BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Here's the kind of career you
want to have as an actor:
-- Start working in 1956 (at age 28), picking up parts on TV
series such as The Rifleman, The
Untouchables, Maverick, The Twilight Zone and Bonanza, along with movie roles in North By Northwest and The Greatest Story Ever Told and, later, Ed Wood and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
-- Become a regular on Mission: Impossible and Space: 1999.
-- Continue working into your 80s, with guest spots on shows
including Entourage and The
-- Be able to tell stories about working with Alfred
Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Woody Allen, and how you turned down the role of
Spock on the original Star Trek. "I
didn't want to play a character without emotion," you'll say. "I would have
-- Mention that you were Jack Nicholson's acting teacher.
In other words, you'd like Martin Landau's career.
The venerable actor was here Wednesday, along with Linda
Evans, Robert Conrad, Nichelle Nichols and Mike Connors, to talk about Pioneers
of Television, a four-part PBS series scheduled
to air next winter. The shows will celebrate early science fiction, crime
dramas, local kids' TV and westerns.
You could talk to any of these people and get a crash course
in TV history, but I chose Landau, who continues to work regularly. In fact, he
had a bandage on his nose, the result from a fall he'd taken the day before
while working on an upcoming movie called A Fighting Chance.
Landau said working in TV today isn't much different than it
was in the early days. The trick is to find the right show. Today, he said, many
are too cold and corporate.
"Whenever you're joining a group, you are the outsider," he
said. "The question is: How quickly do they welcome you and make you feel a
part of the team?
"I did the second Twilight Zone ever, the third one that aired. We sat around a
table and read. When I did Playhouse 90, we sat around a table. When I did The Defenders, we sat around a table. I just did The
Simpsons last week, and again, you just sat
around a table. Those shows create a bit of a family. So even though you're one
of the adopted children on that particular episode, you can feel welcome."
He said when he worked on the film North By Northwest, everyone had individual dressing rooms that were
the same – a little square box, three-way mirror, couch and a couple of
chairs. "Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Landau all had that same
dressing room," he said.
Landau said everyone on that set dressed up. The grips wore
ties, most of the time with a tie clasp. The assistants wore suits and ties or
sports jackets. "If you walked on a Hitchcock set, I would be slightly
less dressed than I should be," said Landau, who was wearing a suit and tie (no
clasp). "Everyone came dressed to work. Today, it looks like Disneyland."
Not necessarily what you want to hear when you're interviewing
the man while wearing a polo shirt and no jacket or tie. But anyway ...
Landau likes things a certain way. He likes spontaneity in
life – he doesn't want to know what's coming next. He likes directors who
leave him alone. Woody Allen "doesn't direct you. He doesn't talk about it. He
doesn't want to discuss it. You're really on your own. If he doesn't like you,
he fires you." Tim Burton "just opened the door and let me play" on Ed Wood.
Speaking of Ed Wood,
Landau said he never met Bela Lugosi, the man he played in that movie. "But I
did have tea once with Boris Karloff," he said. It was 1963, and they were
working at the same movie studio. Nicholson was Landau's student at the time,
and Nicholson and Karloff had just worked together on a Roger Corman movie
called The Terror.
"Jack wasn't very good in it; he was much too contemporary,"
Landau said. "I saw Karloff in the hall and we greeted each other. I said, 'You
just worked with a friend of mine – I didn't say student – and he
said (imitating Karloff): 'Who might that be?' I said, 'Jack Nicholson.' He
said, 'Oh, yes, poor boy.'"
After 55 years of acting, Landau comes equipped with a
never-ending stream of stories – even about not-so-legendary projects
like The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island.
"I had a good time doing that," he said. "I worked with (longtime
Los Angeles Lakers announcer) Chick Hearn and a bunch of robots. In fact, it
was the last show of any kind that my ex-wife and I did together. People say it
was the worst moment of my career, but I actually had fun doing that show. The
first day on it, it was day Reagan was shot. So when we got to the set,
everyone was (dazed). I told three or four jokes and loosened everyone up. From
that point on, everyone had a good time."
Landau tells these stories gladly, but he said he doesn't spend
time looking back.
"That would exhaust me," he said. "The work doesn't, but
looking at my credits does."