A Tribute to the Man of a Million Faces

A week ago today, the great Martin Landau died. Landau first caught my attention in the great Hitchcock caper North By Northwest, in a piercingly sinister performance as James Mason’s henchman Leonard, but it was on Mission: Impossible that he became an early television hero for me, as the IMF’s brilliant master of disguises, Rollin Hand.

Mission: Impossible was a show that didn’t often afford its characters the luxury of actually being characters—the team was too busy masquerading as other people to show much of themselves. Either that, or they were simply getting sucked so thoroughly into the plot mechanics that they had no time to reveal any personality beneath their functional roles on the team. But it was Rollin Hand, as played so memorably by Landau, who would be the most consistent exception to this rule.

Which is ironic, because it was Rollin who was the team’s most accomplished and immersive role player, frequently going all-in on his performance to convince the mark. But Landau always managed to remind us that underneath the theatrics, the prosthetics, and the disguises was the charming, dashing, occasionally goofy, always quick-thinking Rollin, a live wire who enjoyed dangerous work, who was spontaneous and witty, who allowed himself a moment of relief every now and then after a close call. Rollin felt like a real person, which made him feel like the heart of the team. This is probably why his departure at the end of season three (combined with that of Barbara Bain, the only other character to rival Landau in the hair-splitting way she managed to play multiple guises simultaneously) was such a blow to the series’ chemistry.

Fortunately, though, those three seasons were enough for Rollin to be on hand (sorry, couldn’t resist) for Mission: Impossible’s greatest creative peaks and strongest episodes. This made selecting my favorite Rollin Hand episodes something of a challenge. But I had to try anyway, as tribute to one of the actors who lured me into a lifelong love of spy fiction.

10.“The Heir Apparent” (season three) — Although Rollin’s role is relatively small in this one, his charming, funny portrayal of an elderly country doctor is a delight, contributing a key puzzle piece in this near-perfect episode.
9.“Nicole” (season three) — The arrival of Peter Graves relegated Landau to supporting roles more frequently, and that’s certainly the case here, in a Phelps-dominated love story. But it’s a prime example of Rollin sinking effortlessly into his outside-con performance (flirting hilariously as a dirty-old-man general) while also letting the real Rollin show through in his loyal and empathetic interactions with Phelps.
8.“The Astrologer” (season two) — This episode is something of a personal favorite of mine, primarily as a triumph of execution and post-production. While Rollin spends most of the hour skulking around in a plane’s baggage compartment and doing vocal impersonations, his spontaneity, flare, and camaraderie with Barney (Greg Morris) contribute greatly to the entertaining style of this slickly executed con.
7. “The Diplomat” (season three) — Landau’s performance as a seedy, blackmailing photographer is a perfect mix of menace (leveraged against guest star Lee Grant) and sniveling cowardice (when challenged by villain-of-the-week Fernando Lamas). This episode is a class act, and Landau does a great deal to elevate it.
6.“Illusion” (season three) — Ah, poor Fritz, the disfigured, apologetic second-fiddle to Barbara Bain’s cruel, sultry Mona Bern in this dark, cabaret-set adventure. Landau is great theatrical fun onstage, but also convincingly tortured and emotionally disturbed behind the scenes.
5.“The Carriers” (season one) — Nominally, Steven Hill led the IMF in season one, but his mastermind, Dan Briggs, often unofficially abdicated leadership of the team to Rollin during his many absences. “The Carriers” is a turning-point episode in Rollin’s in-the-field leadership of the IMF, his improvisational thinking guiding them through an operation to shut down a sinister, faux-American training ground behind the Iron Curtain.
4.“The Confession” (season one) — This decent but occasionally clumsy season one affair has an indisputable core strength: Landau’s sneering, violent performance as tough-talking convict Eddie Gibson. One of Landau’s most thorough transformations, in which he bullies the episode’s villains so effectively that he almost renders them sympathetic.
3.“The Mind of Stefan Miklos” (season three) — This classic, convoluted mindbender has more than a few strengths, but one of the most memorable is the effortless way Landau cons two villains who have never met in person—menacing Steve Ihnat and unconfident Ed Asner—by serially impersonating them to each other.
2.“The Reluctant Dragon” (season one) — Another episode where Rollin pretty much runs the show, and wherein Landau reveals a glimpse of the real person behind the role-playing spy. This is one of a number of season one experiments that showcases Rollin Hand’s personality as well as his acting prowess—”A Spool There Was,” “Elena,” and “Zubrovnik’s Ghost” are others—but this is among the more successful, airing right around the time that Landau was more or less taking over as the show’s true male lead.
1.“The Execution” (season three) — This brutal mission of persuasion manipulates a villain onto death row in order to pressure him into testifying against his boss. The IMF’s tactics, orchestrated by writers William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter to demonstrate the cruelties of the death penalty, involve setting up Rollin as the villain’s fellow inmate. Thanks to Landau’s vulnerable, raw performance, “Joey” cracks unforgettably, in arguably the actor’s most convincing moment in the series.

Rest in peace, Mr. Landau, and thanks for all the memories.

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