LOS ANGELES— Martin Landau, the chameleon-like actor who gained fame as the crafty master of disguise in the 1960s TV show "Mission: Impossible," then capped a long and versatile career with an Oscar for his poignant portrayal of aging horror movie star Bela Lugosi in 1994's "Ed Wood," has died. He was 89.
Landau died Saturday of unexpected complications during a short stay at UCLA Medical Center, his publicist Dick Guttman said.
"Mission: Impossible," which also starred Landau's wife, Barbara Bain, became an immediate hit upon its debut in 1966. It 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 didn't 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. Landau turned it down.
"A character without emotions would have driven me crazy; I would have had to be lobotomized," 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."
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.
"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.
He had dabbled in acting before the switch, making his stage debut in 1951 at a Maine summer theater in "Detective Story" and off-Broadway in "First Love."
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.
Poetry at Paradise
What: ‘Poetry Relections’ with Dana Gioia, California Poet Laureate
When: 1-3 p.m. Sunday, July 16
Where: Paradise Ridge Winery, 4545 Thomas Lake Harris Drive, Santa Rosa
Admission: Free, but please register in advance at eventbrite.com
Cruising With The Beach Boys
So strange to hear that song again tonight
Traveling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I’ve been before.
And now a tune I haven’t heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can’t believe I know the words by heart
And can’t think of a girl to blame them on.
Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along—
A primal scream in croaky baritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad’s old Thunderbird.
Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city —
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.
I thought by now I’d left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.
— Dana Gioia
(From “99 Poems: New & Selected,” by Dana Gioia.)