COVID-19 THEATER SERIES: Reaching for the Stars – An Interview with Edgemar’s Michelle Danner

To understand the philosophy of filmmaker, director, and acting coach Michelle Danner, it is only necessary to hear the truth of her own words:

“The craft of acting is as alluring as it is mysterious, and it takes a being of great passion, insight, and determination in order to succeed. But to teach acting – to inspire creative souls to successfully harvest those tools – requires an even great commitment to bring out the best in each and every actor one encounters…the important thing is to keep growing as an artist, to keep raising the bar for yourself.”

Michelle has taught acting for the last 29 years and has worked with many A-List actors privately and on set, including Chris Rock, Gerard Butler, Seth MacFarlane, Penelope Cruz, James Franco, and Zooey Deschanel. In 2020, Michelle anticipates the release of the supernatural thriller Bad Impulse, while prepping her next feature, The Runner starring Cameron Douglas. That’s in addition to running her weekly acting class, keeping watch over the conservatory program at the Los Angeles Acting School (which she co-founded), directing a play starring Anne Archer at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, or cheering on her two high-school aged sons as they pursue their own passions. Michelle took time out of her workaholic’s schedule to interview in April 2020.

Jerry Lacy and Gina Manziello in “Surviving Mama” – Photo by Eric Wade

When did the Edgemar Center for the Arts first begin its long career? What led to its creation? What’s your mission? Were you involved from the beginning?

Michelle Danner:  We built the theaters and the art gallery at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in the year 2000. We’re actually celebrating our twentieth anniversary! When I discovered the space, the Santa Monica Museum of Art was there; and it was a big open space. We were able to raise funds to build these beautiful theaters. Ever since then, we have had many many theater productions, musical theater shows, children’s shows, independent film festivals, outreach programs, and exhibits. We have hosted hundreds of events. I was the person who got everyone to believe that this could be a thriving cultural center. I was involved from the beginning, including the construction. I always joke that I know more about drywall, plumbing, and electricity than I would have ever wanted to know. I have been the artistic director for the Edgemar Center for the Arts from its inception. I had a vision for what it could be, and I got a group of similar minded folks to come on board and be part of it.

Rob Estes and Michelle Danner in “One White Crow” – Photo by Sandis Babauskis

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?

MD: We were. Thankfully, we had just finished our film festival, Cinema at the Edge, that takes place every year. We had a great response to our screenings, culminating at the end with our award ceremony. Shortly after that, we had to shut down. I was in the middle of rehearsing a very wonderful show, A Ticket to the Circus, with Anne Archer. It was written by Bonnie Culver about Norris Church Mailer, the wife of Norman Mailer; and we had to cancel our rehearsals abruptly and reschedule them from day to day. When it became clear that we had to cancel everything all together, we shut down completely. Because of the unknown of this, it remains a mystery when we will be able to reopen. We had two other shows that were set to open which we also had to cancel and plan to reschedule.

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

MD: It’s impacted it tremendously in the way that everybody has stayed home, but we have touched base online and on the phone. People are scared, sometimes isolated, and not close to their families. A lot of our employees were dependent on their paycheck. We have done our best, but it’s not easy.

Christine Dunford in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – Photo by Teferi Seifu

Are you dong anything right now to keep your live theater going? Streaming? Having virtual meetings? Planning for your next show when you reopen? Auditioning? Fundraising?

MD: We are streaming chats and having virtual meetings with our acting students, but it’s not the easiest. Again, all of this because there is an unknown factor to it. We are, however, starting a GoFundMe page to ask people to help keep the theater open. When it’s time – and if anybody would like to help – we are a 501(c)(3). No donation is too small, and they are all tax deductible. Anyone can reach me directly through our website. I would be happy to talk to anyone about different possibilities.

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

MD: If we read the history of all pandemics, they all come to an end. So I am hoping that there will be a renewed desire to want to share live theater with other people. There is nothing like a communal experience together. Maybe this will help us appreciate the value of that even more.

What are some of your future plans?

MD: Our future plans are to remount what we had planned for the spring and the summer and develop some new plays that will thematically address what we have all been going through. We will also be preparing for “Cinema at the Edge 2021.” I believe that great art can come out of scary times. This is a moment in our lives that can give birth to great content. From my point of view, the theater can never die. When we are back in action, we all need to support it. Right now, I miss theater and that magical shared experience with others.

This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.

Spotlight Series: Meet Janet Miller, a Multi-Talented Theatre Professor, Producer, Director, Choreographer and Tapper

This Spotlight focuses on Janet Miller, a Theater Professor at College of the Desert, Producing Artistic Director at Good People Theater Company, a multi-talented Producer, Director, Choreographer, and Tapper, as well as a lover of all furry friends. I have attended multiple productions in which Janet has contributed her skills, including several hit Hollywood Fringe Festival productions including The Toxic Avenger, Hello Again! The Songs of Allan Sherman, Marry Me a Little, and The Fantasticks just to name a few. Janet is pictured here with Gordon Goodman, the star of Barrymore which she directed, when they attended and won Ovation Awards for the production. Here is the link to my review on Broadway World:

Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background? 

Janet Miller (Janet): I am a producer, theatre director, choreographer, and educator.

(SB): What production were you involved with when word went out it needed to immediately be either postponed or cancelled?  

(Janet): We had just opened a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) at College of the Desert. We did 2 out of 6 performances before we had to shut down the production.

(SB):  How was the shutdown communicated with the cast and production team? 

(Janet): We had been waiting to hear that our college was going to shut down as there were a number of emails that went back and forth. When I got the final word, I passed on the information to my co-director Maricela Sandoval, a graduating student, and we contacted everyone. When we arrived at the theatre, I spoke to the cast and crew. It was quite sad for our students at College of the Desert as they worked so diligently, especially the student co-director.

(SB): Are plans in place to present that production at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent? 

(Janet): We would like to remount in the Fall, but we don’t think that is possible, unfortunately.

(SB):  What future productions on your schedule are also affected by the shutdown? 

(Janet): We had been granted the rights to Middletown by Will Enos for our fall production, which I would be directing. We are holding off on making any final plans for that show at this point, as well as holding off on the planning on producing The Fantasticks in Spring 2021. We will decide as the course of the Coronavirus becomes clearer.

(SB): How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites? I am still teaching online.

(Janet): I teach Script Analysis, Introduction to Theatre, Acting I, and Tap. I am also attending many Zoom meetings, reading and posting articles, as well as spending time speaking to my colleagues.

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the LA Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Janet): It WILL happen. Theatre is a survivor and so are we!

Featured photo: Janet Miller and Gordon Goodman at the Ovation Awards

This article first appeared on Broadway World.

Spotlight Series: Meet Martin Thompson – A Recovering Soap Opera Actor, Official Sherlock Holmes Performer, & Acting Instructor at NY Film Academy

This Spotlight focuses on Martin Thompson, a self-proclaimed recovering soap opera actor who often graces stages as an “Official Sherlock Holmes Performer” and now frequents the stage or directs at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, and also appears in films and on TV series. And as a distinguished member of the acting faculty at The New York Film Academy, Martin now teaches an Acting for Film class online. Read on to find out more about this talented actor who recently directed an outstanding production of The Manor at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills.

Shari Barrett (SB): What would you like readers to know about your theatrical background?

Martin Thompson as Sherlock Holmes

Martin Thompson (Martin): I’m a recovering and repentant former New York soap opera actor (All My Children, Guiding Light, The Edge of Night) with numerous award-winning and critically-acclaimed New York and regional stage performances across the country, which are now most likely forgotten – and perhaps best left to the imagination.

Today, however, I continue my meteoric rise to obscurity by working in Los Angeles Theatre! As a company member at Theatre 40, I was last seen in the American Premiere of Renovations for Six, and reprising my role as Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily. In fact, I’ve been named an “Official Sherlock Holmes Performer” by the Diogenes Club, UK, the International Sherlock Holmes Society, for my numerous appearances as the iconic detective. Remind me to tell you about the time a collector on eBay got more bids for my autograph than for Benedict Cumberbatch’s!


In my spare time, I also enjoy appearing on television and in major motion pictures with many big Hollywood stars who probably don’t remember working with me. I co-star with Kevin Costner in The New Daughter, opposite Paul Rudd in Wanderlust, and with Colin Firth in Main Street (the final screenplay by the legendary Horton Foote). My television credits include Lake Effects with Jane Seymour for Hallmark, NCIS: Los AngelesCriminal MindsScorpionComedy Bang Bang, and Uncle Buck: a very short-lived comedy on ABC. And, I’m currently appearing in the first season of the new series Penny Dreadful: City of Angels which premieres on Showtime this month.

Martin Thompson in “Wanderlust” (Universal Pictures)

I’m also a somewhat distinguished member of the acting faculty at The New York Film Academy, where I’m proud to guide a new generation of actors toward their dreams of becoming just as rich and famous as I am!

(SB): You certainly are staying busy!  What production(s) were you involved with when word went out you needed to immediately postpone/cancel the show?

Jennifer Lee Laks and Martin Thompson in “Night Watch” at Theatre 40

(Martin): I had just finished directing the Theatre 40 production of The Manor at Greystone Mansion, and we actually closed about two weeks before the “safer at home” order hit. So, we were lucky that we got to finish the run! It was our 18th Season, and we surpassed our 300th performance this year. We produce The Manor under an Equity contract each year, so not only are the actors paid, but one of my former students who I cast in the lead this year, qualified for her Equity card with this production, and is now a proud union member! So, I was happy that we got through the run! (SB) For those who have never attended a performance of The Manor during any of its 18 seasons, here is my 2020 review of the production, which is staged in the actual mansion where the tragic events occurred.

(Martin): Unfortunately, I was also scheduled to begin production this month on a feature film, an audio production for Audacity, and as a potential Series Regular on two TV Pilots! But those are now on hold until an undetermined later date… if they happen at all.

(SB): How were the shutdowns communicated with the cast and production team?

(Martin): One of the TV Pilots had just begun production when the shut-down hit. The producers thought they could still shoot the first episode, but unfortunately, they were wrong. The producers of both pilots, the feature film, and the producers from Audacity reached out to the cast and crew via email to let us know that we would stop production immediately. So, we’re all out of work until we get the all-clear!

(SB): Are plans in place to present any of those productions at a future date, or is the cancellation permanent?

(Martin): We’re all in a wait-and-see posture right now. The audio program has been cancelled completely, but the feature film has a chance of coming back, if they can hold on to their investors. The two television pilots will miss the window for Pilot Season, so they may have to reformat their current plans. It’s likely, that if we do have the opportunity to shoot the pilots, that they will not be going to network television but rather be shopped to online distributors, which may change the nature of the series or the number of episodes. We just don’t know right now. I’m just hoping that they’ll reach out to me again, once they get the go-ahead to start production!

(SB):  How are you keeping the Arts alive while at home by using social media or other online sites?

Mona Lee Wylde and MartinThompson in “Renovations for Six” at Theatre 40

(Martin): I’m fortunate in that I’m still teaching as an Acting Instructor at New York Film Academy here in Los Angeles. The school shut down on March 13th, but we are still attempting to teach classes online with Zoom. It’s admittedly a little weird trying to teach an acting class online, but we’re doing the best we can. Fortunately, my current class is an Acting for Film class, so working on camera (even if it’s a webcam!) still fits into the general nature of the class.

We were supposed to be shooting the students’ final films this month, but those plans are out the window since we can’t go on location, or even be in the same room. So, we’re attempting to shoot an entire film with each student self-taping themselves for their scenes! I’ve got some really bright and talented students who have written an entire script which allows all the scenes to be shot in individual close-ups. It’s sort of a combination of an Agatha Christie murder mystery and a Christopher Guest mockumentary. And it’s very funny!

So, we’re having a lot of fun, and it’s given my students a unique and creative outlet during our quarantine time. I’m not sure what will happen, though, once this semester ends in May. It’s likely that the school will remain closed for much of the Summer, so I may be out of work… again!

(SB): What thoughts would you like to share with the rest of the LA Theatre community while we are all leaving the Ghostlight on and promising to return back to the stage soon?

(Martin): This is a strange time for all of us in the creative arts, especially in the Theatre since ours is such a collaborative field. We simply cannot do what we do without everyone else – and especially without an audience! So, being alone in quarantine can easily take its toll. Suddenly we find ourselves with nothing to do, and no one to do it with. It can feel depressing, scary, and even futile at times. I know I’ve felt all of those things in the last few weeks. And, that’s ok!

It’s perfectly acceptable right now to take care of yourself. There’s no need to push yourself to “Keep the theatre alive.” Because right now, Live Theatre is dead since it requires an in-person performance in front of a live audience. Without those ingredients, it simply does not exist. So, let’s not feel compelled to move theatre online, or to force people to watch our new monologues on YouTube. I would actually prefer to binge-watch anything on Netflix right now, rather than to sit through a staged reading of “Uncle Vanya” on Zoom!

(SB): I understand what you are saying about Live Theatre, but I still believe Theatre itself as an art form now lives online in many forms. It’s just the unspoken, interactive, and emotional give-and-take that is missing without the live audience.

(Martin): Certainly many of us are continuing our studies, learning new monologues, reading plays, updating resumes and websites, and doing all of that actor “busy work.” But I would urge my fellow actors not to feel compelled to do anything if you don’t want to. Take care of yourself. That’s the most important thing you can do right now. When we come out of this – and we will – things will be much different, and I certainly hope the Theatre will be different! I don’t think we will see the old models of theatre companies and productions as we know them now, especially since many of the smaller companies in LA will no longer exist while many of the larger companies will need to restructure.

And we will all need to ask ourselves “Why do we do this?” and, “Who do we do this for?” Our relationship with our audiences must change in order to keep Theatre alive in the future. We cannot ask them to simply sit numbly and watch us perform. We must realize that they are an integral part of our performance and must find new ways to welcome them in and involve them.

I look forward to seeing a newer and more vibrant Theatre community in the future, with truly innovative and engaging works which speak with a new and compelling voice to our currently shell-shocked audiences. They deserve that from us! And we must listen to their needs in order to bring them back. Then, and only then, can we all move forward together.

I would love to hear from other actors, artists, playwrights, designers, and students who are all in the same boat – or in your own little boats floating around. And, if there is anything I can do to help, encourage, or just listen – I’m happy to do that. I can be found at the following social links, and I’ll look forward to hearing from anyone who’d like to reach out:




This article first appeared on Broadway World.

Antaeus Academy Classes Open for Enrollment

Antaeus Academy is offering now 12 classes and this is the time to enroll for these summer sessions!
If you’re interested in any of the classes below, visit and click on the “Enroll Now” button to use the enrollment form on the website.
If you take more than one class, you can get a “buy one, get one 50% off” discount.
Friends and Colleagues: Harold Pinter & Simon Gray
Moderated by Nike Doukas
Mondays 12-4pm, June 25-August 27 (10 weeks)
$450 (Early Bird Discount $400, due by June 11)
Class Size: 14-16
Harold Pinter and Simon Gray wrote very different kinds of plays: Pinter is terse and mysterious; Gray is verbose and more naturalistic – but they are both darkly comic and subversive. They were great friends and Pinter directed Gray’s perhaps most popular play, Butley. In this class, the class will focus on the plays of Pinter (Betrayal, Lovers, The Birthday Party, The Homecoming, etc) but also take a look at some by Gray: Butley, Otherwise Engaged, Quartermaine’s Terms, and others. Both men are dazzling masters of language who demonstrate those skills with vastly different approaches. Prepare to be thrilled by the experience of interpreting their work.
Myth, Superstition & the Blues: The Poetry of August Wilson
Moderated by Gregg Daniel

Mondays 7-11pm, June 11-July 16 (6 weeks)
$310 (Early Bird Discount $280, due by May 28)
Class Size: 14-16
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson is arguably one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. His ambitious ten-part play series known as “The Century Cycle” chronicles the African American experience during each decade of the 20th century. His work has garnered a Tony Award as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
In this workshop, the class will examine the themes, sources and personal history that make the playwright’s work so resonant. Through scene and monologue work, you will delve into the musicality, rhythm, prose and poetry which distinguishes Wilson’s text. As Wilson stated, “the more my characters talk, the more I find out about them.”
This class is open to students of all ethnicities, races and backgrounds.
An Amuse-Bouche of Masters: A Scene Study/Technique Class
Moderated by Daniel Blinkoff

Tuesdays 2-6pm, June 12-August 14 (10 weeks)
$450 (Early Bird Discount $400, due by May 29)
Class Size: 14-16
This 10-week Intensive will focus on Chekhov, Stanislavski, and Earle Gister’s technique of acting developed at The Yale School of Drama. Whether you have a lot of experience with any of these innovators of the theatre, or none at all, it doesn’t matter. Your curiosity and passion is all that is required. Just like the Master’s Program at Yale, this class will start exactly where you are and work from there. With a main focus on Chekhov’s plays and short stories, the class will focus on The Moscow Art Theatre’s approach to Chekhov, examining Stanislavski’s scene analysis while combining it with the exercises that The Moscow Art Theatre utilizes in interpreting Chekhov’s plays so the actor is no longer thinking about the play but experiencing it in a kinesthetic physical manner. Once this is established, Earle Gister’s technique of acting will be introduced as an aid in releasing the work. Through this scene study, focusing on Chekhov and then possibly bridging out towards more modern texts, the class will experience the common threads between all of these master teachers and how they resonate in all different kinds of texts. This class is an opportunity to strip away our own misconceptions with these three masters of the theatre and to experience their approaches in a positive and beneficial way that we can use today.
Mind the (Gender) Gap
Moderated by John Sloan

Tuesdays 7-11, June 5-August 21 (12 weeks)
$550 (Early Bird Discount $500, due by May 24)
Class Size: 16-18
Every word a woman writes changes the story of the world, revises the official version.–Carolyn See
In the 21st century, female playwrights are taking center stage (and creating some of our favorite television shows too). But for so many years, the work of female playwrights hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. In this class the company will focus their scene study work on plays written by women from all over the world, from the earliest days of the theater to the rich and varied works of contemporary times. Through the exploration of what dramaturg Susan Jonas called “the other canon,” the class will challenge our assumptions, expand our horizons, enrich our craft, and add depth to our experience as actors and as people.
The Dive In: Othello
Moderated by Elizabeth Swain

Tuesdays 1-5, July 3-31 (5 weeks)
Tuition: $280 (Early Bird Rate $250, due no later than June 19)
Class Size: 14-16
How well do you really know this play? Through deep textual analysis, set against knowledge of Shakespeare’s times, the class will dig and dive and gain more understanding of Shakespeare’s meanings. In the long held Antaean tradition the actors will read the play together, playing any parts they choose. Occasionally the class participants might stage a scene to clarify (he did intend the plays for performance!) but the intention is to gain a new understanding of Shakespeare’s text through extended table work, readying them all for a production. The final class will include a reading of the play, all participants alternating roles.
A Holistic Look at Dialects: UK Edition
Moderated by Lauren Lovett-Cohen

Wednesdays 1-4, July 11-August 29 (8 weeks)
Tuition: $310 (Early Bird Rate $280, due no later than June 27)
Class Size: 14-16
It’s 2018, and thankfully there are more and more TV/Film/Web and theater projects that include roles from all over the world. The idea of a Standard American dialect or RP or the “correct” way to speak is giving way to the specificity of the who/what/where and the history of each character.
Join Antaeus for this class where they open up a new way of looking at dialects — with a concentration on the UK for this round — to give you the tools for getting more work in today’s projects. There will be monologues and scene work from various plays penned by British authors from the turn of the 20th century through today.
Shakespeare: Making the Bard’s Words Your Words
Moderated by Rob Nagle

Wednesdays 7-11, June 6-August 29* (12 weeks)
$550 (Early Bird Discount $500, due by May 25)
Class Size: 16-18
*no class the week of July 4
Why is Shakespeare such a challenge to so many, not only to perform, but also to comprehend? Could it be that we get caught up in the academic, an analytic study of the text through reading it, and then find ourselves neglecting the characters, the people we are attempting to bring to life. In this class, through action and scene study, participants will find a way to use the scansion and the poetry to make them bolder actors — and in so doing, participants will find his words coming out of their mouths as conversational and current, but not casual or contemporary.
Fitzmaurice Voicework
Moderated by Scott Ferrara

Thursdays 1-5pm, July 19-September 6 (8 weeks)
$350 (Early Bird Discount $300, due by June 7)
Class Size: 14-16
Whether you work in theatre, film or television, all mediums of our craft call for vocal strength, flexibility, and specificity. This class uses a holistic approach to body/mind/ voice work, to help the participant explore the dynamics between body, breath, voice, imagination, language, and presence.This approach liberates the mind, body and voice by strengthening the connection between what the participants are feeling and what they’re expressing. By integrating physical exercises with mental focus, the class will bring the full richness of the actors’ experiences to their work. By strengthening the “support” for the participants voice, the class will also add more variety to the expression of the performers use of it, be that in pitch, volume, singing – all without straining the voice or vocal chords. And then the class will combine Classical Text with the voice work, further developing the awareness, trust and freedom with the actors’ breathing, body, feelings, imagination, and voice and add more vibrancy and presence in performance.
Shaw, Wilde & Coward
Moderated by Kitty Swink

Thursdays 7-11, June 7-August 30* (12 weeks)
$550 (Early Bird Discount $500, due by May 19)
Class Size: 14-16
*no class on July 12
“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” Oscar Wilde
This class will engage participants in the wit, craft and social commentary of three of the English language’s most celebrated playwrights, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward. Participants will learn to contextualize their times, manners and behaviors, and using scene work they will embrace truthfulness, imagination, concentration and living in the actor’s body while performing biting satire and high comedy. The powerful combination of technical expertise and emotional truth brings each of the playwrights to life and makes the participants understand why these three have been performed for more than a century. Open to actors of all ages.
Shakespeare 2.0
Moderated by Armin Shimerman

Saturdays 10am-2pm, June 9-July 28 (8 weeks)
$400 (Early Bird Discount $350, due by May 24)
Class Size: 14-16
This class is a further exploration of Shakespearean acting skills for people who have already studied with Armin at Antaeus. This class will further intensify the actor’s awareness of the text and how to clearly communicate that to an audience. To enroll, participants must apply and be approved.
Real, Safe, and Kicka**: Stage Violence for Actors
Moderated by Ned Mochel

Saturdays 10am-2pm, July 7-August 25 (8 weeks)
Tuition: $350 (Early Bird Rate $300, due no later than June 22)
Class Size: 14-16
This class focuses on an exciting, new approach toward stage violence in the American theater that’s rougher, tougher, and more realistic. This is not your traditional stage combat class; this class prepares the modern actor to engage in a more realistic, intense style of stage action.
Ned Mochel has been building stage violence for over 25 years. His violence design has been showcased in plays at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, on and off Broadway in NYC, Geffen Playhouse, as well as at Antaeus Theatre Company. He’s been changing the way audiences perceive stage violence one production at a time. If you’ve been immersed in stage action in the past or if you’re interested in diving in for the first time, this is the class for you. It’s a rough, tough, fun approach–an experience you’ll never forget. Learn how to make it real, stay safe, and kick ass. From hand to hand fighting and gun work to detailed sword training, you’ll find yourself building new skills to set you apart from the others. This is new cutting edge stage action and it’s happening at Antaeus.
Shakespeare: Getting Started – WAIT LIST ONLY
Moderated by Armin Shimerman

Wednesdays 1-5pm, June 13-August 8* (8 weeks)
$400 (Early Bird Discount $350, due by May 30)
Class Size: 14-16
*no class the week of July 4
This class is designed for those who have never studied Shakespeare with Armin before. It will include monologue/scene study and a thorough approach to acting, understanding, and communicating through language, history, religion, social mores, and – the Rosetta stone to performing Shakespeare – Elizabethan rhetoric. Any fear of performing/reading Shakespeare will be cured. You may laugh as well.

Riding Along with MARTIN LANDAU on Life’s Great Adventure

Last Sunday evening, I was privileged to attend the 3 hour tribute to Master Actor-Teacher Marty Landau at the Writer’s Guild Theatre.  Life’s unpredictability being what it is, though, this piece is appearing a few days later than originally planned.  The reason?  Well, there are two.

One is something that happened after I’d left the event, which I’ll go into later.

The second is the nightmare we’ve all been living through, the massacre in Las Vegas.  It’s a soul-crushing tragedy.  We don’t even have fundamentalism or terrorism to blame this time.  The violence was arbitrary, the shooter had no higher purpose, it appears, than destroying the happiness of strangers.  “He was just a guy,” his younger brother said.  But clearly he wasn’t.  And he didn’t just snap – he planned this meticulously, including setting up a sniper’s nest.  How does a 64 year old retired accountant with no history of violence do that?

I spent some time as an investigative reporter, and this doesn’t scan.  I’ve also spent a lot of time as a screenwriter, and this scenario is not believable.  There has to be something else, something crucial that hasn’t come out yet.  Maybe it will by the time this is published, or hopefully sometime soon.  Right now this feels like an X-Files episode come to life, with some paranormal force in charge. I’ve alternated between being heartbroken by the human tragedies and being mystified by this enigmatic shooter.  I mean, I’m intrigued by conspiracy stories and have written a few myself.  But I see no indication of a conspiracy here.  Did he have cancer?  Did he lose all his money gambling?  Some kind of death sentence hanging over him that made him want to take as many people with him as possible?

I don’t like stories that don’t make any sense.  Life may not be art, but it does have its reasons, whether love or hate, money or payback.  So far none of these seem to apply, and I won’t be able to let it go until something does.

Landau in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “North by Northwest.”

So, let’s go from that scene of Hate – straight out of the “Hell” panel of a Heironymous Bosch triptych – to the lovefest that was the tribute to the great Martin Landau, organized by Landau’s older daughter, Susie, and directed by Daniel Henning of the Blank Theatre.  Susie kicked off the proceedings by telling the overflowing crowd of family, friends, colleagues and admirers, “When Martin Landau was born, his father Morris hired a brass band in Flatbush to celebrate the occasion.”  And then here we were to continue the celebration, a few months after Landau’s passing at age 89.

The MC of this “occasion” was Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, who proved to be funnier and faster with the off-the-cuff lines than I expected.  After informing us that the only two actors to be accepted for the 1955 class at the Actors Studio were Martin Landau and Steve McQueen – the two also starred together in the 1966 film Nevada Smith – Mankiewicz added: “Lest we think of Martin Landau as some kind of saint who never made mistakes, just remember that this was also the man who said no to the role of Spock on the original Star Trek, while saying yes to the role of J.J. Pierson in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. ”

Diane Ladd and Frances Fisher and the handsome young Mr Landau

Susie Landau quoted her mother Barbara Bain to describe her father: If you burrow deep into Marty Landau’s DNA, you will find the word “ACTOR.”

This set the tone for the evening, which was a celebration of the craft of acting and the life of the actor.  Two of the more unlikely (but still very touching) tributes were delivered by celebrity actors who were not close friends with Landau.

In fact, Hal Holbrook admitted that, in his 92 years, not only had he never worked with Marty Landau, he couldn’t recall ever meeting him.   But he felt compelled to attend because “Martin Landau represented what is really good about our people.  Whatever he was in, there was always something genuine and true about it.”  (Holbrook, who has been performing his one man show about Mark Twain since 1954, now seems – with his halo of white hair – to have completely merged with his character. I am hoping to see his “Mark Twain at 100” in the near future.)

Jon Voigt – not just Angelina Jolie’s dad but an A-List actor again thanks to Ray Donovan – also never worked with Landau and freely admitted that he didn’t know why he was there.  “I had to come as a show of respect,” he said. “I just admired the way he carried himself, and the way his personal generosity carried over to his roles.  He made me want to be a better person and a better actor.  I feel that again tonight,  being here in this room.  When I leave here tonight, I want to be a better person because of Marty.”

Landau with his wife and TV co-star Barbara Bain

Landau’s 65 years as an actor had many highlights.  In the early ’50s, there was his close friendship with the mercurial James Dean and his acceptance by The Actors Studio.  In the late ’50s, there was the beginning of his acting career on stage, screen and TV.  This section concluded with his supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece North by Northwest.  But this did not lead to his being offered more great movie roles.  His next role in a major movie was in the disaster Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  Instead it resulted in a slew of guest-starring roles on TV shows, culminating with his starring role as Rollin Hand, “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” on the original Mission Impossible.   This ran on Sunday evenings from 1966-69,  171 episodes, and it cemented Landau’s status as a pop culture icon.  It’s also where he met his wife, Barbara Bain, with whom he would have two daughters.  (Ben Mankiewicz reminded the audience that, while Marty and Barbara were both nominated for 3 Primetime Emmys, Barbara won each time while Marty lost each time; “that third time must have been a bloodbath when they got home,” Mankiewicz joked.)

In the mid-70s, Marty and Barbara starred together again on the TV series Space 1999 (insert your “he coulda been Spock” joke here), but it only ran for two seasons.  Marty went back to guest-starring on TV series and appearing in highly forgettable TV movies.  In fact, his career went downhill along with his reputation and his marriage to Barbara Bain (they officidally divorced in 1993).  Somehow – and I don’t know how myself – he turned everything around, starting with his mesmerizing turn as a financier in the Jeff Bridges movie Tucker: A Man and His Dream in 1988.  This was followed by his indelible performances in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.  Landau was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for each film, and he won for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.  (A former reporter for Deadline confided to the Writer’s Guild audience that one of the other four nominees that night made no attempt to hide his bitterness at being “beaten” by Landau for the award.  “Anyone but Martin Landau,” this actor had reportedly complained.  The reporter refused to tell us which of the four it was:  Paul Scofield, Chazz Palminteri, Samuel L. Jackson or Gary Sinise.  I feel certain I know which one it was.  Do you?)

Woody Allen directing Landau in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)

Landau went on to give terrific performances in Rounders (1999), and in the Jim Carrey movie The Majestic.  But his final Act would take place in small indie films Lovely, Still (2008) and Remember (2015), but especially on TV shows like Without A Trace (where he played Anthony Lapaglia’s father, a military man dealing with dementia) and Entourage, where he gave an unforgettable comic turn as Bob Ryan, a washed-up film producer who suddenly finds himself back in the mainstream.  He even had his own catchphrase: “Does that sound like something you might be interested in?”  Mostly, though, for his last 25 years, Marty invested a huge amount of himself and his spirit in the Actors Studio West, where he was co-artistic director with his lifelong friend Mark Rydell and worked long hours to pass along his wealth of knowledge to new generations of actors and writers.

Marty and a younger, less-Twisted Hipster – only one of so many who feels a debt of gratitude for having had such a great teacher (Photo: Eric Wade)

My favorite story of the evening – and there were so many great ones! – was told first by a film director (I believe his name is Mark Sobel) and then embellished upon by the actress Gina Gershon, regarding an exploitation flick titled Sweet Revenge (I believe) which did its filming in the Philippines during a revolution.  Gina, then a young actor just getting into the entertainment business, had read the script and found it to be “crap,” but she was drawn to the chance to work with Martin Landau.  Before accepting, she called Landau and asked if he was really attached.  “Yes, I’m going to do it,” Landau said.  “But it’s a terrible script,” Gershon said.  “Nothing makes any sense.”  Landau replied: “But it’s a free trip to the Philippines!  It’s a chance to have a great adventure!”  “Yeah?” Gershon replied, still not convinced.  “So what if it’s a failure?” Landau told her.  “I’ve learned a lot more from failures than I ever did from successes.”

In the end, Gershon accepted, and soon she was in the Philippine rainforest with Marty Landau and the other actors.  Very early on it was clear that they were horribly unprepared for the very real violence surrounding them.  One day they were on the way to a waterfall location when they were ambushed by 50 former government guards with machine guns, who had been tossed out of power in the People’s Revolution.  The cast and crew were in serious danger of losing their lives.  But Marty Landau remembered seeing TV antennas coming out of the houses they had passed.  He asked the director to let him handle it.  Then Marty stepped forward and spoke directly to the group leader, who in turn addressed Marty harshly and belligerently, waving his gun in the air.  Suddenly this changed.  “Mission Impossible?” the leader stuttered. “You are…him?”  Marty nodded, and the tide turned.  The ousted guards became the film crew’s protectors, insisting on going with them to the waterfall and then providing food and drink for the cast and crew.

What a great story, huh?  What a great Marty Landau story (he had millions).  What an adventure. . . .

And oh yes – I said I would tell you what happened right after the tribute, an event which has eaten up my last few days.

So yeah, I had parked my car on Wilshire Blvd, two blocks west of Doheny, and when I got back from celebrating Marty, this is how I found my car – a complete wreck.  There were several police cars surrounding it, as well as the car in front of mine, which was also totaled.

A policeman handed me a small sheet of notepad paper with a lot of information written on it in blue ink.  He pointed to a young man nearby.  “He had a sneezing fit and lost control of his car.”

“What?”  I said.  This was a lot to take in.  The Sneezer was very apologetic.

As it happened, the other wrecked car belonged to Jamie Marsh, an actor I knew from the Actors Studio West, who had also been at the Writer’s Guild event.

“Dude, this is a great thing,” Jamie whispered to me.

“Yeah?” I said, not seeing his point.

“The insurance is going to give us enough money to buy new cars.  It’s like Marty made it happen.”

“Yeah?” I said again, starting to see his point.

“Marty Landau wants us to have new cars!” he repeated.

Huh, I thought.  Another Marty adventure?