"Woody Allen and I used to play a little game," says Martin Landau, who portrays the owner of an aged movie house in Frank Darabont's new film, "The Majestic."
"I'd say 'The Elm,' and he'd say, 'The Midwood.' I'd say 'The Kenmore' and he'd say, 'The Avalon.'"
Landau and Allen, who collaborated on 1989's "Crime and Misdemeanors," were referring to the theaters both frequented while growing up eight blocks apart in Brooklyn. "They were like little palaces, all rococo or art deco," recalls the actor, who is in his early 70s. "You'd walk in off those hot streets into a nice, air-cooled theater and you'd spend all day watching Cagney or Jimmy Stewart. It cost all of 17 cents. Woody and I both fell in love with the movies at those old theaters. It was the only way to fall in love."
Landau says he was drawn to "The Majestic" because the film honors those kinds of movie houses -- now mostly gone -- and the motion pictures they once screened. Set in 1951, the Capra-esque fable tells of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter (Jim Carrey) who gets amnesia and stumbles into a town where the local theater owner (Landau) mistakes him for his long-lost son. The two men are soon inspired to resuscitate the decrepit theater, called The Majestic, to its original Egyptian-style splendor.
"Movie houses today just aren't the same kind of experience," laments the effusive Landau, who is of the same generation as the New York actors Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, but didn't win his first Oscar nomination until he was in his 50s. "The modern cineplexes are mundane, dull boxes. But 'The Majestic' pays tribute to the movie palaces that made people feel like royalty. It honors a time when pictures helped Americans get through grim periods like the blacklist and the war."
Landau lived through some of those grim times. During World War II, his Austrian-born father scrambled to rescue relatives from the Nazis. In late 1939, he helped smuggle eight ancient Torahs out of Hitler's Europe and delivered them to his Orthodox shul in Brooklyn. "I remember there was a joyful procession down the street," says Landau.
At 17, he became a cartoonist for the New York Daily News, but at 22 decided he didn't want to spend his career drawing pictures. His mind turned to Broadway and to the magic he'd experienced inside the movie palaces: "I want to become an actor," he told his boss, and proceeded on the spot.
His met his best friend during those early years at a CBS audition around 1952. "I was given a number, 376, and this sandy-haired, bespectacled young man was number 377," Landau recalls. "I reeked of the big city, he evoked middle America, but our predilections about the theater turned out to be exactly the same."
The man's name was James Dean.
Another major figure in Landau's life was his acting coach, Curt Conway, a former CBS director relegated to teaching after the Communist blacklists destroyed his career. "Curt was never a Communist, but he had signed a petition, backed by leftist groups, to help a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman," says Landau, who later studied at the Actors Studio.
"One day Kurt went to work at CBS and was told he didn't work there any longer. His marriage suffered, and his life was ruined. To make a living he started to teach. So what was his damnation, in a sense, was my blessing."
In the 1970s and 1980s, Landau's career also suffered, courtesy of typecasting after three years on the hit TV series "Mission: Impossible." "Everyone saw me as Superspy," recalls Landau, who subsequently spent more than a decade playing what he calls "meaningless roles in mindless movies" (the low point: "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island").
He finally escaped actors' purgatory when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as a crusty Jewish businessman in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" in 1988. But his memories of that B-movie hell helped him portray the tragic has-been Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's quirky 1994 movie "Ed Wood," for which he won the Oscar for best supporting actor.
Landau also played the murderous ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," which he says is the "first time I ever saw Woody Allen embrace his Jewishness. In 'Annie Hall,' there is a scene where his character is at dinner with a Protestant family, and suddenly he feels self-conscious and imagines himself wearing payis, like he's embarrassed to be Jewish." But, in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," Landau notes, a rabbi serves as the moral voice of the film.
The actor portrays a less tortured character in "The Majestic," though the tender father-son relationship that develops between his character and Carrey's is nuanced and complex. Off camera, life imitated art as "Majestic" screenwriter Michael Sloane -- who never knew his own father -- strongly bonded with Landau. The actor didn't realize how much he meant to the younger man until he read a recent profile of Sloane in the Los Angeles Times. "He said I was like a father to him," Landau marvels. "I found that very, very affecting."
"The Majestic" opens today in Los Angeles.