollywood. Appearances followed in The X-Files movie, The Majestic, Rounders, Ready to Rumble, Sleepy Hollow, City of Ember, and he even had an ongoing role in HBO’s Entourage. Recently, Landau appeared opposite Christopher Plummer in the 2015 film Remember as a concentration camp survivor who plots with a fellow nursing home resident, played by Plummer, to avenge their families who were killed by a Nazi officer that was never brought to justice. His last completed film, The Last Poker Gambler, was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.
Martin Landau is survived by his daughters Susie Landau Finch and Juliet Landau, his sons-in-law Roy Finch and Deverill Weekes, godson Dylan Becker, sister Elinor Schwartz and his 8-year-old granddaughter Aria Isabel Landau Finch.