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De-Mystifying The

Martin Landau Method

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Photo of Martin Landau as Rollin Hand from the television program Mission: Impossible.
The Hollywood Legend Dishes On Working With Hitchcock, The Roles That Have Buoyed Him In Recent Years And What Makes A Successful Acting Career

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

June 16, 2014 — Martin Landau eats, sleeps and breathes acting. He even dresses the part with a laughing mask of comedy signet ring prominently displayed on his finger.

“Acting is what I do for a living,” he told us during an interview several years ago (Landau turns 86 on June 20) at the Beverly Hills office of his publicist. “All I do is watch people’s behavior. It doesn’t matter what a person says, it’s what he does that counts.”

There is 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 has done the skeptics two better.

In addition to his 1999 Academy Award-winning performance for Best Supporting Actor as Bela Lugosi in director Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau earned Oscar nomination for two other films (Tucker: The Man and his Dream and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors).

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

A star student at Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio in the 1950s, Landau admitted that the maestro would, “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. Marilyn Monroe pleased him.”

Tough as it was, Landau credits that early spadework with broadening his technique and opening a world of improvisational possibilities with each new role. A case in point is his characterization of Leonard, James Mason’s dutiful henchman in 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 the 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, director Alfred 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 a role that led Hitchcock to cast him in the film.

“Hitchcock told me in that inimitable cluck of his, ‘Martin, you have a circus going on inside you. Obviously, you can perform in this little trinket.’”

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. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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