I manage to have both never actually watched an episode of Mission: Impossible and lament that no one seems to remember the TV show anymore; famously, at the premiere of the first movie, terrible MTV VJ Kennedy (who I remember better as Terrible KROQ Intern Kennedy—even the DJs hated her) asked what he was doing there. He didn’t kill her, which I think showed fine restraint on his part. And for heaven’s sake, the movie came out in 1996 and his Oscar-winning performance in Ed Wood was in 1994, and aren’t celebrities fairly common at movie premieres even if they don’t have anything to do with the movie?
He was a member of the Actors’ Studio, in fact the head of the Hollywood branch until, well, this weekend. He’d been a cartoonist, working on The Gumps, before quitting to be an actor. At the studio, he befriended James Dean and Steve McQueen. He was twentieth-billed in Pork Chop Hill, and the same year, he was eighth-billed as Leonard in North by Northwest, the grim henchman who tried to stomp on Cary Grant’s fingers as he dangled off Mount Rushmore. He was never a leading man, though he did have a fine TV career.
That faded a bit when Space: 1999 went off the air, ending up in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, which isn’t even the highlight of the Harlem Globetrotters’ career. Perhaps prophetically, part of his comeback involved playing Dracula on the stage. He performed Oscar-nominated roles for first Coppola and then Allen, eventually winning for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. He has worked consistently, with his last film being this year’s The Last Poker Game.
It would be simplistic to write Landau’s Lugosi off as a gimmicky role. And I’m sure there are plenty of people who will argue that he didn’t deserve the Oscar; after all, he beat out Samuel L. Jackson, nominated that year for Pulp Fiction. But Landau walks a fine line in the movie, eliciting sympathy for a cranky old morphine addict while never actually allowing you to slip into pity for him. He is well served by the script, and it’s true that I like Tim Burton more than a lot of people, but he does give one of the best performances in any Tim Burton film, and the fact that I don’t believe it’s been matched indicates that it’s more about Landau the actor than Burton the director.
At 89, he was one of the last actors of his generation, having managed to avoid the car accidents and cancer and reaching the average lifespan that has taken out so many of the others. Even in 1959, there was something compelling about him—he certainly can’t be called handsome, and even if he could, he wasn’t going to outshine James Mason, much less Cary Grant. But he drew the eye, and while you were looking, he acted.