Sunday, July 16, 2017

Recalling a time when Martin Landau recalled his experiences with Steven Spielberg, Peter Falk, naughty fan mail and, of course, Space: 1999

I had the pleasure of chatting with the late, great Martin Landau on several occasions — including a 1996 TV junket for The Adventures of Pinocchio, a movie he made just two years after his Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. (As I wrote in my Variety review: “Martin Landau plays Geppetto, the aging puppet-maker who becomes a father for the first time after his latest creation magically springs to life. It’s a role that could have been played with broad gestures, cheap sentiment and other easy acting tricks. It is much to Landau’s credit that he takes a more restrained approach, in a largely successful attempt to make the character seem more endearingly poignant than boisterously amusing.”) But when I heard of his passing Saturday at age 89, the encounter I remembered most vividly was a 1980 interview I did with him for The Dallas Morning News, where I was employed at the time, when he came to Big D to promote a movie called The Last Word.

Mind you, there was nothing very memorable about the movie itself. (Truth to tell, I had to double check my files a few minutes ago to ascertain that I had actually seen it.) But I do recall that Landau was engagingly gracious and entertainingly loquacious, and that our free-wheeling tête-à-tête took some interesting detours. Like, when he talked about what he described as several instances of “bad timing” in the years following his departure from the Mission: Impossible TV series.

To quote my Dallas Morning News article:

“‘I made a movie with Peter Falk and Jason Robards called Operation Snafu… I thought it was hilarious when I read [the script]. But it came out the same year as M*A*S*H and Kelly’s Heroes, two other war comedies. I thought we were going to be first, but we wound up third.’

“As a result, Landau noted, the comedy… received a pitifully limited release, and was quickly dropped into the television market.

“Two years later, Landau and [his then-wife Barbara Bain] teamed for Savage, a 90-minute pilot film for a projected series about an investigative reporter.

“’That was before Watergate, before 60 Minutes,’” he said. ‘Nobody wanted a series about an investigative reporter. They were afraid of the show’

Ironically, the failed pilot was an early effort of a director whose time had not yet come — Steven Spielberg.

“’I had to fight to get Spielberg,’ Landau said. ‘At the time, he hadn’t done a whole lot. He was 23 at the time. It was right after he did Duel, but he had a reputation of going over budget.

“‘He did go over budget [on Savage]. But he’s always been talented. 1941 was one of his few less-than-successful ventures.’ Landau smiled wanly and added, ‘Savage was the other.’”

“In 1975, Landau and his wife teamed again for a slightly more successful television venture. Space: 1999, a production of Britain’s flamboyant Sir Lew Grade, featured Landau as the commander of a moon base where nuclear wastes were stored. When the waste material exploded, the moon — and some 300 people stationed on the base — went spinning off into outer space.

“The show, which depicted the misadventures of the people on the prowling planet, attracted a sizable audience in the United States, and an even greater following in Europe. After two years, however, the producer opted to pull the plug on the program when its ratings dipped slightly.

“‘Lew Grade got into motion pictures,’ Landau said. “The $7 million it would have taken to continue our show was what he needed for the advertising budget for Voyage of the Damned, The Eagle Has Landed and The Cassandra Crossing.’

“So Grade decided to end production on Space: 1999 — just a matter of months before Star Wars hit the world’s movie screens and kicked off a brand new science-fiction craze. Had Space: 1999 been able to hold out for a bit longer, it conceivably could have capitalized on the Star Wars mania and vastly improved its ratings.

“Even so, the series has been thriving in reruns. ‘There’s a whole cult around it,’ Landau said. ‘Not as big as the Star Trek cult, but still a cult… I get all kinds of things in the mail. Fan mail. Marriage letters. Divorce letters — things that read, “Divorce that broad and marry me.” Sometimes you even get pictures that are a little indecent — but that’s very rare.’

“‘At science fiction conventions, outtakes from the show, single frames of film, go for $10. I went to a convention in Columbus, Ohio — and 10,000 people showed up. A uniform I wore went there for something like $400. I thought, “My God. I wish I had kept my suits.” But it was too late.’”

Undeterred, Martin Landau pressed on, racking up an astonishing number of TV credits over the next three decades. He earned Academy Award nominations for his pitch-perfect performances in Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) — and finally took home the Best Supporting Actor prize for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). 

Obviously, there are other credits on his resume that bespoke of a working actor’s incessant need to pay his rent and maintain his visibility. But consider this: Landau’s resume ran the gamut from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest to Entourage (both the HBO series and the movie spin-off). He appeared as a regular or guest star on many TV series, and even managed to make a strong impression in something as otherwise unremarkable as The Evidence, a short-lived 2006 police procedural that, I confess, I continued to watch (just to watch Landau) even after ABC consigned it to ignominious burn-off on Saturday nights.

In short, he had a hell of a run, because he was a hell of an actor. And while I can’t claim we were close friends, I strongly suspect, based on my experiences on those occasions when our paths crossed, that he was a hell of a nice guy. Even when his timing may have been off.

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