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Going His Way : Martin Landau Finds that Roles for His Age Range Can Be Rewarding

March 29, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gone are the days when Martin Landau's estimable talent was being wasted in such movies as "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island."

Landau, who made his film debut as a cool baddie in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," said he has been "getting better choices" since receiving back-to-back best supporting Oscar nominations in 1988 and '89 for "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" and Woody Allen's "Crimes & Misdemeanors."

"In any age range, there are some limitations in terms of good, good parts, " said Landau, who doesn't like to reveal his age. But after the Oscar nods, the "good, good parts" for late fifties and early sixtysomething actors have been coming his way.

"I have a wonderful role in this (upcoming, unscheduled feature) called 'Mistress,' which (Robert) De Niro's company did," Landau said in a recent interview at his rustic Hollywood Hills home. "It's a terrific role. It is maybe the best thing I have ever done. I play a producer and my mistress is film."

Then there's the USA movie "Legacy of Lies," airing April 22. Landau insisted that "Legacy of Lies" isn't the typical USA action/thriller fare. "It is a damn good script. Eli Wallach is playing my father, Michael Ontkean is playing my son. I am a cop. My son is a detective and my father was a mobster. It is an interesting piece--good character stuff."

Landau is playing another father this week in ABC's "Something to Live For: The Alison Gertz Story," based on the true story of a young woman (Molly Ringwald) who contracted AIDS in a single romantic interlude at age 16. Gertz has become a leading advocate in the effort to educate young people about the dangers of AIDS. Oscar-winner Lee Grant also stars as her mother.

Gertz and her parents "came to visit us on the set," Landau said, lighting up a cigarette. "Alison is very ill at the moment. She is in a wheelchair."

Landau said it was strange for the cast to have the family on the set. "I was doing a scene with Molly at the time, a scene that occurred verbatim and the father was listening to the scene. It affected him enormously. The mother said, 'It just sounds like Ali.' "

Landau said he didn't talk with the man about his daughter's illness; there was no need. "There were no question marks in my mind as to what this guy was going through. It is a very emotional piece. There is no way it can't be. Those parents are the two nicest people you would ever meet. They are so great and (have) a lot of spirit and a lot of spunk. It has changed their lives radically."

Landau said he has always found it "interesting" as an actor to play real-life people. "Years ago on TV I played people like Doc Holliday and Jesse James on Westerns," he said.

More recently, he portrayed famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the 1990 TNT drama "Max and Helen."

Landau spent one day with Wiesenthal, he said, "just trying to absorb him, his essence, his dogmatism, his huge emotionality. In this instance, because he is somewhat known, a historical figure, I didn't want to do an imitation of him, but I wanted to capture his essence. I tried to crawl into his skin in a certain way."

Landau was worried what Wiesenthal would think of his performance. "Simon is very, very tough," he said. But the day after the film aired, Landau recalled, he got a call from Wiesenthal.

"He said, 'I have something to say to you. You were perfect . That's it.' "

The Brooklyn-born Landau is no newcomer to television. He began working on the small screen in New York during the 1950s and became a TV superstar in the '60s when he starred with then-wife Barbara Bain in "Mission: Impossible."

In the early, "golden years" of television, Landau said, "no one knew who was in charge yet. There weren't that many sets and ad agencies didn't butt in."

As time went by, however, television lost its ability to be original, he said. "It copycats itself so much. The sense of adventure and risk-taking is much less."

Landau illustrated his theory by telling of what the medium did to Rod Serling, the genius behind "The Twilight Zone."

Landau, who was a friend of Serling's, appeared in the second "Twilight Zone" episode in 1959 and in one of the last ones in 1964. "In those five years, Rod was beaten up by the networks. He had to fight for a lot of things and he did. I think it took its toll on him. He was 50 when he died."

"Something to Live For: The Alison Gertz Story" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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