LOS ANGELES - Finally, it's starting to happen for Martin Landau. Last year, after decades of playing spies and other heavies, mostly on TV, Landau, 61, got an Oscar nomination for his loyal but ethically indiscreet sidekick in "Tucker." Now he's starring in Woody Allen's new film, "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (opening Friday), playing a more respectable character, an ophthalmologist whose moral dilemma is greater than his "Tucker" character faced. Landau, whose speech is soft and formal, almost courtly, like the character he plays, smiles a lot these days. Ask the one-time Actors Studio wunderkind, the contemporary of Geraldine Page, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, how he got through the artistically lean years. "With difficulty," he says, as if the question was a straight line he'd been waiting for.
Allen is famous for not letting actors see any more than their lines on the theory that they shouldn't have too much information. But he sent Landau the entire script. "I went to the hotel and read it," Landau said. "The character, Judah, is Everyman in a sense. He's not a bad guy, but what he does is heinous. What Woody is saying in the picture is that you have to face up to your deeds and be responsible for them. I think he saw Judah as a little more hard-nosed than I did. I said to Woody, 'Unless you can empathize with this guy, it'll be impossible to watch the movie.' Then I said to myself, 'What am I doing? Talking myself out of the part?' But then Woody said Mia Farrow had been saying the same thing. He hired me that very day. He knew I understood the guy and encouraged me to explore him.
It was while touring in "Middle of the Night" with Edward G. Robinson in 1957 that Landau came to Los Angeles. A year later, he got his first movie role, as a spy in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." Landau, whose Actors Studio mentors included Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Curt Conway and Lonnie Chapman, started teaching in Los Angeles at the invitation of Monte Hellman, who had a small theater. Today, Landau, much respected as a teacher, is also a codirector of the West Coast Actors Studio with Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell. Landau met his wife and frequent "Mission: Impossible" costar, Barbara Bain, at those classes. They are no longer married. Landau says [Jack Nicholson] "met his first wife in my class, too. So did some others. None of the people are together. I was a good teacher, but a lousy marriage broker," he adds, looking fully recovered.