Martin Landau on his acting life with James Dean, Steve McQueen and now Christopher Plummer

Oscar winner Martin Landau, who appears in "Remember" with Christopher Plummer.

Oscar winner Martin Landau, who appears in “Remember” with Christopher Plummer.

(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

When he was a young actor in New York in the 1950s, Martin Landau hung around with his good friend James Dean and competed for roles with the likes of Sydney Pollack and John Cassavetes.

“I would meet them in offices and waiting rooms before readings,” the tall, lean actor said in Beverly Hills. During the hour-and-a-half chat, the 87-year-old Landau discussed acting with such passion it was akin to having a personal “Inside the Actors Studio” encounter.

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Then there were the “British guys” as Landau jokingly described them — Canadian actors such as Christopher Plummer, John Colicos and William “Billy” Shatner. “We knew each other but not well,” said Landau, a supporting actor Oscar winner for his uncanny turn as Bela Lugosi in 1994’s “Ed Wood.”

Whereas the American actors gravitated to the Actors Studio, the Canadian actors “came from a different tradition — Shakespearean stuff. Christopher went to London and worked there. They were much more concerned with traditional acting.”

Sixty years after their salad days in New York, Landau and Plummer have teamed for the first time in Atom Egoyan’s (“The Sweet Hereafter”) thriller “Remember,” which opens March 18.

Landau plays Max, a frail Holocaust survivor living in a nursing home. One day Max tells fellow resident and survivor Zev (Plummer) he has discovered that he camp commander who had killed both of their families at Auschwitz during World War II is living in North America.

Because Max is in a wheelchair, he sends Zev on a cross-country trek to find the commander and kill him. Zev, though, is suffering from dementia and must constantly call Max to keep his quest on track.


Landau first worked with Egoyan some 28 years ago on NBC’s reboot of the classic anthology “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

“We hit it off wonderfully at the time,” said Landau. “I hadn’t heard from him in 28 years. He called me and said, ‘I really want you to do this. It’s a complicated character.’”

Though they don’t have many scenes together, watching these two veteran Oscar winners work in concert is like a master class in acting.

“I thought Chris was wonderful,” noted Landau. “He was generous. I have conversations with him on the phone and on the days he wasn’t working, he came in to do the off-camera lines.”

Landau knows at his age, “there is not a lot I can play these days.” So he relishes that he is and always has been a character actor. “There are good parts [for character actors],” he said. “They have a lot of expressions. There is a lot of stuff there.”

Besides being a working actor, Landau also runs the West Coast branch of the Actors Studio. “I take the Friday session every week,” he said. “The people whom I teach are teachers. What I am really doing is igniting something that’s going to stay.”

Young actors have as much passion about the craft as he and Dean did six decades ago, Landau believes. “We are having final auditions to get into the studio this coming Sunday. We have so many we have to have more the following Sunday.”

Getting into the Actors Studio has always been tough. In fact, he and Steve McQueen were the only two admitted out of the throngs who auditioned one year for the classes.

“Steve and I got in the same night,” said Landau. Actors Studio founder “Lee Strasberg was gentle with Steve because he was rough with Jimmy [Dean]. Jimmy stopped working at the studio. He didn’t want that to happen to Steve.”

But Strasberg took no prisoners with Landau, berating him for one hour in front of such famed Actors Studio members as Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Marilyn Monroe and Patricia Neal about acting choices he had made in a recent TV production.

“Retrospectively, it was good for me,” noted Landau, because Strasberg taught him that a “certain actor’s arrogance is needed. Play the truth. Actors need to trust themselves. If you trust yourself, you can trust others and leave the director outside.”

Way outside.

“I’ll tell you something interesting: I haven’t been directed by anybody in probably 30 or 35 years, whether it be Francis Ford Coppola or Tim Burton,” said Landau. “I come in with stuff, and I have ideas. I think if they don’t like what I’m doing, they’ll say something. They don’t say anything. So I hit the mark, say the words and get the hell out of there.”