Oscar-winning character actor Martin Laundau had a dagger-like physique, Cheshire-cat grin and intense gaze which made him ideally suited to play icy villains and enigmatic heroes – most notably, disguise master Rollin Hand in the hit 1960s TV series Mission: Impossible.
Landau’s seven-decade career featured verdant artistic peaks – including his work for directors Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Tim Burton – and long stretches of arid desert.
The New Yorker once described him as “a survivor of B-movie hell,” noting his long mid-career run of disaster films, blaxploitation movies and fright flicks. “None of them were porno,” the actor once quipped, “though some were worse.”
A precociously gifted artist, Landau had been a cartoonist, illustrator and theatre caricaturist at the New York Daily News in his teens before embarking on an acting career at 22.
He had developed a strong talent for observing people’s expressions and movements, as well as a flair for imitations and accents. Of thousands of applicants, only he and Steve McQueen were accepted in that class at the prestigious Actors Studio in Manhattan.
The school employed the Method philosophy, which calls on a performer to draw from his own, often painful, memories to illuminate a character. The system helped mould a generation of brooding stars, including Marlon Brando and James Dean.
The six-foot-three Landau distinguished himself with a more subtle charisma and command of his craft, emerging as a versatile journeyman TV actor in the 1950s and 1960s.
Hitchcock, an admirer, cast him in his most memorable early role as the closeted gay minion Leonard of espionage ringleader James Mason in North by Northwest (1959).
Landau had proposed making Leonard covertly gay, and worked with screenwriter Ernest Lehman to craft a line about his “woman’s intuition” – to be delivered before the character demonstrates how Mason’s girlfriend (played by Eva…