Though Martin Landau was a two-time Oscar nominee when Tim Burton tabbed him to play Bela Legosi in 1994’s Ed Wood, he identified with the Hungarian horror has-been and the deliciously awful 1950s director. After all, Landau’s roller-coaster career included credits like The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.
Landau died Saturday in Los Angeles at the age of 89, his agent confirmed to EW. The Brooklyn-born actor became famous in 1959 when he battled Cary Grant atop Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. But after a highly successful three-year run as master-of-disguise Rollin Hand on TV’s Mission: Impossible, the actor who’d crafted his art alongside James Dean and mentored Jack Nicholson discovered the movie business had lost interest in him. “Back then, movie directors felt that audiences wouldn’t pay to see somebody they could see for free on TV,” Landau said in 1994.
It wasn’t until Francis Ford Coppola cast Landau in 1988’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream that the looming, austere-looking actor escaped B-movie oblivion. The Academy recognized his layered performance with a nomination, as did Woody Allen, who quickly cast him in another Oscar-nominated role, as an amoral ophthalmologist in 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Then Ed Wood earned him the golden guy at last.
The Oscar chiseled Landau was in the pantheon of great character actors, and performances in Rounders (1998), The Majestic (2001), and a sublime cameo on HBO’s Entourage (2006) showcased his seemingly effortless ability to steal the show with just a few scenes. “In a well-written script, the dialogue … is what [characters] are willing to share,” Landau said in 2001. “The 90 percent they’re not willing to talk about is what I do for a living. And that’s what keeps it interesting.”
Landau is survived by daughters Susan Landau Finch (a casting director and producer whose upcoming projects include Nate and Al, with her father tapped to play Al) and Juliet Landau (a ballerina and actress best known for playing Drusilla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel).