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Dracula meets the world's worst director

Martin Landau on the making of 'Ed Wood'

By Douglas Hyde
Special to CNN.com

Ed Wood
Johnny Depp, as Ed Wood, and Martin Landau, as Bela Lugosi, in "Ed Wood."
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- "Who in the world, outside of Tim Burton, would make an homage, a tribute to Ed Wood ... the worst director in the history of Hollywood?"

The question is posed by "Ed Wood" star Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for playing horror legend Bela Lugosi in the 1994 film. (A special edition DVD of "Ed Wood" is due Tuesday.)

Nobody, it seems, other than Burton would have tackled the tale of the 1950s schlockmeister. And according to Burton himself, nobody but Landau could have played Lugosi.

As Burton notes in his director's commentary on the DVD, Landau's career, like Lugosi's, had its reversals of fortune.

Lugosi had a long fade from his legendary 1931 performance in "Dracula," eventually finding himself working for Wood in comically awful films like "Bride of the Monster" and "Plan Nine from Outer Space."

For Landau, there were highs like Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and lows like -- no joke -- "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island."

"Life is a roller coaster," Landau muses in an interview. "There are ups, there are downs, there are hills, there are valleys, peaks and so on. And [Burton] knew that there were some pictures that I did over the years with some directors that should have been turned into guitar picks, and would have been more worthwhile had they been. But he understood that I understood that."

'He has to be Bela Lugosi?'

Some career similarities notwithstanding, Landau wasn't sure at first he could pull off playing Lugosi. "You got a character here who's 74 years old, who is a morphine addict and an alcoholic, who's Hungarian and has incredible mood swings, and that would be difficult," he says. "But [to top it off] he has to be Bela Lugosi?"

Thankfully, help arrived in the form of Hollywood make-up legend Rick Baker. Baker, who won an Academy Award for his work on the film, worked closely with Landau to recreate Lugosi's look.

But the look was only part of it. After Landau and Baker shot a screen test for Burton to look at, the director asked Landau about his impressions. Landau told him he felt he only was able to accurately portray Lugosi for about 10 percent of the screen test performance.

Ed Wood
Depp (center) and Sarah Jessica Parker go over a scene with director Tim Burton (left).

"But I said, 'If I can do it 10 percent of the time, I could do it 100 percent of the time, I've just got to find out how to do it. I'm on board.' And we shook hands," he recalls.

After that, Landau began his homework in earnest, including watching 35 Lugosi movies. "Tim kept sending me stuff, and some of it was the Ed Wood stuff and movies that make Ed Wood's movies look like 'Gone With the Wind.' One was called 'Bela Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla,' in which Bela Lugosi plays a mad scientist on an island with a bunch of guys running around in mumus and he injects -- the mad scientist injects -- a little monkey with serum and then night falls and then in the morning the little monkey turns into a man in a terrible gorilla suit and now ..."

Landau can't help but laugh. "It was just terrible. But here was Lugosi: old, addicted, sick. Couldn't take your eyes off him here in this terrible movie. He was fascinating and I became an enormous fan, and I said I want to do this guy justice."

'Vonderful'

Part of doing Lugosi justice meant nailing his Hungarian accent. For Landau, that involved not trying to sound too Hungarian, something Lugosi tried to do after his star-making turn in "Dracula."

"[Lugosi] couldn't live it down," says Landau. "Whenever he tried to play something romantic, it smacked of the vampire. He couldn't get rid of the accent. So everything he did, if it had any kind of eroticism or sensuality, was Dracula-like. [For instance,] if he was supposed to be a tender lover: 'Oh, let me look at your neck, you have a vonderful neck, dear.' "

Landau says with a chuckle, "One has to have a sense of humor, because the poor guy suffered terribly. ... 'Vunce upon a time in Transylvania there vas an actor who very much vanted to say a 'w.' "

Landau, ever the raconteur, continues the interview with funny Hollywood stories, doing impressions of a diverse group of stars, including Woody Allen, Pierce Brosnan, Edward G. Robinson, James Mason and John Huston.

"It's good to make people laugh," he says, "People think I'm a very serious actor, which I am. But you know, if you don't have a sense of humor doing what I do, you perish."

Then, Henry Higgins-style, he explains the difference between Brooklyn's Italian and Irish accents: "The Italian tough guys, dey talk real deep like dis down in dere chests ..." Switching gears and sounding much like the "The West Wing's" John Spencer, the Brooklyn native continues, "... while the Irish speak way high-ah, up here in their heads."

If only Lugosi had had the vocal virtuosity of the man who played him.


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