Martin Landau On Playing Gay For Hitchcock

The legendary actor tells a story about his role in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

Last week I spoke with Martin Landau about Frankenweenie. I knew I had to ask him about more than just working with Tim Burton; Landau has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers in history. I had very little time with him, so I could only choose one iconic filmmaker to discuss, and I settled on asking him about working with Alfred Hitchcock on North By Northwest. He told this amazing story about the bold choices he made in what was only his second movie role.

When I first met with [Hitchcock] at MGM, I didn’t even know I had the role yet. He saw me in a play at the Biltmore Theater. He personally took me around the office and showed me the entire movie in storyboards. When we got to the scene I would eventually be in, he said, “This, Martin, is where you enter the film.” And that’s how I knew I got the role! I’m in the back playing croquet and come in and eventually pour whiskey down Cary Grant’s throat. But I saw the film. The whole film!

He saw me in a play called Middle of the Night, Paddy Chayefsky’s first Broadway play, with Edward G. Robinson, which I toured with after the Broadway run. He was there opening night. I played a very macho guy, 180 degrees from Leonard, who I chose to play as a homosexual - very subtly. Because he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance. James Mason, to the day he died - he became a friend of mine - the most often asked question of James was whether Vandamm, his character, was bisexual. He said, “No he wasn’t, but Landau made a choice and there’s nothing I can do about it.” I actually caused him some grief!

Everyone told me not to do that because it was my first big movie and people would think I was gay. I’m an actor! I said it wasn’t going to be my last movie, and it certainly wasn’t. I’ve never played a character like that since. I also felt it was something people would know or not know. It was very subtle. I thought in Boise, Idaho they might not notice. 

But again, I like to find a reason for being in a film. It was written as a henchman. Ernie Lehman added a line which was not in the script. “Call it my woman’s intuition” was not in the original script. It was a very daring line for the 50s. Men didn’t say things like that. Hitchcock loved what I did and left me alone.