From the archives:: Martin Landau on hitting his marks and getting ‘the heck out’

Martin Landau wins the Supporting Actor Oscar, March 27, 1995, for his performance in "Ed Wood."
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Martin Landau, who won an Oscar in 1994 for supporting actor for his role in “Ed Wood,” has died at the age of 89. He spoke to The Times seven years ago about his career and longevity in the entertainment business.

Martin Landau has worked with some of cinema’s most accomplished filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock (“North by Northwest”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Tucker: The Man and His Dream”), Woody Allen (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”) and Tim Burton (“Ed Wood”).

But the 82-year-old Landau, who won the supporting actor Oscar for his uncanny performance as Bela Lugosi in 1994’s “Ed Wood,” doesn’t hesitate to declare that, “I haven’t been directed by anybody in 20 or 30 years. I come in with stuff about my character and I figure if they don’t like it, they will tell me. If they don’t tell me, I hit my marks, say my words and get the heck out. I know what my role is and how to fill that space and if they don’t like what I have been doing they will say something.”


Adds Landau: “They don’t.”

Landau certainly knew what his role was in his latest film, the romantic drama, “Lovely, Still,” which opens Friday. The tall, lanky actor turns in a beautifully nuanced, poignant performance as Robert Malone, a lonely, elderly man who spends his days working as a bagger at a grocery store. Robert finds unexpected romance with the woman ( Ellen Burstyn) who has moved into the house across the street with her adult daughter ( Elizabeth Banks).

“The first two-thirds of the movie, if you cast 16-year-olds in it, you wouldn’t have to change much of the dialogue,” explains Landau on a recent afternoon in Beverly Hills. After acting for nearly six decades, Landau still possesses a passion and love for his craft that makes it a joy interviewing the veteran of such TV series as “Mission: Impossible,” “Space: 1999” and more recently “Entourage.”

Landau is also one of the executive producers of “Lovely, Still,” which was written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Nick Fackler, who is all of 25. When Landau first read the script, he liked it but thought it was “bumpy” and asked if the Omaha-based Fackler could fly to Los Angeles and meet him. “We went to Art’s Deli and had a five-hour lunch,” Landau says. “I said, it’s a wonderful script but here is what the first act needs — all the attention has to build to the date, the second act is the joy act, everything is going well. That needs to be refined. The third act will take care of itself if we do this properly.”

When Landau felt the script was 90% finished, Landau asked Fackler to send it to fellow Oscar-winner Burstyn (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”). Burstyn and Landau are old friends and cut from the same acting cloth; she operates the East Coast branch of the Actors Studio with Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel; Landau and Oscar-nominated director Mark Rydell (“On Golden Pond”) run Actors Studio West.

“I got a phone call from Ellen,” Landau recalls, laughing. “She said, ‘Marty, what the heck are we going to do in Omaha, Neb., for seven weeks?’ So that was that.”

Fackler reminded Landau a lot of Burton, who guided him to an Oscar and practically every other acting award, for his sympathetic, tragic and funny portrayal of “Dracula” star Lugosi. In the 1950s, the Hungarian actor was fighting a losing battle with drugs and alcohol and was appearing in the cut-rate, Grade Z films of Ed Wood ( Johnny Depp) including “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”

Landau recalls he was quite flip on the phone when Burton called about the part. “I got a call out of the blue, literally,” he says. “The phone rings and I hear, ‘Hello, this is Tim Burton.’ I said, ‘Oh sure, this is Thomas Jefferson. How are you doing?’ I am certain it’s a friend of mine doing a number. He said there is a script on the way and check out the part of Bela.”

Half an hour later, Landau learned it really was Burton on the phone when the script arrived at his house. He quickly read the script and called Burton at home. “I said ‘I love it. It’s insane. It’s wonderful.’ ”

The next day, the two met at Burton’s office. Though Burton thought he was the only actor who could do Lugosi justice, Landau had his doubts. “It’s a Hungarian morphine addict, alcoholic who has mood swings. That would be hard enough, but it has to be Bela Lugosi! I said I don’t know if I can do this, but let’s do some tests.”

So makeup artist Rick Baker transformed Landau into the elderly Lugosi. Though the film was released in black-and-white, these tests were done in color. Burton looked at them first and thought “you are 50% Lugosi.” But Landau thought he was “horrendous” capturing Lugosi in fleeting moments. Still, Landau was confident though he could pull it off.

“I said if I can do it 10 % of the time, I can do it 100% of the time. They have to accept me as Lugosi in the first five minutes or we don’t have a film. It was not an impersonation ever for me. He had to be a human being.”