Riding Along with MARTIN LANDAU on Life's Great Adventure

Last Sunday evening, I was privileged to attend the 3 hour tribute to Master Actor-Teacher Marty Landau at the Writer’s Guild Theatre.  Life’s unpredictability being what it is, though, this piece is appearing a few days later than originally planned.  The reason?  Well, there are two.

One is something that happened after I’d left the event, which I’ll go into later.

The second is the nightmare we’ve all been living through, the massacre in Las Vegas.  It’s a soul-crushing tragedy.  We don’t even have fundamentalism or terrorism to blame this time.  The violence was arbitrary, the shooter had no higher purpose, it appears, than destroying the happiness of strangers.  “He was just a guy,” his younger brother said.  But clearly he wasn’t.  And he didn’t just snap – he planned this meticulously, including setting up a sniper’s nest.  How does a 64 year old retired accountant with no history of violence do that?

I spent some time as an investigative reporter, and this doesn’t scan.  I’ve also spent a lot of time as a screenwriter, and this scenario is not believable.  There has to be something else, something crucial that hasn’t come out yet.  Maybe it will by the time this is published, or hopefully sometime soon.  Right now this feels like an X-Files episode come to life, with some paranormal force in charge. I’ve alternated between being heartbroken by the human tragedies and being mystified by this enigmatic shooter.  I mean, I’m intrigued by conspiracy stories and have written a few myself.  But I see no indication of a conspiracy here.  Did he have cancer?  Did he lose all his money gambling?  Some kind of death sentence hanging over him that made him want to take as many people with him as possible?

I don’t like stories that don’t make any sense.  Life may not be art, but it does have its reasons, whether love or hate, money or payback.  So far none of these seem to apply, and I won’t be able to let it go until something does.

Landau in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “North by Northwest.”

So, let’s go from that scene of Hate – straight out of the “Hell” panel of a Heironymous Bosch triptych – to the lovefest that was the tribute to the great Martin Landau, organized by Landau’s older daughter, Susie, and directed by Daniel Henning of the Blank Theatre.  Susie kicked off the proceedings by telling the overflowing crowd of family, friends, colleagues and admirers, “When Martin Landau was born, his father Morris hired a brass band in Flatbush to celebrate the occasion.”  And then here we were to continue the celebration, a few months after Landau’s passing at age 89.

The MC of this “occasion” was Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, who proved to be funnier and faster with the off-the-cuff lines than I expected.  After informing us that the only two actors to be accepted for the 1955 class at the Actors Studio were Martin Landau and Steve McQueen – the two also starred together in the 1966 film Nevada Smith – Mankiewicz added: “Lest we think of Martin Landau as some kind of saint who never made mistakes, just remember that this was also the man who said no to the role of Spock on the original Star Trek, while saying yes to the role of J.J. Pierson in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. ”

Diane Ladd and Frances Fisher and the handsome young Mr Landau

Susie Landau quoted her mother Barbara Bain to describe her father: If you burrow deep into Marty Landau’s DNA, you will find the word “ACTOR.”

This set the tone for the evening, which was a celebration of the craft of acting and the life of the actor.  Two of the more unlikely (but still very touching) tributes were delivered by celebrity actors who were not close friends with Landau.

In fact, Hal Holbrook admitted that, in his 92 years, not only had he never worked with Marty Landau, he couldn’t recall ever meeting him.   But he felt compelled to attend because “Martin Landau represented what is really good about our people.  Whatever he was in, there was always something genuine and true about it.”  (Holbrook, who has been performing his one man show about Mark Twain since 1954, now seems – with his halo of white hair – to have completely merged with his character. I am hoping to see his “Mark Twain at 100” in the near future.)

Jon Voigt – not just Angelina Jolie’s dad but an A-List actor again thanks to Ray Donovan – also never worked with Landau and freely admitted that he didn’t know why he was there.  “I had to come as a show of respect,” he said. “I just admired the way he carried himself, and the way his personal generosity carried over to his roles.  He made me want to be a better person and a better actor.  I feel that again tonight,  being here in this room.  When I leave here tonight, I want to be a better person because of Marty.”

Landau with his wife and TV co-star Barbara Bain

Landau’s 65 years as an actor had many highlights.  In the early ’50s, there was his close friendship with the mercurial James Dean and his acceptance by The Actors Studio.  In the late ’50s, there was the beginning of his acting career on stage, screen and TV.  This section concluded with his supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece North by Northwest.  But this did not lead to his being offered more great movie roles.  His next role in a major movie was in the disaster Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  Instead it resulted in a slew of guest-starring roles on TV shows, culminating with his starring role as Rollin Hand, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” on the original Mission Impossible.   This ran on Sunday evenings from 1966-69,  171 episodes, and it cemented Landau’s status as a pop culture icon.  It’s also where he met his wife, Barbara Bain, with whom he would have two daughters.  (Ben Mankiewicz reminded the audience that, while Marty and Barbara were both nominated for 3 Primetime Emmys, Barbara won each time while Marty lost each time; “that third time must have been a bloodbath when they got home,” Mankiewicz joked.)

In the mid-70s, Marty and Barbara starred together again on the TV series Space 1999 (insert your “he coulda been Spock” joke here), but it only ran for two seasons.  Marty went back to guest-starring on TV series and appearing in highly forgettable TV movies.  In fact, his career went downhill along with his reputation and his marriage to Barbara Bain (they officidally divorced in 1993).  Somehow – and I don’t know how myself – he turned everything around, starting with his mesmerizing turn as a financier in the Jeff Bridges movie Tucker: A Man and His Dream in 1988.  This was followed by his indelible performances in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.  Landau was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for each film, and he won for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.  (A former reporter for Deadline confided to the Writer’s Guild audience that one of the other four nominees that night made no attempt to hide his bitterness at being “beaten” by Landau for the award.  “Anyone but Martin Landau,” this actor had reportedly complained.  The reporter refused to tell us which of the four it was:  Paul Scofield, Chazz Palminteri, Samuel L. Jackson or Gary Sinise.  I feel certain I know which one it was.  Do you?)

Woody Allen directing Landau in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)

Landau went on to give terrific performances in Rounders (1999), and in the Jim Carrey movie The Majestic.  But his final Act would take place in small indie films Lovely, Still (2008) and Remember (2015), but especially on TV shows like Without A Trace (where he played Anthony Lapaglia’s father, a military man dealing with dementia) and Entourage, where he gave an unforgettable comic turn as Bob Ryan, a washed-up film producer who suddenly finds himself back in the mainstream.  He even had his own catchphrase: “Does that sound like something you might be interested in?”  Mostly, though, for his last 25 years, Marty invested a huge amount of himself and his spirit in the Actors Studio West, where he was co-artistic director with his lifelong friend Mark Rydell and worked long hours to pass along his wealth of knowledge to new generations of actors and writers.

Marty and a younger, less-Twisted Hipster – only one of so many who feels a debt of gratitude for having had such a great teacher (Photo: Eric Wade)

My favorite story of the evening – and there were so many great ones! – was told first by a film director (I believe his name is Mark Sobel) and then embellished upon by the actress Gina Gershon, regarding an exploitation flick titled Sweet Revenge (I believe) which did its filming in the Philippines during a revolution.  Gina, then a young actor just getting into the entertainment business, had read the script and found it to be “crap,” but she was drawn to the chance to work with Martin Landau.  Before accepting, she called Landau and asked if he was really attached.  “Yes, I’m going to do it,” Landau said.  “But it’s a terrible script,” Gershon said.  “Nothing makes any sense.”  Landau replied: “But it’s a free trip to the Philippines!  It’s a chance to have a great adventure!”  “Yeah?” Gershon replied, still not convinced.  “So what if it’s a failure?” Landau told her.  “I’ve learned a lot more from failures than I ever did from successes.”

In the end, Gershon accepted, and soon she was in the Philippine rainforest with Marty Landau and the other actors.  Very early on it was clear that they were horribly unprepared for the very real violence surrounding them.  One day they were on the way to a waterfall location when they were ambushed by 50 former government guards with machine guns, who had been tossed out of power in the People’s Revolution.  The cast and crew were in serious danger of losing their lives.  But Marty Landau remembered seeing TV antennas coming out of the houses they had passed.  He asked the director to let him handle it.  Then Marty stepped forward and spoke directly to the group leader, who in turn addressed Marty harshly and belligerently, waving his gun in the air.  Suddenly this changed.  “Mission Impossible?” the leader stuttered. “You are…him?”  Marty nodded, and the tide turned.  The ousted guards became the film crew’s protectors, insisting on going with them to the waterfall and then providing food and drink for the cast and crew.

What a great story, huh?  What a great Marty Landau story (he had millions).  What an adventure. . . .

And oh yes – I said I would tell you what happened right after the tribute, an event which has eaten up my last few days.

So yeah, I had parked my car on Wilshire Blvd, two blocks west of Doheny, and when I got back from celebrating Marty, this is how I found my car – a complete wreck.  There were several police cars surrounding it, as well as the car in front of mine, which was also totaled.

A policeman handed me a small sheet of notepad paper with a lot of information written on it in blue ink.  He pointed to a young man nearby.  “He had a sneezing fit and lost control of his car.”

“What?”  I said.  This was a lot to take in.  The Sneezer was very apologetic.

As it happened, the other wrecked car belonged to Jamie Marsh, an actor I knew from the Actors Studio West, who had also been at the Writer’s Guild event.

“Dude, this is a great thing,” Jamie whispered to me.

“Yeah?” I said, not seeing his point.

“The insurance is going to give us enough money to buy new cars.  It’s like Marty made it happen.”

“Yeah?” I said again, starting to see his point.

“Marty Landau wants us to have new cars!” he repeated.

Huh, I thought.  Another Marty adventure?

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