Martin Landau: The Man, the Movies and the Magic

by Mark Burger

It’s a career than can only be described as staggering — and it’s still going strong today.

Without further ado, faithful readers, it’s Martin Landau, and when the opportunity arose to interview him regarding his latest film, the Fox Walden production City of Ember, I knew it was a golden one.

This is a guy whose work I revered as a kid, watching “Mission: Impossible” and “Space: 1999.” Some years later, after a career renaissance that could only happen in Hollywood, Landau cemented his status as a legend with a towering performance as horror icon Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

It’s been 50 years since Landau made his screen debut, in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest (1959). Completed afterward, but released first, was Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1958).

“I started when I was about three and a half,” jokes Landau. “I was precocious and verbose and audacious and stupid — all of the above.”

During his career, Landau has amassed an Academy Award, three Golden Globe awards and six Emmy nominations. The list of people he’s worked with is a who’s who of Hollywood. During his early days as a jobbing actor in New York City, he palled around with the likes of James Dean, Steve McQueen, Rod Steiger, John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara. In addition to those mentioned above, he’s taken direction from the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Stevens, John Sturges, Joseph L Mankiewicz, Ronald Neame, Ron Howard, Frank Darabont and Harold Becker.

Adapted from the Jeanne Duprau’s 2003 best-seller (which spawned a series now up to four novels), City of Ember is a futuristic fable in which the last vestiges of humanity have been living underground in the title metropolis for two centuries. With the city’s generator beginning to fail, the population puts its faith in the city’s corrupt Mayor Cole (Bill Murray).

But two youngsters, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Hardway (Harry Treadwell) have come into possession of an important artifact that Mayor Cole will stop at nothing to obtain, because it could lead to the eventual salvation of the city’s people.

Landau plays Sul, a crusty but lovable pipefitter who takes pride in his job — other people’s jobs, he pays no attention to — but suffers from a rather inconvenient narcoleptic condition. Doon becomes Sul’s assistant, and at the story’s climax, as Doon, Lina and Lina’s sister Poppy (played by twins Amy and Catherine Quinn) make a break for freedom, it is Sul who provides the heroic solution to the children’s escape.

“He is the only character added to the piece who is not in the books,” says Landau, “and he’s an interesting character.”

Tim Robbins (as Doon’s father), Mary Kay Place, Toby Jones and Marianne Jean-Baptiste round out the film’s international cast.

“It’s a character-driven movie with great sets, certainly comparable to Cleopatra and The Greatest Story Ever Told — a major production, a very richly produced film,” says Landau. “The [adult] actors are basically in support of the young English and Irish actors, and they are awfully good.”

With regard to Saoirse Ronan, who earned an Academy Award nomination last year for Atonement, Landau apologizes with a laugh that he has trouble pronouncing her name.

“Her name is like an eye chart,” he says. “I’d try to spell it out, and every time I got it wrong!”

Nevertheless, he was constantly impressed by her performance. “She’s fourteen years old, and no fourteen-year-old should be that talented. Does a fourteen-year-old really know what to do with that much talent? Well, she does.”

Although he’s played his fair share of science-fiction and enjoyed the works of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison over the years, he doesn’t necessarily seek out the genre. But the themes of City of Ember and the idea that an underground city had to be built to save humanity from an unnamed disaster on the planet’s surface did appeal to him.

“Well, it’s very timely, and you can say a lot in science-fiction without people getting pissed off,” he observes.

The entire city of Ember was built on large soundstages in Ireland, which Landau said was truly a world unto its own. It was so immense, exclaims Landau, “that I literally got lost twice! It was such labyrinth that I went down a couple of avenues, and I couldn’t find the damned set!”

One time, production assistants had to track him down.

“I pride myself on being on time to the set,” Landau says, “and I apologized to [director] Gil Kenan, who, I’m happy to say, was very understanding. We all had a good laugh about it.”

Besides, adds Landau, he wasn’t the only member of the cast or crew to get lost in the streets of Ember during filming. “I think one or two people might still be there,” he chuckles.

The actor still takes a childlike delight in his craft. After explaining that he adopted a New York Irish accent for the character of Sul and asked how it’s different from, say a New York Italian or New York Jewish accent, he promptly demonstrates both and points out the differences between them. His love for mimicking voices was born early.

“I grew up with a lot of different kids, many of them the children of first-generation immigrants,” the Brooklyn-born Landau recalls. “I was like a sponge. It’s like music, and I like that.”

There have been a few career dips — The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island? — but Landau is philosophical about the fickleness of the industry.

“I’m a big believer in doing work,” says Landau. “Hollywood — it’s a small town with a big mouth. Every time you get to bat, try to hit a home run. And if you can’t hit a home run, hit a triple. And if you can’t get a hit, then take a good swing.”

Landau certainly hit home runs Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), which earned him back-to-back Academy Award nominations as best supporting actor and jump-started his film career. The third time was the charm, as Landau took home the Oscar for Ed Wood.

“Good directors create a playground, they really do,” says Landau, who sees his job as an actor as “aiding and abetting and adding to it.”

Landau has directed for the theater and but never a feature film. “It’s by choice,” he says. “I could have… but I can do four, five, six movies in the time it would take to direct a film.”

Besides, he says, “I like acting. I really do.”

Acting clearly likes him, too.