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Fresh Air Remembers Oscar Award-Winning Actor Martin Landau


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with actor Martin Landau. He died Saturday at the age of 89. For 20 years, Landau took many movie and TV roles that he didn't much like. When he finally got a challenging role as a businessman hustler in Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 film "Tucker," Landau that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The next year, Woody Allen gave him a part in "Crimes And Misdemeanors" as a philandering husband who has his mistress murdered when she threatens to tell his wife about their affair. Again, Landau was nominated for an Oscar. He won an Oscar for his 1994 portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's movie "Ed Wood." More recently, he received two Emmy nominations for his performance in the TV series "Without A Trace." Back in the '60s, Landau was best known for his role in the TV series "Mission: Impossible" as covert operations agent Rollin Hand.

Landau got his start in the Actor's Studio, which was founded in the late '40s in New York by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg and was the training ground for actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Geraldine Page, Robert De Niro and Steve McQueen. When I spoke with Landau in 1990, he told me about getting admitted to the Actors Studio in 1955.


MARTIN LANDAU: That year, 2,000 people auditioned trying to get in, and two were accepted that year. Steve McQueen and I were the only two. And it was tough to get in. It's still tough to get in.

GROSS: What did you have to do to get in?

LANDAU: Well, I did a scene - a five-minute scene with a partner - not classical, contemporary, you know, give-and-take scene. You can't do a monologue. And it's still the case. And I did a scene from a play called "Clash by Night." Lee Strasberg actually directed it on Broadway with a cast consisting of Lee J. Cobb, Tallulah Bankhead and Joseph Schildkraut. At any rate, I chose a five-minute scene from that piece. Everyone told me I was crazy because Lee had directed it. And they said there's nothing - there would be no way that he would, you know, agree with what I chose because he - his closeness to that material.

At any rate, the final audition was being judged by Elia Kazan, you know, who directed "Streetcar Named Desire" and - on Broadway and in the movie and "On the Waterfront" and "East Of Eden," and Cheryl Crawford, who was a famous Broadway producer and one of the co-founders of the group theater and Lee Strasberg. And you had to get three one votes from all of them - one, two or three. Three meant no. Two meant not bad; come back another time. And one meant you were in. And I guess in retrospect it was a bit daring, but Strasberg did - gave me a one vote as well.

GROSS: So is you and Steve McQueen, who got in, of those 2,000 people who auditioned, were you and Steve McQueen competitive with each other at all as the two newcomers?

LANDAU: Not really, no. Steve was very different physically than I was. I was very lean and very dark and much more ethnic in feel. And Steve was - I think he was much more competitive with a very close friend of mine called Jimmy Dean, James Dean. I was in a different sort of category. Johnny Cassavetes and Sydney Pollack and those kinds of fellows were my competition.

GROSS: Now, you stuck with the Actors Studio as a teacher. You met a lot of actors before they had the screen personas that they're now famous for - for instance, Jack Nicholson who had been one of your students. Would you have guessed working with him early on that he would have become - I don't mean as famous as he is - that he would have had the kind of persona that we now know him for?

LANDAU: Yes. A lot of that was evident. I mean it's - you know, it's silly to, you know, to say that, but it's true. In choosing that particular group of people - there were 16 in all - I saw 200 people, and I spent my time not auditioning them but talking to them and trying to discourage them from coming into my class because what I did in the class demanded a certain kind of allegiance and diligence and tenacity and hard work.

But I looked for things in the people, and Jack did all the right things wrong and all the wrong things right, which is what I always looked for. Strange - it's hard to say. It's sort of a kinesthetic thing, but I saw a lot of stuff in Jack. And he looked like the boy next door in those days, but there was nothing about the boy next door and his persona.

GROSS: Knowing as many actors and directors as you did through the Actors Studio, how do you think that affected your early career getting roles?

LANDAU: Well, I was always considered very offbeat in those days. I was very...

GROSS: For what reason?

LANDAU: ...Very thin.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry, yeah.

LANDAU: I was very thin, exceedingly thin. If you look at "North By Northwest," you'll get a clue. And...

GROSS: You were one of the spies in "North By Northwest."

LANDAU: Well, yeah. James Mason and I played the two spies - very, very lean and very kind of stark looking. And it was a period where, you know, plays like "Picnic" were being done on Broadway, and movie actors look more like Rock Hudson and Guy Madis and Tab Hunter. And I was, you know, intrinsically a character actor but not easy to cast because of a very, you know - it was a different time. I mean there were no - you know, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman and Bobby De Niro would also have had a great deal of problem in those days because they would have been considered offbeat. But times change. And I wound up playing many, many bad guys in movies as a result of my looks.

GROSS: Like what? Which kind of roles are you talking about? Which movies?

LANDAU: Well, all kinds, you know - I mean gangsters, "The Untouchables." I would always be some kind of deadly guy, you know, who talked like this, you know, very dangerous - and just, you know, Westerns. I mean if you look at a picture like "Nevada Smith," I - you know, I play a maniacal killer that Steve McQueen chases down because my character along with Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden have killed his parents. That's the essence of that film that Henry Hathaway directed.

As - you know, Hitchcock cast me in "North By Northwest" even though he saw me in a play in which I didn't play a conventional bad guy, though I was the catalyst in the piece. It was Paddy Chayefsky's first play on Broadway called "Middle Of The Night." I toured with that, and that brought me to California. And Hitchcock saw me on opening night and had me in mind for "North By Northwest" as a result of that. Though the character was 180 degrees different than the role I played in "North By Northwest."

So the old guys - I mean the old, wonderful, imaginative fellows historically have always had imagination and broken conventional thinking. I mean even as recently as my being cast in "Tucker" - I mean I don't think there's anyone in the world who would have cast me in "Tucker" other than Fred Roos, who was Francis Coppola's producer, and Francis Coppola. It would not have been conventional thinking on anyone's part for, you know - in fact there were people who after they'd heard I'd been cast in that role who were involved were surprised at the casting. But the...

GROSS: What would have surprised them about it? I mean you fit the role so perfectly seeing the movie.

LANDAU: Well, but that's after the fact.

GROSS: Right. That's after the fact. How was it - was the role...

LANDAU: I mean everyone is very quick to jump on me...

GROSS: Right (laughter).

LANDAU: ...After the fact in this world, and on - you know? And I mean immediately after playing "Tucker," there were, you know, script after script after script with a lot of very ethnic, mostly Jewish, older men - were sent my way. It takes a Woody Allen to think of me as the character I played in "Crimes And Misdemeanors," again a departure from anything I'd ever done before and anything he'd seen me in before.

But it takes those kind - you know, I'm an actor who's got a very wide range, I mean much more so than almost anyone I know in deference to myself. I'm not speaking, you know, egocentrically at all, but I do have a very wide range. I could play a lot of things. And it's hard for people and logically hard and understandably hard for people to think of me for certain roles.

GROSS: Actor Martin Landau is my guest. You have received Academy Award nominations both for "Tucker" and for your role in Woody Allen's movie "Crimes And Misdemeanors."

LANDAU: "Crimes and Misdemeanors," yes.

GROSS: Now, you had told us that it was, like, 20 years since you'd gotten, like, a really good movie role.

LANDAU: That's right.

GROSS: How did you feel to you, like, in the mind of the public, you know, and some people in Hollywood to kind of go overnight from being the guy who played the heavy all the time in movies to suddenly being this, you know, venerated actor (laughter) you know?

LANDAU: Well, it's, you know - the interesting thing is - I mean among actors over the years, I've always had a great deal of respect from them as a director, as an actor, as a...

GROSS: As a teacher.

LANDAU: ...As a teacher. So I mean it's something that they've always said to me. What's wrong with the business? I mean I know a number of actors, for instance, personally who should be doing much more work than they are doing because they're awfully good. But I worked with a lot of great directors when I first came to Hollywood with a reputation as a good New York actor - theater actor, live-television actor. So that seemed to have been curtailed by my, quote, unquote, "success" on "Mission Impossible," where suddenly I became super spy and, you know...

GROSS: So you feel in a way that "Mission Impossible" hurt your career afterwards.

LANDAU: Well, it helped me in many ways, and it hurt me in other ways.

GROSS: Yeah.

LANDAU: But I think there are always - when somebody gives you something for a headache, there are sometimes side effects. You get an upset stomach.

GROSS: Right.

LANDAU: I got a chance to play almost a one-man rep company - everything from Adolf Hitler to Martin Bormann to myself blond and young - 10 years younger, to all kinds of different dialects and accents and the like, you know, and the middle-European people - and crazy, all kinds of things, if you know what I'm saying, my dear.

GROSS: You are the master of disguises on this show.

LANDAU: That's right, a man of a thousand face.

GROSS: (Laughter).

We're listening back to a 1990 interview with actor Martin Landau. He died Saturday at the age of 89. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1990 interview with Martin Landau. He died Saturday at the age of 89. One of his best-known performances is in the Woody Allen film "Crimes And Misdemeanors." He played Judah Rosenthal, a philandering husband whose mistress is threatening to tell his wife about their affair. She's also threatening to reveal information about Judah's questionable business deals. In this scene, Judah's brother, played by Jerry Orbach, tells Judah that he has friends who can take care of Judah's problems. Martin Landau as Judah speaks first.


LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I'm fighting for my life. This woman's going to destroy everything I've built.

JERRY ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) That's what I'm saying, Judah. If the woman won't listen to reason, then you go on to the next step.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) What, threats, violence? What are we talking about here?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) She can be gotten rid of. I mean I know a lot of people. Money will buy whatever's necessary.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I'm not even going to comment on that. That's mind-boggling.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) Well, what did you want me to do when you called me?

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Not to do dirty work despite what you think. I don't know what I expected from you, Jack, but...

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) You know, you're not aware of what goes on in this world. I mean you sit up here with your four acres...

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Don't give me any of that. I don't want to hear about my success.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) ...and your country club and your rich friends. And out there in the real world, it's a whole different story.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Oh, come on.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) I've met a lot of characters from when I had the restaurant...

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I know you have. I've heard these stories before.

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) ...from Seventh Avenue, from Atlantic City. And I'm not so high-class that I can avoid looking at reality. I can't afford to be aloof. I mean you come to me with a hell of a problem, and then you get high-handed on me.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Jack, I don't mean to high-handed. I haven't been sleeping nights. I'm irritable, OK?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) OK, OK, forget I said anything.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) Let me just get something straight here. Am I understanding you right? I mean are you suggesting getting rid of her?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) You won't be involved, but I'll need some cash.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) What will they do?

ORBACH: (As Jack Rosenthal) What'll they do? They'll handle it.

LANDAU: (As Judah Rosenthal) I can't believe I'm talking about a human being, Jack. She's not an insect. You don't just step on her.


GROSS: Let me ask you about "Crimes And Misdemeanors." Did Woody Allen or one of his people call you and say, we want you for the role, or did you have to audition for it?

LANDAU: No. What happened was, I got a call saying that Woody was interested in me for a role. And I said, well, is there a script? And then - which was greeted with laughter on the other side of the telephone because I mean Woody doesn't - you know, I mean most of the time the actors don't read the whole script. No one reads the whole script except Woody and maybe Mia and the casting director. So - but I was then told that it would be worth my while to fly into New York. So I did.

But prior to what I - I also went out and did a little homework because I - reading a script and seeing a movie are two different experiences. So I went out to Samuel French, which is a theatrical book store here in Los Angeles and in New York as well, and got eight of his screenplays. So when I met with Woody and we talked, he then gave me the script, which was unusual I found out afterwards, to read in the hotel room, which I did.

So it was the 9th screenplay of Woody's that I read in four days, and it was the best one. And it was one of those times when you - well, your heart starts beating faster, and adrenaline starts flowing. First of all, it was the biggest male role he'd ever written outside of the Woody Allen character because his protagonists generally have been women - Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, even recently Gena Rowlands, Geraldine Page in "Interiors." So he'd never really written a big male character that wasn't played by Woody.

GROSS: Why did he feel that you needed to read the whole script?

LANDAU: Well, because there was no way to play that character without knowing everything about that movie because of the delicacy of it. I mean there's no - I mean it's a terribly - an incredibly delicate, delicate thing. You're dealing with a man who's a rich brat of a man, who's a liar, who's a cheat, who's an embezzler, who's a murderer, who's - I mean there's not a redeeming thing he does. And yet, the audience has to, you know - from my point of view, and this is what I expressed to Woody - has to empathize and sympathize and join up with him as they're being horrified by what he does.

I felt it was essential that the audience see themselves in this character, and that the only way to do that - I mean, the character doesn't do one single thing of redemption in the entire movie. He's an awful person. And I - you know, you could - in this clicker mentality we're living in, where people click things off television in 15 or 20 minutes, it'd be very easy for the audience to say, hey, this guy's a jerk, I don't like him, in 20 - and you don't have a movie. So how to delicately deal with that and also, you know, the Claire Bloom character...

GROSS: ...Who plays your wife.

LANDAU: Yes, but she doesn't know what the - you know, I mean, that's a very delicate thing. I mean, she knows that I'm having some problems. But she doesn't know the degree to which the problems are - I mean, this is a man who's - has a - who's having a major, major breakdown, a nervous breakdown, on top of the fact that he does something that is among the most heinous things a, quote, unquote, "leading character" has ever done.

GROSS: So does Claire Bloom - when you were acting with Claire Bloom, had she not read the part of the script where...

LANDAU: No, she didn't read anything but her parts of the script.

GROSS: ...It's revealed that you're a murderer?

LANDAU: She just knew that we were a happy couple.

GROSS: So she had no idea what you were really guilty of. She knew something was up, she had no idea what, when she was acting that part.

LANDAU: Well, she just knew that I was, you know, having some business problems, possibly.

GROSS: Do you think this works? Do you think this is a good way to go about doing that?

LANDAU: Well, it depends. It works with Woody, doesn't it?

GROSS: Yeah.

LANDAU: I mean, he didn't want Anjelica to know what kind of life my home life was because I don't let her in on that. So Anjelica's character was not privy to that part of the story. You know, a lot of times, actors are bogged down by obligation. An actor knows much more about a character than the character knows about himself. And to know everything there is about a character consciously may not enable you to play the character, necessarily.

It's what motivates you unconsciously that drives you on. Characters reveal things inadvertently, very often, not purposefully. No one walks into a crowded room at a cocktail party filled with strangers and says, hello, everybody, I'm embarrassed.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LANDAU: You know, that's not something people do.

GROSS: Right.

LANDAU: Therefore, what you - what people in that condition are trying to do is trying to convince themselves they're relaxed and trying to appear relaxed to other people when, in fact, what's going on is contrary to that. So the actor has to create the degree of unrest and then try to cover it.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

LANDAU: Thank you very much.

GROSS: My interview with Martin Landau was recorded in 1990. He died Saturday at the age of 89. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two comic novels. This is FRESH AIR.