clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Martin Landau has died at 89. These 3 roles made him an icon of the big and small screens.

The actor died this week, leaving behind an impressive résumé that spans more than half a century.

Martin Landau kicked off an impressive career with his memorable performance as the henchman Leonard in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. 

Martin Landau, a versatile character actor and Oscar winner whose career in film and television spanned more than half a century, died on Sunday, July 16, after “unexpected complications” during a hospital stay, according to his publicist. He was 89.

Immediately recognizable for his tall, lean frame and expressive face, Landau had a prolific career that saw him appear in movies ranging from studio epics to schlock horror films, and it’s hard to name a procedural television show from the ’60s and ’70s that he didn’t pop up on at some point. (And that’s to say nothing of his late-career recurring role on Entourage, which earned him his sixth Emmy nod.)

The type of actor who spoke frequently and lovingly of his craft — in addition to teaching it, as part of his tenure as co-artistic director of the Hollywood branch of the Actors Studio — Landau was a quintessential character actor, for whom seemingly no role was too minor to delve into and make his own. But his career and performances were far from workmanlike: Landau made his mark on Hollywood early, and sustained and expanded it through intense dedication and preparation.

Landau’s confident approach to acting was informed in large part by his Actors Studio training at the hands of the notoriously take-no-prisoners Lee Strasberg. “[Strasberg taught me that] a certain actor's arrogance is needed,” Landau said in 2016. “Play the truth. Actors need to trust themselves. If you trust yourself, you can trust others and leave the director outside.”

Throughout his career, Landau worked with legendary directors ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Francis Ford Coppola — but the actor was insistent that the responsibility for a performance falls first and foremost on the actor giving that performance.

In that same interview from 2016, he remarked that he “[hadn’t] been directed by anybody in probably 30 or 35 years,” a comment that could seem haughty were it not backed up by decades of delivering the goods onscreen. “I think if they don't like what I'm doing, they'll say something,” he said. “They don't say anything. So I hit the mark, say the words, and get the hell out of there.”

So in honor of a lifetime of hitting his marks and getting the hell out of there, here are three indelible Landau performances that illustrate his confidence and versatility as an actor.

Leonard in North by Northwest (1959)

Following a brief tenure as a newspaper cartoonist and illustrator in his late teens and early 20s, Landau transitioned into acting, training at the Actors Studio with Strasberg and doing theater work, including the national tour of Middle of the Night. It was the Los Angeles run of that show that brought him to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who gave the actor, by then 30 years old, his first film role in North By Northwest as Leonard, one of the two henchmen who pursue Cary Grant throughout the film. Landau liked to tell the story of asking Hitchcock why the director cast an unknown like him in the role, to which Hitchcock replied, “If you can do that part in the play, you can do this little trinket of mine.”

Generally considered one of the best films of all time, North by Northwest is not lacking for memorable performances, including Grant’s resourceful protagonist, Eva Marie Saint as his enigmatic ally, and James Mason as Leonard’s boss Vandamm. But even amid those eye-catching performances, Landau is a striking, menacing presence each time he appears onscreen, thanks to his piercing eyes and imposing yet cool demeanor.

Notably, Landau said he chose to play Leonard as a gay character, an unusual choice for a performer at that time: “My logic was simply that he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, so it made sense for him to be in love with his boss,” Landau said in 2012. “Every one of my friends thought I was crazy, but Hitchcock liked it. A good director makes a playground and allows you to play.”

Rollin Hand on the original Mission: Impossible TV series (1966-1969)

Initially conceived as a recurring guest character (due to Landau not wanting to commit to a regular TV gig that could interfere with the possibility of film roles), Rollin Hand would go on to become one of the most memorable and beloved characters from the Mission: Impossible TV series of the late ’60s and early ’70s. An IMF agent known as “the man of a million faces,” Rollin Hand was conceived as a brilliant impersonator, a characterization perfectly calibrated to Landau’s gifts as an actor. (The role was reportedly written with Landau in mind, to the point that the character was named “Martin Land” in the pilot script.)

Playing a gifted mimic, Landau would often perform as Rollin’s marks from under heavy makeup, or dub lines for other actors — but not always. In one of the series’ most celebrated episodes, “The Mind of Stefan Miklos,” Landau impersonated two different men as part of a sting-like operation, showcasing his skill at creating two distinct characters through physicality alone, no makeup or prosthetics necessary.

Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994)

After Mission: Impossible, Landau’s work in TV subsumed his burgeoning film career for a while. (“I’d worked for the giants at the beginning — George Stevens, Hitchcock,” Landau told the LA Times in 1989. “And then it all stopped because I was a television actor.”) But the pendulum began to swing the other way in 1988, after Landau was cast as wily financier Abe Karatz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

Landau’s unexpected appearance in that film led to his work in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors the following year, and he earned back-to-back Supporting Actor Oscar nominations for the two roles. Suddenly, Landau was getting meaty, interesting film roles again — the most celebrated of which came in 1994, with his performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, garnering predictions of a Supporting Actor Oscar win before the film even came out.

Those predictions would come true, with Landau winning his first and only Oscar for playing Lugosi. His colorful but tragic characterization of the horror icon is one of the most indelible parts of Burton’s film, and while Lugosi’s son reportedly objected to the portrayal, Landau approached the role with the exact sort of care and consideration he brought to seemingly every role he played, creating a distinctive character that rises above the level of mere impersonation.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.