Remembering Martin Landau

Scott Lebeda - Posted in Inspiration on August 01, 2017

There are few people in life you cross paths with, who aren’t your family and friends, that make a real impact on your life. I have had the pleasure of working with some pretty remarkable filmmakers and actors/actresses in my short career thus far. It is something that I consider myself lucky to have experienced. Even though I work in the camera department on every job I do, each one is uniquely different. In the fall of 2015 I got the chance to pull focus on a film call “The Last Poker Game”.

“The Last Poker Game” - Dr. Abe Mandelbaum has just moved into a new manor with his ailing wife. After forming an unlikely friendship with a womanizing gambler, their relationship is tested when they each try to convince a mysterious nurse that they are her long-lost father.

What was unique about this film in comparison to others that I have done? The chance to work with legendary film and television actor Martin Landau. Don’t get me wrong, the story was great and the crew was one of the best I have ever worked with, but the chance to work with someone like Martin Landau was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

From day one on set Mr. Landau was extremely kind and friendly to all of the crew. He worked with a professionalism only acquired from a lifetime of mastering a craft.

Martin Landau 1928 - 2017

Due to his age, 87 at the time we filmed the movie, he was not able to walk very well thus leading to him remaining on set between setups. For the most part actors and actresses do their thing and then go back to their trailers during big setups, but this was not the case with Mr. Landau. He would sit on set with us and recount stories of his life, tell us Vaudeville jokes and teach us lessons from the school of Landau.

Myself and my 2nd AC Felix, were like children around a campfire listening to him recount stories of his career before acting as an editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News. At that paper he would was part of the team that created the comic strip "The Gumps". Then one day he would tell his boss he was quitting to go into theater. The rest is history. He would tell us stories of himself and his friend James Dean attending the Actors Studio and imaging what they would become.

He talked about the dress standards on the set of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”. “Back then all male crew members wore suits to work. It was what was expected” he said. Having worked with Cinematographer Terrence Hayes before, this is something that I'm used to, albeit I do not follow that tradition. Terrence has, as long as I've known him, always worn a shirt and tie to work. Mr. Landau was very happy to see someone still carrying on Hitchcock's dress code.

Terrence on set in shirt and tie. I took this still with my Mamiya C330.

My 2nd AC wearing a suit to work one day and kidnapping a puppy!

Mr. Landau taught the younger actors on set the importance of respect for the crew as whole. He told them “They’re co-workers not subordinates. Treat them with the respect you would expect. Hit your marks and remember your lines, they all have families to go home to.”

Not long before he did poker game with us, he worked on a film called “Remember” with actor Christopher Plummer. I had worked with Mr. Plummer on “The Forger” two years before. It is still a pinch me moment, sitting there talking to one legendary film actor about how great working with another legendary film actor was.

Several times throughout the course of making the movie, when Felix and I were off changing a lens or moving a cart, we would catch him entertaining himself. There were two things that always made me laugh.

The first was this line he would say when he was sitting by himself. “So I says to myself…....self!” nothing before this line and nothing after, he would just continue sitting there watching the crew work around him. He was alway dilligently watching everyone do their job. I think that even after all his years in the business he still loved being on set surronded by the crew bustling away. He always knew what the frame size was by observing what lens we had on and how far away we were with the camera. He never once asked what the shot was. He was always prepared and always one step ahead of everyone.

The second was a mime that he would do. He would sit there and hold his hand horizontal at his eye level. With his other hand he would pretend like he had a needle and thread. He would then start threading between each finger until all five were stitched together. After that was done he would let the imaginary thread and needle dangle. He would just stare at his hand for a short time, then grab the imaginary needle and pull several times over and over again making his hand wave. Every time I think of this it still makes me smile.

We spent a month and half with Mr. Landau while making the movie. When we wrapped he gave a very thoughtful speech about his experience on set with us. I wish I had recorded the speech, but unfortunately I did not. We did not know at the time that it would be one of his last movies, and I am very grateful to of had the opportunity to work with him.

I was deeply saddened hearing about his passing. He was a connection to the amazing history of the industry I am apart of, and I am super lucky to have had the opportunity to work with him.

A big bucket of win for Mr. Landau’s long life and long career. May you rest in peace sir.

Mr. Landau talking about The Last Poker Game.

A great tribute video put together by the Ft. Lauderdale Film Festival in 2016.