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Monday, July 17, 2017

Remembering Martin Landau

A Magical Career

By Chris Sabga

Martin Landau has always been one of my all-time favorite actors. His death at the age of 89 – on the same day as legendary horror director George A. Romero – was a 1-2 sucker punch.

But what a life Landau lived!


North By Northwest

After several television roles, Martin Landau's first appearance on the silver screen – as the menacing Leonard in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" – was quite possibly the greatest film debut anyone could ask for.

He took a big risk in the way he portrayed Leonard in the 1959 film: "I chose to play [him] as a homosexual – very subtly," Landau admitted in an interview – a taboo no-no for that time period.

Landau became an instant star.

Spock You

For the next two decades, he crisscrossed between film and TV appearances. His most notable work on the small screen was in "Mission: Impossible" and "Space: 1999." He turned down the role of Spock in "Star Trek." That iconic character, of course, went to Leonard Nimoy instead. Ironically, Nimoy ended up essentially replacing Landau on "Mission: Impossible."

The Ups and Downs of a Great Career

Among Landau's many film roles during this period, he played opposite Sidney Poitier in the unnecessary, contradictory, overrated mess of a sequel "They Call Me Mister Tibbs!" The first film featuring the groundbreaking Virgil Tibbs character, "In the Heat of the Night," remains an essential classic. "They Call Me Mister Tibbs" doesn't come close to its predecessor's greatness, but Landau was good in it.

In 1982, Landau appeared along with Jack Palance and Donald Pleasence in "Alone in the Dark" (not to be confused with the much-maligned version directed by Uwe Ball and starring Christian Slater and Tara Reid). The horror thriller is about a pair of mental patients (Landau and Palance) who break out of a hospital in order to torment their psychiatrist (Pleasence). I have to admit: I've never seen it – but I've always wanted to. Unfortunately, the DVD has been out of print for years and there's seemingly no Blu-ray or digital release on the horizon. While it surely can't match the expectations I've built up for it in my mind, it still sounds like nutty fun. There is (or was) a low-quality version on YouTube, but I can't bring myself to watch it that way. Eventually, I will get my hands on this holy grail!

After decades in Hollywood, Landau's greatest fame would arguably occur in the 1990s and beyond.

Karloff Does Not Deserve to Smell My Shit!

Bela Lugosi never uttered those words about Boris Karloff, but Martin Landau famously did when he played Lugosi in 1994's "Ed Wood." Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – the director and star of "Ed Wood," respectively – are generally "mood" people for me. In other words, I have to be in the mood for them – and I'm usually not. Yet, "Ed Wood" remains one of my favorite films ever – and Martin Landau is the main reason why. As the long-suffering and loyal Lugosi, his incredible performance is undeniably the heart and soul of the film. Landau was richly recognized for his work in "Wood" by winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in what has to be one of the most competitive categories I've ever seen: Samuel L. Jackson for "Pulp Fiction" and Gary Sinise for "Forrest Gump" were also nominated the same year. (He also nominated before in the same category two years in a row – but didn't win – for 1988's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" and 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors.")

Sal Bandini – Wanna Wrestle!!!

What in the living holy hell was the great Martin Landau doing in a professional wrestling vanity project like 2000's "Ready to Rumble"? I still don't know! He did work with wrestler George "The Animal" Steele a few years earlier in "Ed Wood," so perhaps that had something to do with it? But whatever Landau's reasons were, like the old pro he was, he made the most of it.

This is what I wrote about his appearance and performance at the time (for IGN.com):
"As awful as some of the material is, there is one bright spot – the character of Sal (Martin Landau). His hilarious performance as King's 105-year-old trainer saves the movie from complete disaster. It is a shame that he isn't used more often, but he definitely steals the scenes he's in. He must be a huge wrestling fan. Either that or he needs money desperately. How else can anyone explain why such a distinguished and celebrated actor would agree to partake in such a dud?"
I've warmed up to "Ready to Rumble" in the years since. No, it's still not a good movie – or anything close to resembling one. Woefully inaccurate and mind-numbing in its dumbness, it displays an astounding lack of respect for wrestling – which makes no sense to me, because what other audience was this intended to attract? But Martin Landau – good old Martin Landau – is an absolute treat to watch.

The Magic of the Movies

At best, 2001's "The Majestic" was stylish but wildly uneven. At worst, it was artificial and sappy. Despite that, it contains one of my favorite performances and speeches ever. Of course, both came courtesy of the wonderful Martin Landau.
"Any man, woman, child could buy their ticket, walk right in. Here they'd be, here we'd be. 'Yes sir, yes ma'am. Enjoy the show.' And in they'd come entering a palace, like in a dream, like in heaven. Maybe you had worries and problems out there, but once you came through those doors, they didn't matter anymore. And you know why? Chaplin, that's why. And Keaton and Lloyd. Garbo, Gable, and Lombard, and Jimmy Stewart and Jimmy Cagney. Fred and Ginger. They were gods. And they lived up there. That was Olympus. Would you remember if I told you how lucky we felt just to be here? To have the privilege of watching them. I mean, this television thing. Why would you want to stay at home and watch a little box? Because it's convenient? Because you don't have to get dressed up, because you could just sit there? I mean, how can you call that entertainment, alone in your living room? Where's the other people? Where's the audience? Where's the magic? I'll tell you, in a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it."
It's such a beautiful mission statement and rallying cry for why we all love going to the movies so much. Despite the rude patrons, bright cell phones, and numerous other drawbacks, there's still nothing else quite like the theatrical experience.

When Martin Landau was up on that screen, it was magic.  

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