Landau was born to Jewish parents Morris and Selma. He grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the same area Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, and Barbra Streisand also hailed from. “Growing up in Brooklyn was great,” Landau remembers,“because I could listen to the music and the people’s speech, and at school we had kind of a cross-section of all kinds of people. We had Irish kids and Jewish kids and Greek Orthodox kids and Catholics kids. All kinds of kids. And as a result, their parents – some of them were first generation Americans – so all the Irish guys talked like this [he does a rough New York accent]. And the Italian kids talked a little different… There was a lot of life there. It kind of filtered into me.”
He graduated from James Madison High School and then went to the Pratt Institute. At age 17, he got a job with the New York Daily News as a cartoonist, working on Billy Rose’s “Pitching Horseshoes” column and assisting Gus Edson on The Gumps comic strip during the 1940s and 1950s, eventually drawing the Sunday strip for Edson. “I quit to become an actor,” he said. “I can still hear my mother’s voice. ‘You did what???’”
Landau attended the prestigious Actors Studio, the champion of the Method style of acting taught by Lee Strasberg and practiced by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Shelley Winters, to name a few. While at the Actors Studio, Landau became close friends with fellow student James Dean. “He was my best friend,” Landau said. “There’s nothing much to say that hasn’t been said already [about him]. He was a young, talented actor who did not want to die young and did.” Despite persistent rumors, Landau insists Dean was not gay or bisexual. “The two things we talked about were acting and girls,” remembers Landau.
Landau occupied much of the 1950s doing television work, including appearing in the second episode of The Twilight Zone and the western series Maverick and Rawhide. He made his Broadway debut in 1957 in Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night. His first major film role was as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North by Northwest. But it was on TV that Landau gained true fame in Mission: Impossible, which ran on CBS from 1966 – 1973. Landau’s then wife, Barbara Bain, also starred in the series.
“Well, a very good friend of mine wrote it – Bruce Geller,” recalled Landau.“And he originally wrote it as a movie in which we were bad guys like in Topkapi or Rififi… He wrote it as a crime film and could not get it done, and then decided to turn us into good guys and make it sort of a surreptitious government agency long before we were aware that the alphabet soup in Washington was doing things like this. [He] then created the Impossible Missions Force, and then I wound up as a sort of one-man rep company on that show. I was offered Star Trek and turned it down. I was offered Spock initially by Gene Roddenberry and chose Mission because it would have killed me to play a character with no emotions as opposed to a character with lots of emotions… It was innovative at the time – very innovative. We used computers that were smaller than existed at the time… The show actually still holds up. If you watch it, it has quite a bit of style and it was a puzzle and very, very popular for the years that it was on the air.”
Mission: Impossible earned Landau three Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe.
Landau and Bain again teamed up in the late 1970s for the sci-fi series Space: 1999. In 1981, he appeared as a megalomaniacal millionaire in the TV-movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. “It was a chance for Barbara and me to work together in something sort of zany and crazy,” Landau said of that experience.
In 1988, Landau had a career resurgence with his supporting role in Francis Ford Coppola’s biopic Tucker: The Man and His Dream about Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) and his attempt to produce and market the 1948 Tucker Sedan, challenging Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers – Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Landau played Abe Karatz, Tucker’s longtime Jewish financier. The role won Landau stellar reviews, as well as a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor. It also garnered him the first of three Oscar nominations (he lost to Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda).
The next year Landau had one of his best roles as a philandering ophthalmologist in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. As Dr. Judah Rosenthal, Landau was both charming and sinister as he plots to have his mistress (Anjelica Huston, a former acting student of Landau’s) murdered when she threatens to expose their affair to his wife (Claire Bloom). The film dealt with lots of moral issues as Dr. Rosenthal reexamines his Jewish faith following the murder.
“Woody doesn’t direct at all,” Landau said. “Good directors don’t direct. They hire the best actor and create a playground for them and then let them go. All good directors know that. Casting is ninety percent of directing. He flew me into New York, having seen Tucker, and hadn’t been able to cast it, which baffled me because New York is loaded with wonderful actors… We had meetings and I discussed the role with him, having read the entire script, which was rare for him to give to anyone. Even Alan Alda did not have the whole script. And Anjelica certainly didn’t. And Claire Bloom didn’t. I think Mia [Farrow] and I were the only two performers in it who had read the entire script. And Woody, of course.
“He’d written a character who was a liar, a cheat, a spoiled brat. It was important whoever played the part take the trip with him. The character doesn’t do a single redeeming thing in the film. It would be very easy to dislike him but I told [Woody] the audience had to see themselves in him, and ultimately take the trip with him and be horrified at the end because taking a person’s life is no small [thing]. And again, it was the first time [Woody] seriously related to his Judaism. In Annie Hall, he has one scene where he’s sitting with a WASP family and grows peyos and a beard. And that was a moment of embarrassment. Here he actually confronted religion in a different way.”
Crimes and Misdemeanorswon Landau his second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, even though he was clearly the lead. This time he lost to Denzel Washington in Glory. But the third time proved the charm when Landau finally won the Oscar for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in 1994. The film starred Johnny Depp as the real-life, cross-dressing filmmaker responsible for such schlock as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Landau played Ed Wood’s idol, Bela Lugosi, whose star has faded and is now addicted to drugs. The film earned Landau universal praise (Roger Ebert called his performance “brilliant”), as well as numerous critics’ awards and his third Golden Globe Award. In his Oscar acceptance speech, Landau honored his director. “Thanks, Tim for giving me the part of my life,” he said.
Unlike some actors who eschew the Academy Awards and insist they mean nothing (Woody Allen being a prime example), Landau was genuinely thrilled to win. “As a kid I dreamed of winning an Oscar,” he said. “It’s nice to be honored for what you do by your peers. There’s no question about it.” When I told Landau he should have won for Crimes and Misdemeanors, he replied, “There’s a Talmudic expression: I should’ve, I could’ve, and a shovel will dig you a hole!”
In 2006, Landau appeared on the HBO series Entourage as a washed-up Hollywood producer. The guest role earned Landau an Emmy Award nomination.
Now in his 80s, Landau is at the age where most actors have long been retired, but he is as busy as ever. He recently played one of the voices in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, and in 2011 portrayed real-life rabbi Albert Lewis in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV-movie Have a Little Faith, based on the book by Mitch Albom.
Landau has two films is post-production, including a TV-movie about Anna Nicole Smith in which he plays J. Howard Marshall, Smith’s much older husband. He is also in pre-production on the films Fastbreak and A Fighting Chance.
Landau has two daughters, Susan and Juliet, from his marriage to Bain, which ended in 1993. He lives in Los Angeles and is actively involved with the Actors Studio West where he serves as co-artistic director with Mark Rydell.