Though the types of characters they portrayed were different, James Dean and Martin Landau became friends almost from first sight. Both the farm kid from Fairmont, Indiana, and the political cartoonist from New York City aspired to become serious actors in the city that could either spell fame or disappointment.
Dean graduated from high school in 1949 where his love for the theatre was fostered by his drama teacher, Adeline Nall, who recognized his gift and encouraged him pursuing a career in acting. Landau was three years older and had been working as a political cartoonist for New York Daily News since he was 17 but wanted more.
After high school, Dean moved to California to live with his father and stepmother where he attended college and further developed his acting skills at UCLA, and he received several minor roles in pictures such as Fixed Bayonets and Sailor Beware. Dean’s stay on the west coast was short lived though he was mentored by James Whitmore and others.
He moved to New York City in the early 1950’s where he was admitted to Lee Strassberg’s prestigious The Actors Studio whose alumni would later include Marlon Brando, Eli Wallach, Martin Landau and Steve McQueen. Dean and future Giant co-star, Carol Baker, were the only applicants selected in 1952 while Landau and McQueen were the only two admitted in 1955. Dean did not like Strassberg’s constant pushing him and left after one year. He continued to appear in television and theatrical productions in New York, the most notable of which was The Immoralist which landed his role in East of Eden.
Dean and Landau became good friends and partied around New York City in the early 1950’s while honing their craft in small roles. They would often take Dean’s motorcycle and ride around the Big Apple having a good time and enjoying life. In a 1988 article in the New York Times, Landau elaborated on their antics that included the time their motorcycle broke down and they took it to be repaired in a shop where Steve McQueen was working. He goes on say that fellow Hoosier McQueen was envious of Dean’s success in landing television parts. All three, of course, soon moved to Hollywood where they achieved success. Dean would become known as the rebellious youth while Landau would be cast more as a character actor of many talents from the thug, Leonard, in North by Northwest, to Rollin Hand in Mission Impossible, to his academy award winning role as Bella Lugosi in Ed Wood.
All of this serves as a backdrop to a recent collection acquisition by the Indiana Historical Society from the estate of Martin Landau pertaining to his relationship with Dean. The centerpiece of this short collection are two letters regarding Dean’s death. The first is a rough draft of a letter of condolence written by Landau to his aunt and uncle, Marcus and Orteuse Winslow, and his father, Winton. The Winslows raised Dean after the death of his mother from cancer in 1940. The second letter was from his aunt to Landau thanking him for his letter. Both letters reveal the close relationship between the two friends.
Landau regrets how he was unable to go home with Dean to meet them in November 1953, and how pleased he was being able to take Dean home to New York to meet his parents. According to Landau, Dean was one of his best friends in New York and what a shock and feeling of unbelief that he is gone.
Mrs. Winslow replies on 6 November that she had received about two hundred letters of condolence and how much she treasured his and invited him to come visit them. She also enclosed two special editions of Fairmont News from October 1955, commemorating his life (also in the collection). She closes by saying that Dean’s second picture, Rebel Without A Cause, would be premiering in Marion that day and expresses the mixed emotions of needing to see it, but not being sure if she is emotionally able.