Thursday, December 23, 2010
Steve Landesberg, International Man of Mystery
Of all the things that were said to me in high school, the one that I probably felt best about was when Wayne Martin, who was sort of our Reggie Mantle with a little Eddie Haskell thrown in, told me that I reminded him of Dietrich, the geek-hipster police detective played by the comedian Steve Landesberg on Barney Miller. I'm pretty sure it wasn't intended as a compliment, but I always liked Landesberg, who had a dry as dust delivery and a faint smile that could seem abrasively hostile or sweetly complicitous, depending pretty much entirely on who he was pointing it at. As Dietrich, his specialty was to go off on some random tangent about a subject, ranging from obscure scientific theories to the Three Stooges, about which he appeared to have encyclopedic knowledge and to regard with theoretical density. For a few seconds, he could pull in someone who, a minute earlier, had been staring at him with absolute incomprehension, as if casting a spell over him. Then, somehow, he'd pull the rug out from under everything he'd just said, and amble off, smiling. Even in the one scene that I remember where he appeared to be opening u and inviting sympathy from the other characters and the audience, admitting that he doesn't understand why "I just alienate people", he was setting up someone so he could deliver a snapper. He made living on the outside look like a hoot and a half.
Landesberg seemed to come out of nowhere on that show, and after it ended, he seemed to go back there, at least partway. Every few years, I'd catch sight of him--in an unreleased movie that went into heavy rotation on Comedy Central, as a defense lawyer on Law & Order-- and it was always a shock. From what little information I managed to come across during his moderate-high-profile era, he was regarded as a genius in comedy circles but also a strange, flaky guy who didn't like to work any more than he had to, a neat trick if you want to leave people wondering forever about the unreached limits of your potential. The first reports of his death were as sketchy as anything about him, but tended to at least agree that he was 65. His New York Times obituary has now been amended: it turns out that he was 74, but that he shaved off nine years (because, his daughter says, he “got kind of a late start in show business" and "tried to straddle the generations"--and, in the Wikipedia age, somehow managed to keep them shaved off to the end of his life. Which is sort of perfect.