When we think of great actors, the first thing that comes to our mind are either the glittering stars of the Golden Age or the awards-filled thespians whose mere presence in a film acts as an official Seal of Seriousness stamped from the heavens to signal its importance. We very rarely think of those familiar faces whose names we remember and whose performances we easily identify and love but who, ironically enough due to that familiarity as well as, perhaps, a lack of leading roles in prominent projects, never come up in any conversation about our favourite actors – even though they should.

Martin Landau, who left us on the 15th of July 2017, was one such actor. His name, with that quintessentially American combination of a common Anglo-Saxon first name and a rarer, more eastern surname, is familiar to anyone with even a passing love or knowledge of American audiovisual fiction. His blue-eyed sharp-featured face, which has graced screens big and small for 64 years, had that delightfully singular quality of being distinct enough for us to recognize him whenever he showed up and yet ordinary enough for us to think of him as one of us rather than some inaccessible divinity inextricably tied to the heroes and monsters produced by the modern secular mythology factory we call Hollywood.

Born in a family of Jewish Austrian immigrants on the 20th of June 1928, young Martin Landau seemed initially destined to a productive career in the newspaper industry, as he worked five years as an editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News and even assisted Gus Edson in illustrating the popular comic strip The Gumps. But after five years of hard work, Mr. Landau found that his talent for bringing other people’s words to life would be far better served on the stage and in the studio than in the newsroom. After successfully applying to the Actors’ Studio with another young student named Steve McQueen, he began his illustrious acting career on Broadway and in television, appearing in either single-episode parts for popular shows such as Maverick or Rawhide or in anthology series like Omnibus or Armstrong Circle Theater. But it was in 1959 that he caught his big break, when Alfred Hitchcock spotted him acting opposite Edward G. Robinson in the Broadway hit Middle Of The Night and subsequently cast him as villain Phillip Vandamm’s sinister secretary Leonard in his ground-breaking thriller North By Northwest.

Hitchcock’s use of characters who are either coded as queer or made as explicitly attracted to their sex as contemporary censorship could allow is a well-known and still-controversial element of the Master of Suspense’s cinematic storytelling. In this particular case, it was Martin Landau himself who decided to play Leonard as a closeted homosexual in love with his boss and jealous of his mistress; supposedly, one of the film’s most delightfully subversive lines – “Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will.” – which Leonard says while discussing his suspicions of Eve Kendall’s duplicity, was added by screenwriter Ernest Lehman after conferring with Landau. It proved an astute choice: although the character’s implied homosexuality is used to amplify the sexual threat posed by his tall lean features, soft voice and suggestive body language, it also adds depth to what could otherwise have been a fairly simple henchman role and further humanizes Leonard as arguably the only character in the film with a strong consistent allegiance to someone other than himself.

While North By Northwest’s success opened many doors to young Landau, his subsequent big-screen career was marred by repeated box-office failures, including two of classic Hollywood’s most notorious epic bombs: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, in which he played Roman officer Rufio, and George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which he portrayed high priest Caiaphas. The true future of Landau’s career, as it soon became apparent, lay in television; from 1959 to 1966, he worked prolifically in some of the decade’s most influential shows, including The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, The Wild Wild West and The Man From U. N. C. L. E. According to differing accounts, he was either Gene Roddenberry’s first or second choice to play Spock in Star Trek before the role ultimately went to his friend Leonard Nimoy. Instead, Landau would star in another one of the 60s’ most enduring franchises: Mission: Impossible. As the IMF’s master of disguise and “man of a million faces” Rollin Hand, Landau helped immortalize one of the series’ most beloved trademarks and became a popular genre television actor. He would subsequently play his first leading role in a television show as Commander John Koenig on the 1970s British science-fiction series Space: 1999 and four TV movie sequels.

On the big screen, Landau remained discreet for most of the 1970s and 1980s until his supporting turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 biopic Tucker: The Man And His Dream earned him his first Oscar nomination. He was nominated a second time the following year thanks to his performance as a respected ophthalmologist turned adulterous murderer in Woody Allen’s black comedy Crimes And Misdemeanors.

But of course, Martin Landau’s greatest triumph came in 1994 with Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s loving tribute to filmmaking, friendship and cultural transmission. Deservedly rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Landau’s uncanny portrayal of horror icon Bela Lugosi, whose career Wood briefly resurrected after discovering him living in poverty as a drug addict, embodies these values to the core. Avoiding the pitfalls of calculated imitation such a role invites, his Lugosi celebrates the man’s natural theatricality and the unique melting-pot of European classicism and American B-movie culture that he has come to signify. In this masterpiece of a performance, Martin Landau transmitted a gifted actor’s legacy onto us all while cementing his own – as an actor of great astuteness and humility, whose respect for his peers and disciplined self-control deserve to be admired, studied and emulated forever.

By Thomas Ricard

Franco-British American cinephile. Critical role models include Roger Ebert, Armond White, Stephanie Zacharek and Ray Carney. Favourite films include Mulholland Dr., Taxi Driver, Vertigo and Persona.