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I Spy While Watching an Old Episode of 'I Spy' — R.I.P., Martin Landau, and Live on in Posterity
July 17, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Not much more can be said about Martin Landau that hasn’t been said by others, more eloquent and profound than anything I could say, ever since the “man of a million faces,” as his Mission: Impossible character was described, passed away over the weekend, aged 89.

Inevitably, for anyone who grew up in front of the TV during a certain time, Landau’s distinctive, furrowed brow and soft-spoken, clearly enunciated stage voice was a familiar presence. His voice struck an instant chord with viewers, whether it was as Rollin Hand (right) in the original Mission: Impossible or, for a later generation, as Commander John Koenig in the cult ‘70s sci-fi drama Space: 1999.

As with many fine actors, there was more to the man than the roles he played. He was an acting teacher — one of the best, according to those fortunate enough to work under his guidance. 

He was a proud, card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild, so much so that when he won the 1994 SAG Award for portraying Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Oscar-winning biopic Ed Wood — a performance that would go on to win Landau that year’s Academy Award for supporting actor — he broke down at the podium and pulled out a tattered, shopworn union card and delivered an emotional, heartfelt speech about how that union card was a prized possession for the son of a Jewish, Austrian-born Brooklyn machinist whose dream of being a famous singer fell by the wayside.

Landau himself knew hardship, despite a prominent role in one of the most watched primetime dramas of its time. He was typecast after Mission: Impossible, reduced to playing bit parts and walk-ons in shows like Gilligan’s Island. “This business, this town,” he once famously said: “It chews you up and then spits you out.”

Well, yes and no. Landau himself learned his craft from the best — Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan — and had a brief relationship with fellow student Marilyn Monroe. He was one of just two applicants accepted into the Actors Studio in 1955, the year he applied; the other was Steve McQueen. He would become fast friends with the ill-fated James Dean, whom he met at a TV audition. When the time came to pass on what he knew to a younger generation, his students would go on to include Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Anjelica Huston.

The roles didn’t dry up exactly, and in his later years his acting career would enjoy a second wind, thanks to prominent roles in Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Burton’s Ed Wood (right).

In person, Landau had a sly, understated sense of humor. He approached each role with an offhand eccentricity; the worst thing an actor can do, he insisted, is to be lazy or obvious, even when playing a role that has been played countless times before. There are no good or bad performances, he insisted, only interesting or boring ones.

Like many actors with a wide repertoire of performances over a lifetime, it was the smaller, lesser-known roles that stirred some of his pointed memories.

At a Television Critics Association gathering to promote PBS’s Pioneers of Television docuseries, a number of years ago at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., Landau regaled the room with tales of old Hollywood, alongside Robert Conrad, Linda Evans, Mike Connors and Nichelle Nichols.

I had just watched a DVD box set of early seasons of I Spy — one of my favorite thrillers growing up, and still one I have fond memories of, despite the present-day connotations  of one of its lead actors, I approached Landau quietly after the press session; I had watched the I Spy episode “Danny Was a Million Laughs” just days earlier, in which Landau played a brilliant but thoroughly unlikeable U.S. State Department operative and informant (top) against a black market smuggling ring in Hong Kong. Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander “Scotty” Scott (Bill Cosby) were tasked with keeping Danny Preston alive (below right) until he could return to the U.S. to testify — a task made near impossible by the fact that Danny was irascible, demanding, impatient, judgmental and basically impossible to be around, whether it was telling the local police how to do their jobs (“Police are the same the world over, constantly underfoot when there’s no need for you, but when there’s a real necessity, where are you? I mean: Where? Are? You?”) or getting on the nerves of his minders. When, at one point, Kelly (Culp) tells his partner Scotty (Cosby) that he wouldn’t mind murdering Danny before his partners-in-crime do (“We could disconnect every bone in his body”) — this, after Danny tosses Scotty a coin and tells him, “Here you are, boy, I’ll leave my shoes out for you tonight” — Scotty replies dryly: “Work before pleasure.”

On this day, Landau shared his memories of working during the early days of television, when hardly anyone was watching, he said.

“When I first started in television, back in New York, it was before tape.  It was, you know, Kinescopes and live television, literally. We felt we were pioneering because there were only about 25 (TV) sets in the entire country.”

Landau’s first love was the New York stage, but Hollywood had an allure of its own.

“I was a New York actor from the theater. I came out here with a play, and the next thing I knew, I was on a set with Alfred Hitchcock directing Cary Grant, James Mason, and Eva Marie Saint. North by Northwest. I was amazed at how giving those people were, how professional they were, how trained they were and disciplined, and on down the line. I worked with a lot of wonderful, wonderful people.”

It wasn’t always a cakewalk, though. In the early days of TV, if you weren’t cast as the lead in a series, it could be hard finding good work, Landau told the room.

“If you weren't in the series, you were the bad guy, and I played a lot of those. I played Chiricahua Apaches (above, center), and I played a lot of Mexican characters, and so on. What I was doing in those days would be politically incorrect today. I wouldn't be playing Native Americans, and I certainly wouldn't be playing Chicanos and Hispanic characters. I think, if I did, there would be picket lines outside the studio. But in those days, you never knew what you were going to do when you were guesting.”

Later, after the session, Landau looked tired and haggard, standing on his own in the hotel atrium while waiting for his ride home. I introduced myself, mentioned I Spy and how, quite by coincidence, I had seen his episode only days earlier, thanks to the miracle of DVD box sets. Landau lit up instantly, eyes bright and arms suddenly alive.

“Oh, I remember that!” he cried. “That was so much fun to do. I’ll tell you something — I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it to anyone else before: I played Danny like Sheldon Leonard [veteranTV mogul and executive producer of I Spy]. The moment I saw the script, I thought, this guy is perfect for Sheldon. He is this guy. The way Sheldon carried himself, the way he talked, the way he thought. I kept thinking at the time, while was doing it: ‘I wonder if anyone will pick up on this. Could I get in trouble?’”

No one did, as it happened, least of all Leonard himself. Landau’s performance sailed through editing untouched, and made it onto the screen — and now, thanks to DVD, posterity.

“It’s so funny you mention that episode,” Landau said. “It was just a one-off, a one-time thing, but I never forgot it. I don’t think I ever had so much fun guesting.”

Martin Landau. Born June 20, 1928; died July 15, 2017. He was one of the greats.

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Program note:TCM schedules North By Northwest next Wed.7/26 @10:30PM(ET),so you can see just how slimy Landau could be as a bad guy. The . schedule,the penultimate night of TCM's Hitchcock films,is as must see any they come: Vertigo @ 8,N X NW 10:30, Psycho@ 1AM & The Birds @3AM. Of the quartet,N X NW is a favorite as the balance of humor,romance and terror mixes quite nicely with,as Landau stated,is full of great stars:Cary Grant,Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll(Waverly on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.),Ed Platt( Chief on Get Smart,here, actually playing a guy named Larrabee)groovy opening credits by Saul Bass(don't miss them and don't blink as they end),great Bernard Hermann score-and Landau as the cool henchman,Leonard. Also,TCM already has a TCM Remembers for Landau.
Jul 18, 2017   |  Reply
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