By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
When Martin Landau first appears on-screen in the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival’s closing night film, The Red Maple Leaf, it’s like the sun breaking through a slate sky.
The old man with patchy white whiskers conducts more than prepares his lunch, humming along like a meager maestro to the Verdi playing in his kitchen and fancifully serving up a deliciously Technicolor scene in a film that feels black-and-white.
It’s one more eye-catching characterization in a 65-year career overflowing with them, for which the 88-year-old actor will receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award on Nov. 20 at a Bailey Hall screening of the film making its world premiere here.
Though his two scenes clock in at only 15 minutes, Landau’s character is the linchpin to the movie’s mystery while his performance is luminously distinctive among an Agatha Christie-esque procession of cameos by an intriguing whatever-happened-to cast, including James Caan, Kris Kristofferson, Margot Kidder, Paul and Mira Sorvino and the late Doris Roberts and Robert Loggia.
Landau had worked with many of them before. “A lot of memories went into this picture,” he says. “I don’t do a lot of small parts, but it was a good feeling of community and it was fun to do. I try to have fun all the time, actually.”
Fun and work must be synonymous for the Brooklyn-born actor who, after five years as a New York Daily News cartoonist, has amassed almost 200 TV and film credits – not counting three Emmy-nominated seasons of impersonations as Rollin Hand, “The Man of a Million Faces,” on Mission: Impossible, which co-starred his wife, Barbara Bain.
His career ignited in 1955 when, out of 2,000 applicants, only he and Steve McQueen made it into The Actors Studio. Almost four decades later, the venerable character actor won the 1994 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Dracula’s Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.
As co-director of Actors Studio West and with movies still in the can and in the works, it’s clear from his recent conversation with City & Shore, Landau has no intention of calling it quits.
How does it feel to still be doing serious work?
I’m not gonna play Fred Astaire anymore. I’m pretty fortunate that I’m still perpendicular. You know, I’m an old guy – and so what?
Does the acting come easier now?
I keep learning stuff. We’re the only mammals on the planet that can say should I or shouldn’t I. And if we should and then don’t – uh-oh – and if we shouldn’t and then do – uh-oh. We make a lot of mistakes and that’s what’s fascinating about playing characters. I like to play a character with a little doubt.
What’s it like to receive a lifetime achievement award?
I’ve gotten a lot of them, but I’m not finished. I’m fortunate that I’m doing what I love to do. I’m writing a memoir and there are people doing a documentary on my life, so I’m being recognized in ways that are pleasant. I’ve worked with Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Francis Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock. It’s nice to have been able to play such a diverse bunch of roles.
I’ve been fortunate in having this career as opposed to being a leading man. I’ve never played the same character twice. If I’d been a bigger movie star, I think I would’ve gone crazy. I’ve been able to go into a supermarket without being mobbed. And I’ve been able to ply my trade right up to now. I’ve played everything and anything and I’m still doing it. I just did a picture that isn’t out yet called The Last Poker Game with Paul Sorvino. I’m practically in every scene.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wanted you to play the now-iconic Spock. Any regrets?
I read the script and I said no. I said I’m an actor. This is a character without emotion. It’s the antithesis of what I care about. Lennie Nimoy was much better-suited for that role. I did Mission: Impossible instead. I was a one-man rep company. Every week I played a different character. I did 80 of those shows and countless different roles – as opposed to playing Spock. I probably would’ve committed suicide.
Spock was the perfect character for the ’60s. He was the perfect “head,” a guy who was stoned but very wise. But Star Trek barely stayed on the air for three years, and the three years I stayed on Mission: Impossible, it was in the Top 10 every week. [Landau left the show in ’69, interestingly, replaced by Nimoy.]
Which of your roles are you proudest of?
I won’t mention their names, but there’s a couple that should be turned into guitar picks. When I see a movie I’m in, I remember everything that went on around it – the experience of it, the directing of it. Most directors leave me alone. I really haven’t been directed by anybody in 35 years. Hitchcock didn’t even direct me. I come in with stuff and I figure if they don’t like it, they’ll tell me. And they don’t say anything so I just say the words, hit the marks and get the hell out of there.
ONLINE BONUS: More of our Q&A with Martin Landau
Your performance in the The Red Maple Leaf stands out among a very interesting cast. Can you explain how you got into that character?
I run the west coast version of the Actor’s Studio. I’ve been teaching acting my whole life. It would take me probably four years to tell you everything. The music was playing and I took advantage of it. He’s a guy who likes his life. He likes opera. I happen to like it to. So some of the choices I made were Martin Landau choices and others were far away from me.
What are Martin Landau choices?
I don’t do a lot of what I call ‘groaners,’ old guys who sit and groan a lot and have no arc at all. I turn those down.
There were things that I did when I first came to Hollywood that I would never be cast in today. It wouldn’t be considered politically correct. There would be pickets out there. I played all kinds of Hispanic characters and Native Americans.
How do you feel about your recent films?
I did Remember last year with Chris Plummer. It got a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival for 10 minutes. I’m not exaggerating either. Last year, it played in one movie theater in New York City for six weeks. It’s got a surprise ending that’ll knock your socks off. Believe me when I say no one has guessed it.
And then I did that picture The Last Poker Game with Paul Sorvino. We shot it in a nursing home in the Boston area for seven weeks. It’s the best thing he’s ever done. I’m very pleased with what I did in it, too. The guy who wrote it and directed it [Howard Weiner] is a teacher at Harvard. He’s a doctor and he also has a private practice. The reason I did it is because it’s a doctor’s look at a nursing home as opposed to a Hollywood look at a nursing home. I play a doctor who’s got a wife who’s suffering from dementia. I’m hearing all kinds of good things about the picture.
In general, is there a motivation that informs your acting?
I find that trust is a very important thing. So many people worry about drowning when they can swim so well.
People often don’t know what to do next. But what I see today are a lot of ‘wonderful experts’ at everything. Things that are considered good acting, I don’t consider good acting.
The best acting I see every week is on Fridays when I moderate a session at the Actors Studio. It’s hard to get in, it’s hard to audition. The year I got in, back in New York in the ’50s, two of us were accepted out of 2,000 people – and that was Steve McQueen and myself. We had final auditions about four weeks ago and we took three people, which is a lot.
Landau will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday, Nov. 20, at the 5 p.m. screening of The Red Maple Leaf at Bailey Hall in Davie followed by the Closing Night Wrap Party. Prior to the screening, in honor of Landau, there is a special free screening of Ed Wood at 2:30 p.m. at Bailey Hall.
He and others stars from the film are scheduled to appear at the Saturday, Nov. 19, screening of The Red Maple Leaf at 1:30pm at Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood.
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