Landau was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 20, 1928, the son of Selma and Morris Landau. His family was Jewish; his father, an Austrian-born machinist, scrambled to rescue relatives from the Nazis. He attended James Madison High School and the Pratt Institute before finding full-time work as a cartoonist.
At the age of 17, Landau started working as a cartoonist for the Daily News, illustrating Billy Rose’s column “Pitching Horseshoes” and also assisting Gus Edson on the comic strip The Gumps during the 1940 and 1950, eventually drawing the “Sunday strip” for Edson. (Some sources confuse him with comic book artist Kenneth Landau, and incorrectly claim that he drew for comic books using the name Ken Landau as a pseudonym.) At 22, he quit the Daily News to concentrate on theater acting.
Film, television and theater
Influenced by Charlie Chaplin and the escapism of the cinema, Landau pursued an acting career. He attended the Actors Studio, becoming good friends with James Dean, and was later in the same class as Steve McQueen. In 1957, he made his Broadway debut in Middle of the Night. In 1959, Landau made his first major film appearance, as Leonard, right-hand man of a criminal mastermind, in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Landau in his role as Rollin Hand in Mission: Impossible
He had featured roles in two 1960s epics, Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told, and played a ruthless killer in the 1965 western Nevada Smith, which starred Steve McQueen.
Landau played the role of master of disguise Rollin Hand in the US television series Mission: Impossible, becoming one of its better-known stars. According to The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier by Patrick J. White (Avon Books, 1991), Landau at first declined to be contracted by the show because he did not want it to interfere with his film career; instead, he was credited for “special guest appearances” during the first season. He became a full-time cast member in the second season, although the studio agreed (at Landau’s request) to contract him only on a year-by-year basis rather than the then-standard five years. The role of Hand required Landau to perform a wide range of accents and characters, from dictators to thugs, and several episodes had him playing dual roles—not only Hand’s impersonation, but also the person whom Hand is impersonating. Landau co-starred in the series with his then-wife, Barbara Bain.
In the mid-1970s, Landau and Bain returned to TV in the British science-fiction series Space: 1999 (first produced by Gerry Anderson in partnership with Sylvia Anderson, and later by Fred Freiberger). Although the series remains a cult classic for its high production values, critical response to Space: 1999 was unenthusiastic during its original run, and it was cancelled after two seasons. Landau himself was critical of the scripts and storylines, especially during the series’ second season, but praised the cast and crew. He later wrote forewords to Space: 1999 co-star Barry Morse’s theatrical memoir Remember With Advantages (2006) and Jim Smith’s critical biography of Tim Burton. Following Space: 1999, Landau appeared in supporting roles in a number of films and TV series, including the TV film The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981), which again co-starred Bain (and marked the final time they appeared together on screen).
At the 1996 Cannes Film Festival
In the late 1980s, Landau made a career comeback, earning an Academy Award nomination for his role in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). This was followed by a second nomination, for 1989′ Crimes and Misdemeanors, and later a win, for 1994′ Ed Wood (in which he plays Bela Lugosi). Upon accepting the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Landau was visibly frustrated by the orchestra’s attempt to cut short his speech; when the music level rose, he pounded his fist on the podium and shouted “No!” He later stated that he had intended to thank Lugosi and dedicate the award to him, and that he was annoyed that he was not being given an opportunity to mention the name of the person he had portrayed. Landau also received a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe Award and a Saturn Award for the role, as well as accolades from a number of critics groups. When Landau won the Academy Award, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times announced: “the award goes to Martin Landau; its shadow goes to Bela Lugosi.” On the film’s DVD release, Landau states that he was highly impressed by the comment.
Landau’s film roles in the 1990s included a down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer in the comedy Mistress with Robert De Niro and as a judge in the dramas City Hall with Al Pacino and Rounders with Matt Damon.
In the early seasons of Without a Trace (2002–09), Landau was nominated for an Emmy Award for his portrayal of the Alzheimer’s-afflicted father of FBI Special Agent in Charge Jack Malone, the series’ lead character. In 2006, he made a guest appearance in the series Entourage as a washed-up but determined and sympathetic Hollywood producer attempting to relive his glory days, a portrayal that earned him a second Emmy nomination.
Landau appeared in the film Have a Little Faith based on Mitch Albom’s book of the same name, in which he plays Rabbi Albert Lewis.
In recognition of his services to the motion picture industry, Martin Landau has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6841 Hollywood Boulevard.
Encouraged by his own mentor, Lee Strasberg, Landau has also taught acting. Actors coached by him include Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. In 2009, Landau and his Actors Studio colleagues, director Mark Rydell and writer Lyle Kessler, collaborated to produce the educational Total Picture Seminar, a two-day event covering the disciplines of acting, directing and writing for film.
Landau has two daughters, Susan and Juliet, from his marriage to actress and former co-star Barbara Bain. They married on January 31, 1957 and divorced in 1993. Landau lives in West Hollywood, California.