Always Ready to Draw: Martin Landau on Frankenweenie

The story of how he almost became a professional cartoonist, and how he works with Johnny Depp without finishing any sentences.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


What can you say about Martin Landau that hasn’t already been said? He’s a legend. And, really, that should be in big bold letters, flashing neon lights. But I didn’t know how much of one until I talked to him about his role as Mr. Rzykruski in Frankenweenie, being released in theaters on October 5th. I knew he was a theater actor and I had a good idea that he might have been on radio, but how deep his cartooning went? I didn’t know. Or that he gave up a very lucrative career in the newspaper business in order to go into acting? That story was wonderful. His thoughts on his relationship with Hitchcock and Tim Burton and his own career blew my mind.

I could have spoken with this gentleman for hours. The manner in which he interpreted animated cinema and the role that he had just done with Burton was really incredible, especially when you consider that this was the same man who once tried to kill Cary Grant in North by Northwest, hung out on the same ranch as Clint in Rawhide and truly transformed himself into Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.


CraveOnline: You have worked with Tim Burton a few times now. What keeps you coming back?

Martin Landau: Well, three times. I did Ed Wood, of course, and then Sleepy Hollow, a little piece of that, and then now. Yes, I love it. Well, he asks me, and I have a great time, we get along very well, he creates a playground for the actors, and it’s kind of a kinesthetic experience. Tim’s a special guy, and we’re friends, I mean we became friends working together which is the best way. I have a lot of rapport with Johnny [Depp], as well; he’s also a friend. When you work that closely and you get along and you have a fun time, it’s special. Tim knows that we don’t have to talk a lot to get to what we want to get. And I kinesthetically understand what he wants when I read the script.

In fact, if you’re standing nearby, you’ll notice we don’t finish a sentence. Ever. I mean it’s like people say, “Hey, these guys haven’t said anything to each other,” because he’ll say, “Rehearse?” and I’ll say, “Yeah,” and we’ll rehearse. And he’ll come up and say, “You know?” and I’ll say, “Yeah, I know what’s missing,” that he would likein there, just from the rehearsing. He’ll say, “Again,” I’ll say, “Okay,” Then we’ll do it again and I’ll add that element, he’ll come up and say, “Exactly,” I’ll say, “Shooting?” he’ll say, “Yeah.” Now all you hear are these monosyllabic grunts, almost, but we understand what we are saying to each other, and we understand what we mean. And we get to what it is that we need to get to. And we have fun!

But any good director creates a playground for the actors. I haven’t really been directed by anyone in like 30 years.   

Is that essential to how you approach a character?

Well, no. I’ve never met any two people who are alike so I approach each role as an individual role, what did the author want this space filled by, and that character, his physiology, his environment, his geography, his religion, his way of speaking… all of that stuff makes the character. And that part interests me. To this day I’ve never repeated a character. If they come out somewhat alike it’s only because they were somewhat alike, but I look at them differently. And it’s fun! Hitchcock gave me a lot of freedom, Joe Mankiewicz gave me a lot of freedom, Francis Coppola gave me a lot of freedom, Woody Allen doesn’t direct anybody, you know, I’ve worked with some of the best directors in the world, and some of the worst, made a coupla pictures that should be turned into guitar picks but I’ve had a long career and I have no regrets to speak of, because I’m fortunate and I’m still doing it, and I’m old!

But if I was a ballet dancer, I’d have given it up a long time ago or a singer, I wouldn’t have the pipes anymore. But an actor continues. Start playing young parts, then you play middle age parts then you play older parts, then you play old parts, and I haven’t tired of it because I find that each thing is an independent and special adventure. And Tim… I love Tim, I understand Tim, he understands me. And we’re sort of kindred spirits, and you may think we’re very different but you know I started as a cartoonist on a newspaper, the New York Daily News, from the time I was 17 I was drawing professionally, my colloquial arts school was Pratt Institute, which is one of the three best art schools, but I was born in Brooklyn and that was my art school you know. And then I worked for the news, I was being groomed to be the theatrical caricaturist and I knew it was a great job. Hirschfield was on the Times, he had a beautiful flowing line, I had a sort of “art deco” style, but I could do caricatures.

It was a great job, I got opening nights of Broadway shows, the PR people would give me 8X10s of the cast, and I would do a cast drawing and then 2 opening drawings for the Sunday paper. I knew if I got that job I would never quit so I quit. And to this day, I can still hear my mother saying, “You did what? You did what?” I mean, I didn’t quit for a job; I quit to be an out-of-work actor! And my two sisters were relentless; I mean they were older than I was. And I went away to Summer Stock up in Peaks Island, Maine, I was paid $35 a week, they took out $20 for room and board, and after taxes it was enough for a glass of beer and a cigarette!

You know, I left a job with a future where I could do well. I still draw a lot. I mean, I literally draw a lot.

[Opens his jacket and shows me a pad of paper and collection of pens on the inside pocket of his suit coat.]

I’m always ready to draw.

What do you think the relationship is between newspapers, cartooning and film professionals? There have been multiple people in that business, Sam Fuller, John Barrymore…

Fellini also… I think, well, I also grew up with radio as a kid, and I think… when I’m really upset by something, I put a box around something and I write a caption. It makes me laugh at the thing and it saves me from getting a black eye or giving one. You’re laughing, but it’s true. I don’t know but even with Mr. Rzykruski, you know… one of the things that makes my performances interesting to me is behavioral aspects of the character. Well, if you’re doing a voice, you’re relinquishing the behavior to an animator, right? I do a lot of voices because I like to be the person and create, you know, stuff.

Well, here I saw Rzykruski, I saw him as I did him, okay, but now I give him away and time goes by because I started this well over a year and a half ago with Tim. I see the movie and I’m shocked because it’s exactly how I would have played it if I were on camera. That guy is exactly the way I saw him! And it could’ve been different. But off the voice and off the look of the character, it’s as if I’m in front of the camera… that whole character is exactly as I saw him. And that knocked me out. It’s as if I’m performing it, physically. I can’t tell you how pleased I was because of that. And I love the movie because it’s a character driven movie, moreso than almost any picture that they made this summer! The 3D doesn’t do that [gestures forward towards me] to you, it kind of lets you in! And the thing that pleases me is that Tim wanted to do this movie 30 years ago and Disney turned him down, and now Disney’s doing it.