When he was barely out of his teens, Martin Landau was already a successful cartoonist working for the New York Daily News. In fact, the young artist was being groomed by the paper as its next theatrical caricaturist. Landau knew that if he got the job, he would never give it up.
That’s when he decided to call it quits and change the course of his life.
“It was an impulsive move on my part to do that,” Landau admitted during a phone interview. “To become an actor was a dream I must’ve had so deeply and so strongly because I left a lucrative, well-paying job that I could do well to become an unemployed actor. It’s crazy if you think about it. To this day, I can still hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘You did what?!’ ”
Fortunately for Landau, his risky decision paid off big time with a career that began over six decades ago and continues today. On April 18, Landau’s accomplishments as an actor, which include winning an Academy Award, will be honored with the 2013 Israel Film Festival Career Achievement Award at the festival’s 27th opening-night gala. The event will take place at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Landau. “Usually a lot of these people get these after they’ve left this dimension, so to speak, so it’s wonderful to be recognized like this. Israel, in one way or another, has been a part of [my] life.”
Landau was born in 1928 and raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, with his mother, father and two older sisters. He describes his father as “not terribly religious,” but he did attend an Orthodox synagogue, where Landau had his bar mitzvah.
“I’m not an overly religious person,” Landau said. “By religious, I mean in terms of actual orthodoxy, but I’m deeply Jewish culturally.”
Landau began his stage debut in 1951 with the off-Broadway production “First Love.” From there he made the move to live television anthology productions, such as “Playhouse 90” and “Omnibus.” He also played a guest role on one of television’s first family sitcoms, “The Goldbergs,” the hit show about a Jewish family in the Bronx that was written and directed by the show’s star Gertrude Berg, who played matriarch Molly Goldberg.
In 1955, Landau decided to audition for the prestigious Actors Studio run by the legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg along with Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford. As one of 2,000 hopeful applicants, Landau chose a scene from Clifford Odets’ “Clash by Night,” a choice his friends discouraged.
“Everyone told me not to do it because Strasberg directed it on Broadway and it was a flop. And they told me even if Kazan and Cheryl Crawford pass you, Strasberg never will. I went with my gut and not what everyone was telling me.”
Again, Landau’s instincts proved to be right. He was one of only two actors chosen for the studio. The other was Steve McQueen.
Landau’s television career flourished, and he practically became a staple of the medium, appearing on dozens of popular shows, including “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” He also co-starred on two notable series, “Mission: Impossible” and “Space: 1999.”
He landed one of his first film roles in the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock film “North by Northwest,” co-starring alongside Cary Grant and James Mason. From that point on, Landau moved between the big and small screens until the 1980s when, after a string of forgettable films, his career began to stall.
The jump-start that he needed came when he was cast in a supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 biographical film, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”
“I read the script and loved it,” Landau said. “I played a Jewish man who’s lost touch with his feelings and comes into contact with this Midwestern WASP, and it changes his life.”
Landau received his first best supporting actor nomination and won a Golden Globe for his role.
During his long and diverse career, Landau has played almost every type of character imaginable in all genres of film and television. He attributes his ability to capture such a wide variety of characters to growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, where he came in contact with many ethnicities.
“I just paid attention to all of the stuff that was going on around me,” Landau said. “I played Apaches, Texans, Hispanics, Russians. The different characters, ethnicities, physiological differences, regions and dialects are all very interesting and challenging to me.”
And even though Landau also has played many Jewish roles, including biblical figures like Jacob and Abraham, it’s his portrayal of Judah Rosenthal in Woody Allen’s 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” that has resonated the most with audiences. He received his second best supporting actor nomination for the role.
“There was a radio program called ‘Religion on the Line’ with [Journal columnist] Dennis Prager,” Landau recalled. “It was a three-hour show and he would usually have on a rabbi, a priest and a minister and they would discuss religion. Someone tipped me off they were going to discuss ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ — and for three hours they talked about the film. The next week he had on different guests and then a third week where they talked about the film in terms of morality and specific religions. So for nine hours they discussed that movie and what it meant to their various religions. I felt that any movie that could encourage that kind of discussion was somewhat meaningful. I think it’s one of Woody’s most important movies because it allows people to examine the question of morality.”
But it was Landau’s compassionate portrayal of tragic actor Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic “Ed Wood” that finally won him the Oscar for best actor in a supporting role.
“I became a fan of [Lugosi’s] and had a great deal of empathy for him and his career, knowing Hollywood and the kind of things that he must have run into,” Landau said.
Later this year, Landau will appear in a TV biopic as J. Howard Marshall, the wealthy octogenarian who married a 26-year-old model named Anna Nicole Smith. He also has three feature films in the pipeline.
After 60 years, the actor shows no sign of stopping, a point Landau makes in reference to his upcoming award. “These career and lifetime achievement awards are wonderful — but what I keep saying is, ‘Hey, I’m not finished!’ ”