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CRITIC AT LARGE

Martin Landau: Return Mission to Big Screen

January 26, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

For the actor, a successful television series can become a golden trap. The more successful the series, the more golden and the more inescapable the trap is apt to be.

One of the rewarding surprises of Francis Coppola's "Tucker" was the presence of Martin Landau--for all those seasons a super-spy on "Mission: Impossible"--playing an emigre financier named Abe Karatz.

Landau's hair had been grayed, he wore a slightly sinister mustache, his height and his whole aspect seemed diminished. ("Every day of rehearsal I got older and shorter," Landau said not long ago.) By the film's end Abe emerges as a warmly sympathetic figure, and Landau's "Mission: Impossible" days felt as remote as Prohibition.

"Television is amazing," Landau remarked over lunch. "It's so indeliblizing. Telly Savalas is Kojak. I was Super-Spy. The series was in 70 countries, and it's the kind of success you dream about. But it was a nightmare too. If a show is a hit, it's the kiss of death as far as doing anything else is concerned."

Landau would get scripts, but his agent would report that the producers said they couldn't see him in the project. "I couldn't even read for them, and not even getting up to bat is really tough."

If being on a hot series tends to disqualify the actor for other work, it also has a way of putting out of mind what the actor did before the series. Landau, trained at the Actors Studio in New York, had been on Broadway and appeared in films as various as "North by Northwest" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

"I'd worked for the giants at the beginning--George Stevens, Hitchcock," Landau says. "And then it all stopped because I was a television actor."

Landau's first job was as an illustrator for the New York Daily News. He was 17 and studying at Pratt Institute in his native Brooklyn. "I did caricatures three times a week for Billy Rose's column. I was also an assistant to Gus Edson, who was then drawing the cartoon strip, The Gumps. I did backgrounds and lettering and sometimes on Sunday I'd do the whole strip."

Landau put his old skill to work on "Tucker," drawing a sketch for makeup man Richard Dean of how he thought Abe ought to look. Dean and Coppola agreed.

After five years at the News, Landau suddenly quit to try his hand at acting. "I told the picture editor I was going into the theater. I think he thought I was going to be an usher."

Landau had no prospects whatever but lived on $5 a week from his savings ("You could get quite a decent meal at the Automat for half a buck") and made the rounds. He was hired for a summer stock company on an island off Portland, Me., did 12 shows--including musicals--in 13 weeks and had a swell time.

Back in New York he auditioned for Lee Strasberg and was accepted in the Actors Studio. He is now, along with Mark Rydell and Sydney Pollack, a director of Actors Studio West.

Ultimately, he joined the Broadway company and then did the national tour of "Middle of the Night," which starred Edward G. Robinson. During the Los Angeles run, Alfred Hitchcock saw Landau and cast him as an icy, epicene villain in what was first called "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" but became "North by Northwest."

"I had tea with Mr. Hitchcock one afternoon and asked him how he could have cast me in that part, because what I was playing in 'Middle of the Night' was so different."

"My dear Mahtin," Hitchcock said--Landau catches the famous voice nicely--"you have a circus going on inside you. If you can do that part in the play, you can do this little trinket of mine."

Landau taught acting in Hollywood. Among the film people he came to know was Fred Roos, a casting director who gave one of Landau's students, Jack Nicholson, an early role.

"Fred always said: 'One of these days I'll have something for you.' It was an empty promise for 20 years and we kidded each other about it." Then Roos, by now the co-producer of "Tucker," sent Landau a copy of the script and subsequently asked him what he thought about Abe.

"I'm not usually like this, but I told him I thought I could do it better than any one else in the world. Fred said: 'I think so too; let's put you together with Francis.' "

At the moment, Landau has completed shooting Woody Allen's new and--as always--untitled film, and is under a veil of silence that makes the gents from Price, Waterhouse seem like blabbermouths. His fellow cast members are known to include Woody himself and Mia Farrow, Claire Bloom, Anjelica Huston, Sam Waterston, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah. There will probably be some reshooting; there usually is on Allen's films.

Allen had evidently seen and liked Landau's work in "Tucker" and through his agent he was invited to come to New York to chat with Allen. Landau asked if he could have a look at the script and was told, in effect, "Are you kidding?" But after a first meeting with Allen, a copy of the script was delivered to his hotel within the hour, and an intense, demanding and evidently satisfying experience began.

"The chasm between film and television is now beginning to disintegrate," Landau thinks, "partly because some of the people who ran television are now running the studios."

The chasm originally reflected the mortal fear in the studios that audiences would not pay to see what they could get for free. It is now clear that audiences will pay to see what they want to see, whether it involves actors who don't do television or those who, like Judd Hirsch and others, do. The bottom line, to no one's surprise, is money. It is also talent: underused or, like Martin Landau's, rediscovered.

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