AICN Legends: Capone talks with Martin Landau about NORTH BY NORTHWEST, accents, and explosions on the moon!!!
Published at: Oct. 30, 2009, 10:56 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with my second installment in my newly created and hopefully long-lasting AICN Legends, which will interviews with men and women in the film industry that I consider worthy of the title, whether they're 40 or 80 years old. For the most part, the criteria is two-fold: longer interviews than the usual 15-20 minutes, and interviews that cover a great deal of the career of the subject rather than just discussing their most recent project.
I don't think I'm going to get much argument from anyone that Martin Landau fits this bill to the letter. And he's one of those rare actors that has managed to stay relevant for the entirely of his career. Who else do you know who made their big-screen debut in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, had a hit sci-fi TV show in the pre-STAR WARS era ("Space: 1999"), won an Oscar for playing Bela Legosi in ED WOOD (a topic we were sadly unable to get to in our time together), and became a recurring character on "Entourage"? The many is 78 years old, and has a sharper mind and memory than many half his age.
Landau was in Chicago a couple weeks back during the Chicago International Film Festival, during which they played NORTH BY NORTHWEST in his honor, gave him a career achievement award, and played his newest film, the touching LOVELY, STILL, in which he plays opposite his longtime friend Ellen Burstyn. It seems that Landau managed to land a guest spot on just about every TV show on the air during the '50s and '60s, eventually landing as a series regular playing Rollin Hand in "Mission: Impossible." After playing on two seasons of "Space: 1999," probably my first encounter with Landau as a kid, in which Landau played the commander of Moonbase Alpha, just when a massive explosion send the moon hurtling away from earth into the unknown.
Landau hit his stride again in 1988 and 1989 when he received Oscar nomination in consecutive years for Francis Coppola's TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM and Woody Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. His Oscar for ED WOOD came in 1994, and he's enjoyed a busy life as one of cinema's greatest character actors in such films as CITY HALL, ED-TV, THE X-FILES movie, ROUNDERS, THE MAJESTIC, CITY OF EMBER, and a voice in the recent release 9. His role in "Entourage" as faded producer Bob Ryan, who has the rights to The Ramones biography, was brilliant; and his work in LOVELY, STILL is heartbreaking. Landau still has it, and he's a job to be in the room with. And when a many named Martin tells you to call him "Marty," that's what you do, even if he's old enough to be your grandfather.
I'll admit that the length of this interview was not what I had in mind for this column, but there's no way I could pass up the opportunity to talk about the career of Martin Landau with the man himself. I hope you enjoy this, and be warned that during our conversation about LOVELY, STILL, there are pretty major spoilers about that film. Consider yourself warned.
Capone: How are you? It’s nice to meet you, a real pleasure.
Martin Landau: My pleasure.
Capone: I was thinking about a week ago, when they announced that NASA had set off those explosions on the moon to see if there was water there, I thought “What about our moon bases?”
ML: I know. ALPHA: REVISITED. I thought of it, too!
Capone: I wondered if you had any weird flashbacks.
ML: Well, I was saying it’s better to have a controlled explosion than what happened to the waste area, which sent the moon hurdling off on a trajectory that could not be controlled. I did think about that. I said, “They are actually creating an explosion on the moon’s surface, can you believe it?” It seemed completely preposterous at the time. I mean, 1969 is when we landed on the moon and we started "Space: 1999" in 1975, so a little time had passed, but not a lot of progress on the human race. Technologically, what we’ve got is kind of astonishing. [Holds up his cell phone] The com-lock I carried on the moon that opened the door with a little television screen, I had a cable going up my arm and down my leg. It looked portable, but it sure as hell wasn’t and in order to have a miniature black-and-white television on a com-lock, portable was impossible and now portable is like [shakes his phone]… It’s amazing, really. We are still kind of primitive in other areas, aren’t we?
Capone: So you are here for a couple of different reasons today.
ML: Yeah, I’m here to get an award, to screen LOVELY, STILL, and show a little movie I did a few hours ago called NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and we are also going to screen a short film I did with Gretchen Becker who is actually right now in Milwaukee on her way back. Her mother’s sister… Her aunt, her mother died suddenly, and she wrote this little short film that I’m in, but her mother’s sister is 80 years old today, so she went to a surprise party. Anyway, they are screening that before LOVELY, STILL. It’s a film that was chosen in Milan, it was a finalist. It didn’t win, but it was one of the finalists, so anyway I’m in that too. So, I’m here being over exposed.
Capone: LOVELY, STILL, which I actually just watched last night, really surprised me and not just the ending, but the whole feel of it. It’s a really unique way of looking at the way the mind works or stops working.
ML: I agree.
Capone: I was curious what about it that you thought was interesting and challenging?
ML: To start with, [writer-director] Nick Fakler wrote it for me and he sent it to William Morris, who sent it my way and I got it. I read it and said, “Wow, it’s interesting, but it’s bumpy.” Then I said, “How old is the guy that wrote it” figuring 50 or 60, I mean, who’s going to write an older couple love story in this day and age? They said, “He’s 22 years old.” And when my eyes uncrossed, I said “Wow, he and I should get together, because I want to discuss certain things with him.” They said, “He lives in Omaha, Nebraska” I says, “Well, that’s his problem.” He flew in and we had a five-hour lunch at Art’s Deli in the Valley, because they don’t kick you out, and I basically said “I like this script a lot, but the first act needs to build tension to the date [between Landau and Burstyn. Any scene in there that doesn’t do that, out. This is a scene that needs to be there and this is a scene that…” “He would never have this conversation with this man at this point. That scene, show it. Show him in a bar screwing up hitting on a woman, which we will set up when Robert comes to ask for advice, we know that this guy is the last person in the world who should be giving him advice” I said, “The second act needs this and the third act needs…” “If you are willing to work with me on the script, I’ll do your movie.”
He went back and did a rewrite on what I had said. He sent it back to me. We talked about this and changed some of that, and then we did five and six pages at a clip for two months, piece by piece. He would do a rewrite, and I’d looked over it with a little double entendre here and the little things, because basically what you are seeing… The first time you see the movie, you are seeing a reality that’s not. If you see it a second time and reflect on it, it’s a different movie and there are little things in there that you will not see the first time, like the daughter when she comes up and introduces herself at night. She’s like “What do you got there?” He says “Presents” “For me?” That’s a young girl talking to her father, you know? There are a lot of those that are there and when it was about 90 percent there, Ellen was how first choice, Gena Rowlands our second, and Blythe Danner was our third. We had a short wish list. When it was about 90 percent there, but before I said, “Don’t send it to her yet. She’ll turn it down right now. I know her well.” But when it was almost there, we sent it to Ellen, and three or four days later I get a call from Ellen, and she says “What the fuck are we going to do in Omaha, Nebraska for seven weeks?” [laughs] So Ellen and I and then Elizabeth Banks said yes and she wanted to work with us, and Paul Rudd was going to play the guy and he suggested Adam Scott.
Capone: I saw Paul Rudd’s name in the credits under the “Thank yous” and wondered why.
ML: Because he was going to do the movie, and he had a personal problem. And he got Adam. He said, “Check out this guy,” and he’s wonderful in it and hilarious in it, so we were off and running, so I kept my word and I worked with Nick and now Nick has just turned 25 or 24, In fact, he just called me.
I’m going to do a movie with Jennifer Lopez next, which I’m executive producing, as well.
Capone: You are?
ML: I’m acting in it.
Capone: What’s it called?
ML: DEAD SERIOUS. It’s a film noir, like POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY. It’s got that kind of quality. We had hired a director who didn’t get it and did a rewrite and it was abysmal, and we gave him another shot at it and it was worse. He didn’t get it, so we are now in the process of getting another director, but anyways that’s next.
Capone: Last time, I interviewed Steve Zhan, we were talking about this movie called SALESMAN, is that still happening or is that still sort of in limbo?
ML: I don’t know what’s going on with that.
Capone: It’s a great cast, if they have a cast that I saw.
ML: I had a pay-or-play deal, and as my agent and lawyer says… I had a contract with a start date and as my attorney says “You’re not going to sue people who have no money, because it winds up being a silly exercise.” I wanted to do that movie, because it smacked of GLEN GARY and was again something happening in the moment. But a when a contract doesn’t mean anything, it’s a shame. I did thinks when I first came to Hollywood on a handshake that people lived by and honored, now you’ve got a contract and people who are like “So, sue me!” “I don’t want to sue you. Why are you doing this? Why are you telling us you have funding and can start this and take up people’s time when you don’t,” so anyway I don’t know. I probably don’t even want to work with these people at this juncture.
Capone: Just looking over some of the TV credits that you had in and around the time you did NORTH BY NORTHWEST, there was hardly a show that you weren’t on, did you have a particular favorite appearance?
ML: I was fresh to the west coast, so I had a chance to play cowboys and Indians and things that I wouldn’t have on the East Coast. I played Mexicans and things I would never be cast in today, it would be politically incorrect to cast me as a Chiricahua apache, or Sioux Indian or a Comanchero. [Puts on his best generic Mexican accent] “Oh, I had the gold tooth and everything. You're a nasty guy. I'm going to have a good time with you. You're laughing, but don't laugh.” It was a playground. I did "Hallelujah Trail" and playing funny Indians, and did a two-character theater with Jose Ferrer, where I played a Chiricahua called SURVIVAL, mortal enemies and we need each other to live, and we become fond of each other to a point and that won a lot awards, so I kind of… Yeah, I did stuff like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." I did movies and TV shows. I never liked to restrict myself. I did theater. I did television. I did films. I mean, in those days there was a chasm between feature films and television. We figured if you got something for free, you wouldn’t pay for it, but I managed to do it.
Capone: It seems like you did go back and forth after a certain point.
ML: Yeah, I did CLEOPATRA. I did THE GAZEBO. I worked with George Stevens on THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. I was able to mix it up a little and keep alive in a way.
Capone: Because they are showing NORTH BY NORTHWEST, let me at least ask one question about it. There’s been a lot written about your character, some people think that he’s bisexual, but I don’t think that covers it. I think he’s gay.
ML: Gay, yes. It was written as a henchman. Hitchcock had seen me in the play MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, which I had done on Broadway with Edward G. Robinison. Gena Rolands played my wife. I played this macho guy who was a jerk really, who is losing his wife to an older Jewish manufacturer. It was Paddy Chayefsky’s first play on Broadway. Anyway, it’s 180 degrees away from Leonard in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, literally. He sees me in that, calls me, walks me around and shows me all of the storyboards, personally, Hitchcock at MGM and I read it and it was a henchman, literally just a henchman. But as I looked at it I say “This guy wants to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, it behooves him to be gay.” It was just an innuendo with interesting stuff, and everyone said “It’s a big movie, so everyone’s going to think you're gay.” I’m like “What are you talking about? I’m not gay, I’m an actor! It’s not going to be the last thing I’m going to do, it’s basically the first thing I’m going to do.” I thought they were crazy. I told Hitchcock at the time, I say “I have an idea about this character, just watch me.” He got it, and I basically said to him, “It’s going to be subtle.”
Capone: So you showed Hitchcock to watch what you did, and he liked it.
ML: Yeah, he liked it a lot and [writer] Ernie Lehman added a line watching the dailies, which wasn’t in the original. The first script I got was called A MAN IN LINCOLN’S NOSE, truthfully, and they did a demographic study and they found that “Lincoln” in the title was death to any movie, so they changed it to NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which is a quote from Shakespeare and also he buys a ticket with Northwest Airlines and then guys north.
One of the most asked questions of James Mason until the day he died and James became a friend of mine, was “Was Vandamm [Mason's character] bisexual?” Because of what I chose. He said, “No he wasn’t, but Landau, there was nothing I cold do about it, because of what he did,” you know? Here’s this guy with this male secretary who is clearly slight attached and dangerous. The interesting thing is in the play I played a very macho guy, a musician who was all over the place, and the economy of Leonard, he’s the only one who sees that there’s no blood when Eva Marie he shoots Cary Grant in the cafeteria, he’s on top of things. He’s smarter than anyone else in the movie, so he’s gay, but he goes about it, and he wants to keep his job and maybe his relationship with James. I approached it very simply and Mason was asked that question over and over. It drove him crazy, because he said, “No, he wasn’t gay. He wasn’t bisexual, but everyone thinks he was!” It irritated him.
Capone: What was the line that was added?
ML: “Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will.” In the '50s, that line from a male was an unusual line and Ernie Lehman wrote it out of watching what I was doing and then he even said to me, “It may be a little heavy.” I said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s good.” I knew Ernie and I liked it, for a guy to say “Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will.” It was a bold line. Up until then, Hollywood played gay characters in extremity with flamboyance. In the 1930s, movies there was always the over the top gay characters, so for me to volunteer to do this on my own without making this character a freak or anything, he’s just a guy in a Hitchcock movie, you know? He’s grounded in truth, really. Hitchcock, you get a guy in a cornfield, a hundred miles from anyone, and you attack him with an airplane? My God, there’s a million ways of getting rid of a guy standing on a road in the middle of nowhere, and no one ever questions that in a Hitchcock movie. It’s like, if you want to attract attention, get a plane chasing a man. That’s calling attention to yourself. [laughs]
Capone: That’s the image from the film that everyone thinks of.
ML: Yeah, but if you really kind of look at it where there’s a car that just going by and shooting him, or taking him into the car might have bee much easier. There’s no one around… Hitchcock!
Capone: Let’s jump ahead. I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to talk with Woody Allen and also lucky enough that he was indulgent enough to talk about my favorite film of his, which was CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. To have that film and TUCKER come out a year apart and you got nominated for both. That had to be just a great period in your life.
ML: Yes, a great moment in time.
Capone: “Wow, they are still paying attention.”
ML: And not only that, but it was something unusual for me to play two Jewish characters, very different, but I hadn’t played Jews, just biblical pictures with Caiaphas in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD was Jewish, though they didn’t call themselves Jews yet, and then I played Abraham and Joseph in biblical things, but to play two Jewish characters one after another was unusual for me. As I said before, I played Mexicans and Indians and Germans and Russians and all kinds of dialects and I liked the region someone comes from. [Does an Irish New York accent] “You know all of the Irish guys I grew up with. The New York Irish guys all talk like this, you know what I mean? Jimmy Cagney… Charlie Durning…Carroll O'Connor .All the New York Irish guys.” [Does an Italian voice] “Now the Italian guys what different… Hey Marty come here, stay the hell out of this…. You are a nice guy, you know, but….” And [Doing an Irish Accent] “You haven’t lived until you’ve screwed a Catholic girl.” Even Bela Lugosi, I wanted that Hungarian accent to be real and that’s an impossible accent to lose. The Gabors had been here 50 years, they sound like they just got off of the boat.
When I first got to Hollywood, I had a meeting with Joe Pasternak, who was a producer with Universal producing all of the Deanna Durbin movies. I needed subtitles. I couldn’t understand half of what he said and was sitting across from him. [Does incomprehensible accent] I thought I had been lobotomized. The guy had probably been in this country for probably 40 years, and I could barely understand him, but he was a good producer, I think.
Capone: [Laughs] Well, it looks like they are shutting us down here.
ML: [In Legosi accent] “They are shutting us down, my good friend!”
Capone: Well congratulations on the award tonight.
ML: Thank you. It’s better than the alternative, I guess.
Capone: [Laughs] I guess so. Thank you so much.
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