As Ed Wood's Bela Lugosi, Landau rises again

By EW Staff
October 21, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Back in 1981, Martin Landau was a castaway. As man-of-a-thousand-faces Rollin Hand on TV’s Mission: Impossible, Landau had proven himself the most versatile of actors. But he left the popular series (carbon to David Caruso) in 1969, after just three seasons, and by the time he was shipwrecked with Bob Denver and Scatman Crothers in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, the Brooklyn native had drifted for a dozen years in an ocean of bad roles. Landau, who at 28 had costarred in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, would lie awake at night trying to convince himself that he’d soon be rediscovered. ”I always believed that all it would take was a decent role,” he recalls. ”I felt like a pinch hitter with a leaden bat, that if I got a chance I could hit a home run.”

It would be seven more years before he connected, but true to his belief, he connected big: In 1988, as businessman Abe Karatz in Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Landau landed his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination — eventually losing to A Fish Called Wanda‘s Kevin Kline. The next year he was nominated again, for his portrayal of Judah Rosenthal, the murderous ophthalmologist in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors — and lost to Glory‘s Denzel Washington. Today, though, five months before the envelope is unsealed, 63-year-old Landau is the insiders’ early favorite to finally win the category. How? With his heartbreaking performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.

On this warm fall day outside his Hollywood Hills home, Landau’s not quite ready to bask in the buzz. ”I think it sounds egocentric to say I deserve to be nominated,” he whispers in embarrassment. ”But I set out to do things, and I think I achieved them.”

Burton’s film is a lovingly camp account of the career of Edward D. Wood Jr., part-time transvestite and full-time director of such Z-grade ’50s movies as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space. But at its emotional core is the friendship between Wood and his occasional leading man, Lugosi, whose turns as Dracula made him a star in the ’30s, but who had become a morphine addict, long forgotten by Hollywood, by the time he met Wood in 1953. Landau plays Lugosi as a broken immortal, a man with a vampire’s charismatic power and a faded matinee idol’s bitter vanity. ”He doesn’t deserve to smell my s—,” shouts Landau’s Lugosi at the mere mention of archrival Boris Karloff.

Landau, too, can command a room, gesticulating as he talks, adopting various accents, speaking with the same concentration he brings to his work. A hale 6 feet 2 inches, the actor needed three hours of makeup each morning to become the decrepit Lugosi, a metamorphosis that cast, crew, and even family found transfixing. ”The first time I saw him,” recalls his daughter Juliet, 23, who has a small role as one of Wood’s leading ladies, ”he looked about 180 years old. He went to grab something, and I popped up and said, ‘I’ll get it, Dad.”’

”He had become Lugosi,” marvels Johnny Depp, who plays Wood. ”The way he talked, the way he moved, the way he walked. When I was doing scenes with him I’d sometimes get lost just watching him, amazed.”

”Lugosi was fascinating to watch (on screen). He had a palpable intensity and a presence that you can’t buy. But this f—in’ town shat on him,” says Landau, echoing his embittered, foulmouthed character. ”And I can relate to that. I’ve seen it happen a lot. I’ve seen it happen to me.”

Both men slid from an early peak. The son of an immigrant garment worker, Landau says he was a shy kid who spent more time drawing than socializing. At 17, he joined the New York Daily News as a cartoonist, but quit after five years to pursue acting. In 1955 he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio; out of 2,000 applicants, only he and Steve McQueen were accepted. His career took off on Broadway with the successful 1957 play Middle of the Night. Then came North by Northwest (1959), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and Mission: Impossible, which also starred his wife, Barbara Bain. (Now divorced, they have two daughters, Susan, 28, a film producer-director, and Juliet. Landau’s girlfriend, Gretchen Becker, 30, an actress/veterinarian/former all- American basketball player, also appears in Ed Wood.) But when he tried to / get back into films, the door was closed. ”Nobody knew me,” he says. ”They just knew that I was the guy from Mission: Impossible. And I wasn’t on anybody’s list. I mean, I couldn’t even get in the room (to read for the part).”

What followed were projects like Trial by Terror and Sweet Revenge, until Francis Ford Coppola hired him for Tucker. ”When I read (that script), I lit up like a tree,” says Landau, still excited six years later. ”It spun me around the room like [Jim] Carrey in The Mask. I went, ‘Wow! This is it.”’

And it was. After shining with Coppola, Allen, and Burton, Landau can afford to be picky about his projects. Later this month he’ll begin work in New York on City Hall, a thriller starring Al Pacino and John Cusack, but earlier he turned down Scorsese. ”Marty wanted me in Casino, but there was nothing to the part. So even though I’d love to work with him, I said no,” reports the actor who started out in Hollywood playing Indians and other dark- haired Western bad guys. ”I told him, ‘If you want me, write a part for me.’ I love anything that challenges me. I said, ‘Give me something that scares me.”’