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Interview with Martin Landau



 
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Boris Badenov

 

Mr. Landau, was there a chance for the original cast of the TV series to appear on the first Mission: Impossible movie?

We were all sent a copy of the first script. Upon reading it, I was upset because I was wanting Rollin to retire. The script had him committing suicide. None of us liked the script. After various forms, they made Phelps a double agent. When Peter Graves saw that at the premier, he had a heart-attack. He would never had sold out his country. We were all true to the U.S.A.

At the premiere, we saw nothing like the original. We each had a job to do. Get in, get the job done, and get out. All without firing a shot. The only gunfire heard was the enemy at each other. I think I’m an intelligent man but when I watched the movie, all I could ask was, “What the hell is going on?”

Lucille Ball, Lucy, owned Desilu Productions, went to see it. She called me up asking, “What the hell was happening?” I asked her if she was answering her phone, getting up to do something, or anything else. She says, “Yes, why?” I tell her, “You have to sit still and watch without interruptions. The only link the movie has to the series is, once in a while, you hear a few bars of the theme from the series played by Lalo Schifrin.  That was the only time I applauded.

 

In North By Northwest, what kind of direction did Mr. Hitchc@ck give you?

None.  A good director believes in the abilities in his actors to act out the part. I don’t want to sound eccentric but I’ve not been directed by anyone for thirty years now. A good actor comes prepared to do his role, becoming one with the character.

Woody Allen is a great director. He never speaks to his actors. If he doesn’t like what you are doing he fires you. Purple Rose Of Cairo had a slew of actors before settling on one. Michael Keaton was the first for the role. After two weeks of shooting, he was let go. Two more actors were shot before Jeff Daniels finally landed the role. A lot of time and film wasted before Mr. Allen was satisfied.

 

Are there any projects coming up that you are involved in?

A Hallmark Hall of Fame movie to be aired on ABC around Thanksgiving and then showing on the Hallmark Channel. It’s called Have A Little Faith. It is based on a true story and written by Mitch Albon. The main three characters are played by Laurence Fishburn, Brad Wilford, and I. Mitch Albon is a sports writer in Detroit, and the filming was done there to make it as real as possible by the book.

I have a movie that just came out on DVD and Blu-Ray that I did with Ellen Burstyn. It’s an old couple love story that is titled Love You Still. It is almost like a teenage date movie but has a nice ending that will knock your socks off. It got a lot of favorable notice at the Toronto Film Festival. Even the AARP Film Festival played it in Vegas. We got a standing ovation from people who couldn’t stand, that was how good they enjoyed it.

Also, we have been working on this new Tim Burton movie called Frankenweenie. It’s a story of a boy and his dog, the dog dies, and he brings it back to life Frankenstein style.  He did a six minute version of it then got a job at Disney. So he handed the whole idea over to Disney and said he would love to do a full length animation feature on it. Of course they rejected it. He also wrote another cartoon movie, this one called Edward Scissorhands. They rejected that. So when he became Tim Burton, he did it as a live action film. It helped kick off Johnny’s career and they both have a great friendship from it. I am fortunate to have become a part of that friendship ever since my role in Ed Wood.

So every time Tim comes here from England, he and I go into the studio and play. My role is getting bigger. My character has a name I can’t even pronounce. It’s like looking at an eye chart. It’s a bunch of vowels put together. No, I beg your pardon, it’s like a bunch of constenants put together. Literally no vowels. Grprgrpgrlg or something like that.

So I’m doing that, and here I am at the Dragon-Con.

 

Speaking of Ed Wood, how does it feel doing a role of a fictional character compared to the role of a real person?

Different. When Tim asked me to do this role I read the script and I asked Tim, “You’re  wanting  me to play this 74 year old( I wasn’t 74 yet) morphine  addict, alcoholic Hungarian that has mood swings?” That would be a little difficult in  itself, but it has to be Bela Lugosi.

Where do you see films of Bela Lugosi? Maybe 20 years ago, you could stay up late to 2 AM to watch a Bela Lugosi film. But now you can walk into a video store or pick up a phone and, “hello, yes, could you send over 3 or 4 Bela Lugosi movies?” People knew him more than they would have a decade earlier. So I said to Tim, “After five minutes and it seems like a L’Andau story, we’re dead.” They have to not think of it as me, but as Lugosi. That was my aim. 

So I watched a lot of Lugosi films. I watched some interviews he gave. And I was doing a movie called Intersection up in Vancouver with Richard Gere and Sharon Stone. And I’ll mention this, if you saw that movie, you know I had a lot of time to look at video tapes. So I did. I watched the differences, the similarities, the physical behavior and physical differences in facial features.

Sitting down with make-up, we discussed it. I didn’t want to wear a mask, but wanted to look like Bela Lugosi because that was necessary. So we developed little pieces. Changed my nose shape, covered my upper lip by adding a piece over it, adding a dimple cause he had this tiny cleft on his chin. And he had bigger ears proportioned with his head so we made larger ears to slip over my ears. And that was it. So I’m doing his character, extending some features and minimalizing others. Which is what I used to do professionally.

So we came up with this make-up and we did some test. The make-up didn’t do it by itself. There were things I had to learn to do, which is why I was watching a lot of Lugosi films including one called Bela Lugosi meets the Brooklyn Gorilla.  A classic! That film made Tim Burton movies look like Gone With The Wind. If you see that movie, invite some friends over. A moderate amount of alcohol is necessary. It begins with this guy like Dean Martin and this guy like Jerry Lewis. They should have contacted Universal. The one guy sings, the other guy has spastic humor. They’re on this island running around in moo-moos. And on this island is a castle. Of course. In the castle is this mad scientist, Lugosi. What is he doing? He’s injecting these monkeys with this serum. He goes to sleep at night and when he wakes up in the morning he finds these monkeys have turned into this man in a terrible gorilla suit. The worst gorilla actor I have ever seen.

Watching this movie, my heart went out to this guy, Lugosi. He carried on with dignity in this mess which was ruffle. He was dignified in this thing and I became a big fan of his. I wanted my performance to be a homage to him, and a tribute to him. I tried to. Ultimately his son appreciated what I did. Not at first, but later.

I know…long answer.

 

As a mentor and instructor, have there been any times where you have been perceived in a philosophical way in your teaching and you feel you had a revelation in teaching that you had to change how you taught?

Well, I have always taught rather usually. It has to be with the times. Actors have to be with the present, both, in terms with their lives and in terms with their work. NOW is what it’s about.  What’s going on right there and then is what’s interesting when it is a diametic  to 20 people.

Take, for instance, when I taped a picture called Ready to Rumble, I played a trainer of wrestlers. Now I was throwing wrestlers around like they were paper mache. The reason I did that film, I thought the director was insane. To hire me as a guy that trains professional wrestlers…I mean, MY GOD! And I actually wrestled. “Sal Bandini, want to wrestle? NO!”

What I’m getting at, is actors need to be true unto themselves. You have to do it well, and be true with it well. Because it’s like the guy with the cheap violin. As a serious artist, he will make better music with that cheap violin. That’s what I care about. Actors are an instrument to the theater, and they have to be able to pick up any piece of material and act it. I think of good acting as jazz. Good jazz is never repeated. It’s a one-time thing. A good act is a one-time thing.

Each time you start a scene…the difference between theater and film is technique which is not very different for what an actor has to do. But in film, let’s say you have to do a scene, a minimum of 15 times. Why? Perhaps, without accident, they need a master shot with a wide-angle lens, say a 45 mm lens establishing geography. You do that two or three times. Then you do a 50/50 shot with a 50mm lens. It goes pretty well but the boom got in and the focus was a little off. So they say let’s do another one for safety. So now you already have one, two, three, four five.

Now we come in over the shoulder which means over my shoulder and onto the other actor. Maybe two or three of those. Then over his shoulder onto me. But while over my shoulder, I still have acting to perform so that each piece can be used in the movie. Now we’re up to ten. Now we come in for a close-up, again with a 50-75mm lens. Maybe the director wants you to do it two or three times We’re up to 13. Now a choker, up to 15. That’s without the boom coming in, or somebody tripping or bumping a dolly.

You wind up having to do something, often, twenty times. If I tell you a joke, it’s funny. It’s funny the first time. If I tell it to you again, and again, and again, and again, where does your ability to laugh come from? Training! That’s what I teach my students. Crying…I mean crying. You don’t go to twenty funerals in one day unless you’re an actor.

Now there’s something else we all talk about, sophisticatedly. No one tries to cry in life except bad actors. Good actors try not to cry. They fill up and try to do what people do to hide their feelings. How a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. No one shows their feelings but bad actors. So how does one fill up with those feelings and do what that person would do so well? No one tries to cry, they try not to cry.

When a man’s watching a movie and he’s on a date, he doesn’t want his woman seeing him bawling like a child. He’s fighting the tears. No one tries to be drunk. A drunk doesn’t know when to drink. A drunk asks the bartender if he thinks he’s drunk when he’s sloshed.  A drunk tries to look sober. No one walks into a ****tail party with perfect strangers and says, “Hello everybody, I’m terribly embarrassed.” He may feel embarrassed but he’s trying his best to look as relaxed as possible. Convincing himself and everyone in the room that what’s going on is completely diametric.

But to give a short answer to the question, the question is more complicated than the answer.

 

I remember you actually played a character similar to Lugosi, a vampire, in one episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

But that wasn’t Lugosi. I remember the character, Count Zarek. And it was, you know, a comic vampire. Not a lot was based on it. The role caught me out of the blue. If Tim Burton had of seen that, he may not have called me.

A lot of fans that remember you from Mission: Impossible and Space 1999 probably do not know that you started out as a cartoonist.

I started out as a cartoonist for the New York Daily News, as a kid. I was being promoted to doing theatrical caricatures, my style was a Gecko-style. I knew if I got that job, I would never leave. So I quit. My family…”You did what?” I quit my job for a future, which is a wonderful job. I was great with caricatures, but to become a starving actor instead of that. To this day, I do not know what drove me, prompted me, to do that. It was a little strange.

Do you still do some art work?

 

A lot! I doodle. I call it doodling. When I’m in my office and I put people on speaker, they’ll ask, “What’s that scratching?” “It’s drawing!” I carry a lot of pens with me. (Opens coat to show eight pens of various color).

You did an episode of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits?

I did. As a matter of fact, I was on the second show of The Twilight Zone that was ever shot. It was the third show, but the second shot. It was done at MGM, it was a western in which I played the town bully. And Doug McClure, a very young actor at the time, played another town bully. Dan Duryea played the town drunk, who had been a great gun-fighter, with magic.

So we sat around a table, like in the old television days, and we read the script. The show was a half-hour in those days. And Rod would make changes, little changes, if it didn’t sound the way he wanted it. And I got close to Rod Serling from that moment on. And I did several tiles with him from the director/writer/actor point of view. He was a particular guy. And he died when he was 50, after open-heart surgery when it was still in its early stages.

But after lunch, we got on our feet and started filming. In those days, you would always sit around in the room, clouded with smoke. Everyone smoked back then.  We would read it, discuss it. The director would be there. The producer would be there. The actors, the whole cast, had a chance to hear every little thing. Even scenes you weren’t even in. And all would make practice to make good. Everything intricate, story-wise, were mentioned. Things you may have never seen.

During filming, if you were not in the scene with another actor, you wouldn’t be there. If it was a telephone conversation and they had to cut to the actor on the other end, it was usually a different day. Literally, you would be having a one-sided conversation while being filmed.

You told us what makes a good director, what makes a good producer?

First of all, a good producer is the one who finds the property. Taste, to begin with. And then he has to hire the director. So right away, if he has taste, he asks…who is the best director? If he hires a bad director, the director, in turn, will hire the worst actors. This, in turn, will screw up the entire production.

Now some producers are very hands-on, but not in the best way. Some producers are very frustrated with the director. As a result, you find a lot of dissent between producer and director. Harmony and agreement are very important . There is an expression: If you don’t know where you’re going, many a road will get you there. So a director and producer have to be on the same road. If not, you have something totally not cohesive. To many of the wrong people doing the wrong things. Chaos, ultimately. So it’s a very important function.

Some producers are independent. They’re businessmen. David O. Selznick was an independent producer. But he was a pain in the neck to work with. Most directors butted heads with him, but ironed out their differences. He was the producer of Gone With The Wind.  He knew what he was doing and results were often times good.

Watching Space 1999, it is seen that there were a lot of fights between other characters and aliens. During that time, did you do your own stunts?

Absolutely. I did all my own during that and ‘Mission: Impossible’. If you didn’t, you would have the scene shot falling. Then the back of the stuntman’s head showing, but show a close-up after the stunt, of the actors face. There is an episode of ‘Mission: Impossible –A Spool There Was’, in which I do a fight scene with Warren Vanders,  light heavyweight champion of the United States Army.  And I do a fight in a warehouse. There are crowbars flying, and barrels. We did the whole fight scene ourselves. It was like a whole reel. Ten minutes, it took. We entered the day at 6:30 that morning and didn’t get to the fight scene until 10:00 that night. It took a total of sixteen hours. If you watch that episode, I do all of it, ducking crowbars and barrels.

I did a show with Jack Palance once in a scene that called for a rubber crowbar. And just before the take, I see Jack go over and talk with the prop man and I said “What the hell? Something’s fishy.” It looked odd. So I called Jack Arnold , who had directed  the movie The Mouse That Roared, who was directing this movie . So he says, “Let’s go!” So I tell him, I say, “Jack, I think Jack is getting a real crowbar.” Jack was a very good actor but was highly un-disciplined. Stuntmen didn’t want to do fights with him. They would rehearse it,  do the choreography, but then he would punch many people, hit many people, trip many people, kick many people over the years so stuntmen would not work with him. And I’m going to do a fight sequence with Jack, in close-up.

So I said, “I think he’s getting a real crowbar.” Now the rubber crowbar is formidable. It’s vinyl with a wire in the middle of it so to keep its shape. Anyways, I’m sitting in a chair and Jack comes up and says, “Let’s go!”  There’s a guy named Eddie Gardino in the scene with me and Jack. I tell him, “ Jack’s got a real crowbar, he’s got his hands behind his back.” Eddie says, “What difference does it make?” I say, “A lot of difference! A rubber crowbar is just as good.” Jack says, “It feels better.” I look at him and say, “I don’t care how much better it feels. I’m not doing the scene with it.” Jack looks at me and says, “What’s the matter with you? You a chicken-sh!t?”  I said, “YES!”

He reluctantly picked up the rubber crowbar, and during the scene, he split Eddie’s head open with the rubber one. Blood rushing out, cut, stitches, new skin. We must have lost about an hour and twenty minutes…with the rubber crowbar. So he came over and thanked me. Eddie was the one that said let’s go, let’s go, what difference does it make?  He could have been seriously hurt or hospitalized had the real crowbar been used, had Jack hit him the way he hit him.

So my answer is, I did do some of the stunts. But I’m here to talk about it.

When you produced in London, you and Barbara had to get papers to give permission, and also to bring in actors for projects, in theater.  What was that like?

The British only allow us, U.S. citizens, to act for a month or so on stage there before they take it over. Then they bring in British actors who try to sound American to try doing the same act. Most times, they close up the production after several months.  We brought “A Chorus Line” to their theater. They allowed us to perform for six weeks before they took it over. I watched our version and theirs. They had the accents down and the dancing, but not the hunger. They’re not as hungry, when it comes to acting a role, as we are. So it was like watching Sesame Street.

Something needs to be done about foreign actors coming here and taking roles from American actors. A British actor can get a role on American television easier than an American actor can and I think it’s wrong. I think there should be quotas. The British keep a closed shop when it comes to American actors performing over there. And they go through extensive criteria.

You are known for characteristic roles.  What role, what part, if you think about it, you really feel good about?

The ones I’ve done in the past or the ones I am looking forward to?

Both.

Well, the one I look forward to doing is Romeo. Which, I can see, is out of the question. It’s strange but when I work on a role, it’s like, it’s my child. So you’re asking someone with four kids which is their most favorite kid. You may have a feeling about one, but you’re not going to say it out loud. I love all my children.

Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen, I get more comments from that role than most others. From television and radio talk shows. Right after I did that movie and it was released, there was a show in Los Angeles called Religion on the Line. It had a priest, a rabbi, and a minister and ran every Sunday night for three hours. It was a great idea, discussing various takes on beliefs, current events, life, the bible. One night they talked about Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was the only time Woody Allen ever got into a religious movie and made it really important.

Three hours, and I just happened to tune in to it. I was never a steady listener. I was driving my car and found it on the radio. The next Sunday, they discussed it again for three hours. And the next Sunday, they discussed it again for the three hours. Nine hours between a priest, a rabbi, and a minister. Discussing a motion picture! That doesn’t happen very often. That movie, a lot of people tell me, think that was one of my better performances. In that, I wanted people to feel that wasn’t an actor playing a role. I wanted every moment to be genuinely real.

There was a movie I did, Pinocchio , which I did with the Jim Henson people. A live action version. And I worked with a lot of wooden actors. That was some best work.

You worked on the Outer Limits besides The Twilight Zone.

I did. I did the show called The Man Who Was Never Born, which the Terminator stole the entire plot. We did it first. And Schwarzenegger did it too. I did a pilot that Joe Stefano wrote for me, called The Haunted. Conrad Hall, a great friend, shot the cinematography. We were shooting for CBS and Jim Aubrey was head. He was fired, new people came in, and everything done was wiped clean. We were going on the air on a Wednesday and were removed on a Thursday.

ABC took up the series idea and Outer Limits ran for two years. But CBS didn’t want to take a chance on it becoming a hit since they fired the executive producer. If it made it, then they looked bad for firing him. A lot of movies and shows would get swept away whenever someone in certain positions were released.

Last question. I am on a game with a gothic theme called Bloodletting. There are five races on this game. Angels, vampires, werewolves, witches, and slayers. If you played the game, what race would you choose and why?

Bloodletting? Sounds like a blood bath! If I were to choose one race, I would have to go with the vampire. After all, I did play the role of one once and the part of someone who played the king of all vampires. Plus, they are immortal. And, as you can see, I could get my youth back, correct?

Yes sir. Thank you for your time. I have enjoyed this hour with you.

Thank you. Without fans, I would not be here. And I wish there were more time. I love to talk.

 

 

September 13, 2011 08:12 pm

Father Pat McGroin

North by Northwest is one of my all time favorite movies.  One of the few I can watch over and over again.  Huge ****ing score on this interview!

September 13, 2011 08:16 pm

Perstephanie

Wow, good interview! September 13, 2011 08:20 pm

Elphaba

Amazingly brilliant!

September 13, 2011 08:56 pm

Phoebe Kross

Brilliant interview! The series Mission Impossible was my favorite and still is. September 13, 2011 09:06 pm

Johnathan

Must...see...Frankenweenie...*twitch, twitch* I agree! This was epic!

September 13, 2011 09:08 pm

Lilly E

*claps* very goood, loved it. September 13, 2011 09:08 pm

Nix Wolfwood-Valari

I'm going to have to show my dad this interview, it is really awesome. Thanks for posting it. September 13, 2011 09:09 pm

_Winter_

Ah...the classics, what happened to the art form?  A wonderful interview, and of course, he would be a vampire ;)

September 13, 2011 09:09 pm

Rayvn

I agree with Father Pat it was awesome movie, my dad and I used to watch it all the time.

September 13, 2011 09:11 pm

Dayton Raylene

I really enjoyed ready this! Great questions with great answers.

Thank you. :)

September 13, 2011 09:13 pm

Alex Armani

Great interview with a great person that has done it all just about in the movie industry I also like the fact that he Is working with Tim Burton for such a long time another great director, overall a great job Borris. September 13, 2011 09:14 pm

Severian

Such a great interview...and yes, now I want to see Frankenweenie.

Glad that he picked vampire. *shifty eyes*

September 13, 2011 09:24 pm

Mystic Avalon

Fantantasic interview. I want to see Frankenweenie aswell now.

September 13, 2011 09:31 pm

Jackson Duffy

One of the few interviews I've ever had the patience to read all the way through, and about a person who's work I was largely unfamiliar with to boot. Nice snag with the interviewee, and good job with the questions. It's easy to overlook a talented interviewer because the focus is obviously not on them, but the job of creating transitions and making the interview have a sort of narrative is still really important. Kudos to you, sir.

September 13, 2011 09:33 pm
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