Oscar-winning actor

Born: June 20, 1928;

Died: July 15, 2017

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MARTIN Landau, who has died aged 89, was a film and television actor whose career spanned seven decades, although his finest roles and widest acclaim did not come until he was in his late 50s.

He earned Academy Award nominations for his roles as a financier and automobile investor in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), as an adulterous ophthalmologist in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) and as washed-up, morphine-addicted horror movie actor Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), winning the latter.

To television audiences he was most familiar for key recurring roles in Mission: Impossible (1966-69) and Space 1999 (1975-77). Gifted with sharp features, a commanding voice and a depth of feeling as an actor, Landau was at home as a chiselled leading man, as a villain with a real touch of human menace, and in quirkier films like Ed Wood.

Although the period between the mid-1970s and his Oscar success in the late 1980s may have been Landau’s own wilderness years as an actor, with a procession of guest parts in low-budget and direct-to-video films alongside modest television guest roles, the breadth of his career meant that the highlights read like a catalogue of Hollywood greats. In the early days this was most often as a stock character with a flinty edge, whether that be a heavy, a soldier or a judge. He was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and appeared with Cary Grant in North By Northwest (1959), took a part in 20th Century Fox’s iconic Cleopatra (1963), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and played opposite Sidney Poitier in the In the Heat of the Night sequel They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970). He appeared with Sean Connery in the disaster movie Meteor (1979), Robert De Niro in Mistress (1992), Al Pacino in political thriller City Hall (1996), and was cast by director Ron Howard in his early reality television satire EDtv (1999).

Prior to his big break in Mission: Impossible (he played master of disguise Rollin Hand, winning one Golden Globe and earning three Emmy nominations), Landau’s first decade as a young jobbing actor was spent making guest appearances in a slew of iconic Western series like Gunsmoke, Johnny Ringo, Wagon Train and Bonanza, as well as the sci-fi anthology series’ The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. He never left television, later taking roles in Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, and he won late-career Emmy nominations for roles as a cop’s father with Alzheimer’s in Without a Trace (2004-07) and Hollywood producer Bob Ryan in Entourage (2006-08).

Martin Landau was born to Jewish parents Morris and Selma in Brooklyn, New York, in 1928, and while his father helped smuggle Jewish people and artefacts out of Europe during the Second World War, young Martin fell for the films of James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart in his neighbourhood’s cinemas. He studied at the local James Madison High School and later the Pratt Institute, and at 17 he took a job as a theatrical caricaturist with the New York Daily News.

Yet being in the theatre twice a week affirmed how much Landau wanted to act, and he quit the job at the age of 22; after a period of struggle, he applied for Lee Strasberg’s acclaimed Actors Studio and was one of only two applicants to earn entry that year (the other was Steve McQueen). Through the Actors Studio, Landau became close friends with James Dean, briefly dated Marilyn Monroe and taught Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. He was involved with the Studio as an executive and an educator until his death.

Despite moving in such circles in his youth, however, Landau’s deserved recognition was a long time coming. “I’ve always felt I’m one of the best (actors) around,” he told the New York Times just before his comeback in 1988, “but you get stuck in people’s eyes in a certain way, and it takes an imaginative director who will look at you and realise you can play different kinds of parts … I don’t like to sound immodest, but I believe in what I can do.”

Eventually, Landau’s faith in himself was deservedly rewarded. He was married to his Mission: Impossible co-star Barbara Bain between 1957 and 1993, and is survived by their daughters Susan, a filmmaker, and Juliet, an actor.

DAVID POLLOCK