It had been 18 years since Martin Landau worked for Tim Burton. But when the director who gave Landau his Oscar-winning role (in "Ed Wood") wrote him with another offer, Landau didn't hesitate.
"He sent me a letter, a little picture of the character, a script, and I was on the phone in an instant. 'Let's GO.' Within a week we were in a recording studio, working out this guy."
Burton began his career with homages to his idol, Vincent Price, in works that paid tribute to the classic horror films of the past.
Landau, who vividly re-created the horror legend Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood," takes on a Price-like role in "Frankenweenie," Burton's feature-length remake of a stop-motion animated short film that he did in the 1980s. In the animated remake, Landau voices a Slavic-accented science teacher who inspires a science-minded boy, Victor, to try and bring his beloved dog, Sparky, back to life.
"He's the catalyst of this story," Landau says. "He sends Victor off on this quest. Mr. Rzykruski is wonderfully eccentric, too. Outspoken, rude. I can't imagine him lasting more than a month or so at any school he'd be allowed to teach in. Even though he's an inspiring teacher, one who can reach the kids, implant what he loves in those kids, he's got to be the most undiplomatic human being on the planet.
"He insults the parents! You can't call parents 'stupid,' even if they are.
"I think he sees in Victor himself as a young man."
The screenplay has Mr. Rzykruski defiantly upbraiding parents who would fire him because they "fear" and are "ignorant" of science, a message Landau relished delivering.
"He has little tolerance for fools, for people who fear science. We can be naive and underinformed in so many areas, and he's making an argument for science education, which will raise our standing among the rest of the world's students. Pitiful. We used to take pride in that. Now, we've fallen down the totem pole a ways."
The film's adoring reviews have fixed on this message, with Variety's Justin Chang praising the character's and the film's appreciation of "the beauty and mystery of science, and the ways it can be abused or misunderstood by the small-minded."
The never-retiring Landau, 84, is a gifted mimic and one of Hollywood's legendary raconteurs. He can flip through killer impersonations -- of Alfred Hitchcock, his "North by Northwest" director, to James Mason (his co-star in that film) or Peter Falk. He has an ear for "the music of dialects," he says, and enjoyed searching for another shade of Eastern European to voice for Mr. Rzykruski.
"There's no Bela Lugosi in it. The script said very clearly that he was 'European,' but 'not Hungarian, not Russian, not German.' It kept emphasizing who he wasn't. I kind of made up this Slavic-sounding accent which I called Slobovian. He's from Slobovia. Where the Slobs come from."
So, it's Landau's tribute to the late cartoonist Al Capp, who introduced Slobovia in his "Lil' Abner" comic strip?
"I don' know thees Al Capp," Landau purrs, reviving Mr. Rzykruski one more time. "But ees easy to becoooooome Mr. Rzykruski, yaaaaas? His voice eeees sooo me-uuuuuuuu-sical."