Martin Landau didn’t really get this “actor’s ACTOR” reputation until “Ed Wood.” And everybody working in criticism and film journalism back in ’94 had a ringside seat to the makeover.
He’d worked with Hitchcock, done a few TV series and a LOT of guest shots on the tube. Coppola brought him back for a career curtain call with “Tucker: The Man and his Dream.” And Woody Allen put an exclamation point on that with “Crimes & Misdemeanors.” Out of the shadows and into the limelight, an in-demand character actor with a couple of Oscar nominations to back that up.
But when Tim Burton called on him to deliver a daft and supremely touching turn as the typecast, drug-addled and dying Bela Lugosi working for the worst director in the history of movies, Landau was at the podium — and stood there for months.
He called it “my love letter to Bela,” and an encomium for the actor’s craft. Not everybody gets to labor in the spotlight. They also serve who get deep into character, support the lead and raise everybody else’s game around them. Landau, graciously and articulately, called attention to that.
He did versions of this “an actor’s craft” talk to everybody who interviewed him about “Ed Wood.” It got more polished along the way. And he was all set to repeat this moving, noble speech when he got the Oscar. Then, the band played him off.
He got overwhelmed, blurted out a long list of thank-yous, many of them borderline pointless. And blew his moment. It didn’t happen often, but Martin Landau, who died overnight at 89, after spending his last decades working — a LOT — thanks to that Oscar, got off script and blew his big take.
He had a half-century of stories, anecdotes, to fill a dozen “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” Hell, he’d have been a pretty good host. He’s in the character actor’s Hall of Fame — or would be if there was one — right up there with Walken and Wilford Brimley, Bob Balaban and Woody Strode, Austin Pendleton and Elizabeth Perkins and others.
He will be missed. He did the homework, found ways to add value to a character and enriched most every film he showed up in, even the B-movies and indie fare he spent much of the last decade doing.
And he’s a reminder, if you get that Oscar you’ve worked your whole career for, don’t waste your acceptance speech prattling off random names — I remember a radio host being one of them. Be ready. Give them something poetic. “Thank” those who really got you there in person, or with hand-written notes.