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Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau dies aged 89

World News | Published:

After gaining fame in the 1960s TV show Mission: Impossible, Landau won a best supporting actor Oscar for Ed Wood.

Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his performance as Bela Lugosi in 1994’s Ed Wood, has died aged 89.

Landau died on Saturday of unexpected complications during a short stay at UCLA Medical Centre, his publicist Dick Guttman said.

He gained fame as the crafty master of disguise in the 1960s TV show Mission: Impossible, which also starred Landau’s wife, Barbara Bain.

With Ed Wood director Tim Burton (Ian West/PA)
With Ed Wood director Tim Burton (Ian West/PA)

It became an immediate hit upon its debut in 1966 and remained on the air until 1973, but Landau and Bain left at the end of the show’s third season amid a financial dispute with the producers. They starred in the British-made sci-fi series Space: 1999 from 1975 to 1977.

Landau might have been a superstar but for a role he did not play – the pointy-eared starship Enterprise science officer, Mr Spock.

Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry had offered him the half-Vulcan, half-human who attempts to rid his life of all emotion, but Landau turned it down.

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“A character without emotions would have driven me crazy; I would have had to be lobotomised,” he explained in 2001. Instead, he chose Mission: Impossible, and Leonard Nimoy went on to everlasting fame as Spock.

Ironically, Nimoy replaced Landau on Mission: Impossible.

After a brief but impressive Broadway career, Landau had made an auspicious film debut in the late 1950s, playing a soldier in Pork Chop Hill and a villain in the Alfred Hitchcock classic North By Northwest.

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He enjoyed far less success after Mission: Impossible, however, finding he had been typecast as Rollin Hand, the top-secret mission team’s disguise wizard. His film career languished for more than a decade, reaching its nadir with his appearance in the 1981 TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

He began to find redemption with a sympathetic role in Tucker: The Man and his Dream, the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film that garnered Landau his first Oscar nomination.

He was nominated again the next year for his turn as the adulterous husband in Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors.

His third nomination was for Ed Wood, director Tim Burton’s affectionate tribute to a man widely viewed as the worst Hollywood filmmaker of all time.

Landau arriving at the Frankenweenie screening on the opening night of the BFI London Film in 2012 (Ian West/PA)
Landau arriving at the Frankenweenie screening on the opening night of the BFI London Film in 2012 (Ian West/PA)

There was a 10-year period when everything I did was bad. I’d like to go back and turn all those films into guitar picks, Landau said after accepting his Oscar.

In Ed Wood, he portrayed Lugosi during his final years, when the Hungarian-born actor who had become famous as Count Dracula was ill, addicted to drugs and forced to make films with Ed Wood just to pay his bills. A gifted mimic trained in method acting, Landau had thoroughly researched the role.

“I watched about 35 Lugosi movies, including ones that were worse than anything Ed Wood ever made,” he recalled in 2001. “Despite the trash, he had a certain dignity about him, whatever the role.”

So did the New York-born Landau, who had studied drawing at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and worked for a time as a New York Daily News cartoonist before switching careers at age 22.

In 1955, he was among hundreds who applied to study at the prestigious Actors Studio and one of only two selected. The other was Steve McQueen.

Landau and Bain had two daughters, Susan and Juliet. They divorced in 1993.

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