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Clock Watching
With Martin Landau

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The Oscar Winning Star Of Stage And Screen Had Much To Say, But A Ticking Parking Meter Made The Interview An Almost Impossible Mission

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Jan. 25, 2016 — It’s never easy finding a parking space in the Beverly Hills flatlands. They are coveted almost as much as first-look film deals. When you do find one, it’s survival of the quickest as you test your parallel parking skills all the while hoping nobody disputes your claim which can result in an embarrassing, totally unproportional spat.

Dare park in an unauthorized spot and the omniscient Beverly Hills police will have your car towed to the impound lot faster than you can say “Drop me off at Chanel on Rodeo Drive.” And if you return to your ride a literal minute after the meter expires, you’ll be greeted with the astronomical fee (also unproportional) of a parking ticket firmly tucked under your windshield wiper.

That was the vexing situation when we showed up for an interview with Martin Landau in 1995. We cut the appointment precariously close (thanks to typical Los Angeles gridlock), but were blessed to snag a meter and stuff it with the requisite coinage for the one-hour time limit. We then scurried up to his publicist’s office just in time for our appointment.

Landau eats, sleeps and breathes acting. He even dresses the part with a laughing mask of comedy signet ring prominently displayed on his finger. And when he isn’t up for a role, Landau can often be found teaching classes at the West Coast branch of the Actor’s Studio. At the instigation of his mentor, method coach Lee Strasberg, Landau – along with Sidney Pollack and Mark Rydell – opened the school a few years back. He had personally tutored Jack Nicholson (for three years), James Dean, Warren Oates and Anjelica Houston, among others.

“Acting is what I do for a living,” he told us sitting at a conference table with his wary publicist on guard nearby, ever vigilant to the possibility we might ask a “wrong” question. “All I do is watch people’s behavior. It doesn’t matter what a person says, it’s what he does that counts.”

We thought we heard the publicist – perched like a predatory shrike – emit an audible squawk. But he might have been just clearing his throat due to a head cold. We’ll never know for sure.

In any event, there was weight behind Landau’s words. In a city referred to as a “company town,” and populated by players who sincerely believe the infamous credo, “You’re only as good as your last movie,” Landau had done the skeptics two better. In addition to his 1994 best supporting actor Academy Award-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, Landau earned Oscar nominations for two other films: Tucker: The Man and His Dream and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

For several years running, just like the mask on his ring, Landau was all smiles. But despite his successful ascent into the Hollywood firmament, Landau remembered some long dry spells when he felt compelled to take just about any role offered – usually one-dimensional villains in schlocky B-grade movies that were quickly relegated to the back shelves of video stores.

“There were a lot of years when I just wasn’t being offered good roles,” he says. “My whole motivation was to get a decent part so I could hit a homerun. All I wanted was a high, hard fastball to be pitched right over the plate. Tucker was that pitch.”

According to Landau, director Francis Ford Coppola initially thought the actor was too young looking and tall for the role of Abe Karatz, Tucker’s unlikely partner. “I asked Francis if there were 10 days of rehearsal scheduled before shooting started,” Landau said. “He said yes. I then told him not to worry about it, knowing full well he could fire me at any time. Each day of rehearsal I got a little closer and a little shorter. I even kept a log at the time. The first entry read, ‘Here we go . . .’ I knew this was my fastball.”

At 67, Landau radiated the same intensity that he brought to a myriad of television and film roles, including his three-year stint as Rollin Hand on Mission Impossible. It’s that quiet spark that first brought him to the attention of Strasberg when, as a struggling New York actor in the 1950s, he and Steve McQueen were the only pupils from 2,000 applicants who Strasberg accepted into the Actor’s Studio.

“I guess you could say that I was Strasberg’s protégé,” Landau admitted. “He beat the crap out of me as a young actor because he expected a lot. It was hard to please him. Pretty girls pleased him more than ugly guys. I would do scenes in front of Kim Stanley, Maureen Stapleton, Elia Kazan and Marilyn Monroe – a lot of eyes. He would chew you up and spit you out saying, ‘Perhaps next week you’ll do better.’”

Tough as it was, Landau credited that early spadework with broadening his technique and opening a world of improvisational opportunities with each new role. A case in point is his characterization of “Leonard,” James Mason’s dutiful toady in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

“I played him as a homosexual,” Landau said. “It was tricky, but there was no reason to be in the movie if I didn’t portray him that way. Ernie Lehman, who wrote the script, picked up on what I was doing and added that pivotal line I deliver to Mason when I suspect that Eva Marie Saint is a double-agent: ‘Call it my woman’s intuition.’ It pegged Leonard as gay.”

At first, Landau said, Hitchcock expressed some misgivings, but he soon granted Landau permission to interpret Leonard any way he wished. Indeed it was Landau’s ability to fully inhabit any role that led Hitchcock to cast him in the film in the first place. “Hitchcock told me in that inimitable cluck of his, ‘Martin, you have a circus going on inside of you. Obviously, you can perform in this little trinket.’”

Landau had to call on all his actorly instinct to put over the part of Bela Lugosi in the biopic of the “world’s worst director,” Ed Wood. If the complexity of playing a “74-year-old morphine-addicted alcoholic with mood swings” wasn’t challenge enough, Director Tim Burton upped the ante by telling Landau at their first meeting that he wouldn’t do the movie if Landau refused to portray Lugosi.

“I did a screen test in full makeup,” Landau said. “I learned two speeches from the script and we improvised with a hypodermic needle. Tim went to see the test and was excited. He said I ‘nailed’ the character 30 percent of the time. But at that moment my appetite was whetted. I knew I could pull it off.”

According to Landau, the test was just the first step in a laborious and painstaking process. “I had to learn a whole new set of physical traits,” he said. “My energy goes right to my fingertips. Lugosi’s stopped in his palm, so he had a much softer hand. He used his hands much more than I do. I have a lot of teeth. You never saw Lugosi’s teeth; his mouth was like a black hole. My eyes open wide; his were squinty.”

In a scene from the movie, Landau, as Dracula, delivers a famous non sequitur, “Pull the string!” The serio-comic moment underscores the depths to which Lugosi’s career had sunk at that time. It also helped Landau clinch his first Oscar statuette.

At this point in the interview, Fantle took a furtive peek at his wristwatch, checking the time against the nearly expired parking meter. Always traveling on a shoestring “budget,” we could ill afford the ruinous expense of a fine on our rental car.

Although Landau appeared to be in no apparent rush, the momentary glance at the watch seemed to perturb him. “Do you have someplace better to go?” he admonished us. Fantle, turning crimson, explained to a baleful Landau our parking situation. But since we had not gotten around to asking about his latest film project, Landau was not entirely interested in cutting off the interview. “I’m an actor – you see! – it’s my business to notice everything, even subtleties,” he said almost triumphantly as if we had just been caught out of school.

At this juncture, Landau’s publicist started to wildly flap his wings or maybe he gestured with his arms. We’ll never know for sure. So, we continued.

The film in question – the one Landau wanted to talk about – was one where he literally “pulled the strings” as master puppeteer “Gepetto” in New Line Cinema’s animated/live action production of Pinocchio.

“I went to Prague specifically to learn about European marionette techniques,” he said, always the consummate craftsman. “You could hang the animated cells from the film up in your home as artwork – they are so beautiful.”

As we departed making no pretense about our overweening desire to replug the meter, we asked Landau if he ever wore the frowning mask of tragedy as a companion to his other ring. Landau shot us an inscrutable smile that seemed straight out of an Actor’s Studio master’s class.

“Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight,” he said, grinning.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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