Matthau, Walter

views updated May 11 2018


Nationality: American. Born: Walter Matuschanskayasky (some sources say Matasschanskayasky) in New York City, 1 October 1920. Education: Attended the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop under Irwin Piscator. Military Service: U.S. Air Force as a radioman-gunner, 1942–45. Family: Married 1) Grace Johnson, 1948 (divorced 1958), one son and daughter; 2) Carol Marcus Saroyan, 1959, one son: the director Charles Matthau. Career: Worked as a child actor in the New York Yiddish theater; made professional adult stage debut, 1946; worked in summer stock and on Broadway, 1948; later stage work includes roles in Once More, with Feeling, 1958, A Shot in the Dark, 1962, and The Odd Couple, 1965; made film debut in The Kentuckian, 1955; appeared in the TV series Tallahassee 7000, 1959; directed the film Gangster Story, 1960. Awards: Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for The Fortune Cookie, 1966; Best Actor British Academy Award, for Pete 'n' Tillie and Charley Varrick, 1973; Best Motion Picture Actor-Musical/Comedy Golden Globe, for The Sunshine Boys, 1975; American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, 1997. Died: Santa Monica, California, of a heart attack, 1 July 2000.

Films as Actor:


The Kentuckian (Lancaster) (as Sam Bodine); The Indian Fighter (De Toth) (as Wes Todd)


Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray) (as Wally Gibbs)


A Face in the Crowd (Kazan) (as Mel Miller); Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (Laven) (as Al Dahlke)


King Creole (Curtiz) (as Maxie Fields); Voice in the Mirror (Keller) (as Dr. Leon Karnes); Onionhead (Taurog) (as Red Wildoe); Ride a Crooked Trail (Hibbs) (as Judge Kyle)


Strangers When We Meet (Quine) (as Felix Andrews)


Lonely Are the Brave (Miller) (as Sheriff Johnson); Who's Got the Action? (Daniel Mann) (as Tony Gagoots)


Island of Love (De Costa) (as Tony Dallas); Charade (Donen) (as Hamilton Bartholomew/Carson Dyle)


Ensign Pulver (Logan) (as Doc); Fail-Safe (Lumet) (as Groeteschele); Goodbye Charlie (Minnelli) (as Sir Leopold Sartori)


Mirage (Dmytryk) (as Ted Caselle)


The Fortune Cookie (Wilder) (as Willie Gingrich)


A Guide for the Married Man (Kelly) (as Paul Manning)


The Odd Couple (Saks) (as Oscar Madison); The Secret Life of an American Wife (Axelrod) (as Movie Star "Charlie"); Candy (Marquand) (as Gen. Smight)


Hello, Dolly! (Kelly) (as Horace Vandergelder); Cactus Flower (Saks) (as Julian Winston)


A New Leaf (May) (as Henry Graham); Plaza Suite (Hiller) (as Sam Noah/Jesse Kiplinger/Roy Hubley); Kotch (Lemmon) (title role)


Pete 'n' Tillie (Ritt) (as Pete)


Charlie Varrick (Siegel) (title role); The Laughing Policeman (An Investigation of Murder) (Rosenberg) (as Jake Martin)


The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Sargent) (as Garber); Earthquake (Robson) (as token drunk); The Front Page (Wilder) (as Walter Burns)


The Sunshine Boys (Ross) (as Willy Clark); The Gentleman Tramp (Patterson—doc) (as narrator)


The Bad News Bears (Ritchie) (as Morris Buttermaker)


House Calls (Zieff) (as Dr. Charley Nichols); Casey's Shadow (Ritt) (as Lloyd Bourdell); California Suite (Ross) (as Marvin Michaels)


Sunburn (Serafian)


Little Miss Marker (Bernstein) (as Sorrowful Jones); Hopscotch (Neame) (as Miles Kendig); Portrait of a 60 Perfect Man (Trescot—doc) (as himself)


First Monday in October (Neame) (as Dan Snow); Buddy Buddy (Wilder) (as Trabucco)


I Ought to Be in Pictures (Ross) (as Herbert Tucker)


The Survivors (Ritchie) (as Sonny Paluso)


Movers and Shakers (Asher) (as Joe Mulholland)


Pirates (Polanski) (as Capt. Thomas Bartholomew Red)


The Couch Trip (Ritchie) (as Donald Becker); Il piccolo diavolo (The Little Devil) (Benigni) (as Maurice)


The Incident (Sargent—for TV) (as Harmon Cobb)


Visitor (Newman); JFK (Stone) (as Sen. Russell Long); Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love (Charles Matthau—for TV) (as Clifford)


Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Harmon Cobb)


Dennis the Menace (Castle) (as Mr. Wilson); Grumpy Old Men (Petrie) (as Max Goldman)


Incident in a Small Town (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Harmon Cobb); I.Q. (Schepisi) (as Albert Einstein)


The Grass Harp (Charles Matthau) (as Judge Cool); Grumpier Old Men (Deutch) (as Max Goldman);


I'm Not Rappaport (Gardner) (as Nat Moyer)


Out to Sea (Coolidge) (as Charlie Gordon)


The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Kempner) (doc) (as himself); The Odd Couple II (Deutch) (as Oscar Madison); The Marriage Fool (Charles Matthau) (as Frank Walsh)


Hanging Up (Keaton) (as Lou Mozell)

Films as Director:


Gangster Story (+ ro as Jack Martin)


By MATTHAU: articles—

"Rumpled Royalty" (excerpt from "The Player—III," New Yorker, 4 November 1961), interview with Lillian Ross, in New Yorker, 31 May 1993.

"Genius," interview with Karen Duffy, in Interview (New York), December 1994.

"Kids!" interview with H.C. Beck, in Interview (New York), Janu-ary 1996.

"An Interview with Walter Matthau," interview with E. May, in New Yorker, 25 November 1996.

On MATTHAU: book—

Hunter, Allan, Walter Matthau, New York, 1984.

On MATTHAU: articles—

Current Biography 1966, New York, 1966.

Eyles, Allen, "Walter Matthau," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1972.

Photoplay (London), January 1981 and April 1982.

Rubinstein, Leslie, "One Fortunate Cookie," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July-August 1983.

Film Dope (London), March 1989.

Slodowski, Jan, "Walter Matthau," in Iluzjon (Warsaw), January-June 1990.

Parkinson, David, "A Grumpy Old Couple," in Radio Times (Lon-don), 3 May 1997.

* * *

Walter Matthau was one of the motion picture industry's solid, respected character actors. He has 70 films to his credit, commencing—after years of acting on the stage, where he honed his craft—with The Kentuckian and The Indian Fighter in 1955. He was at his beloved best playing comically persnickety characters, generally opposite Jack Lemmon, his longtime co-star.

Early in his career, Matthau displayed his versatility in roles as dissimilar as Mel Miller, the astutely perceptive writer who sees through the sham of cynically manipulative television personality Lonesome Rhodes, in A Face in the Crowd; Maxie Fields, the crime boss who menaces Elvis Presley, in King Creole; and Sheriff Johnson, the Western lawman who doggedly pursues Kirk Douglas, in Lonely Are the Brave. At this stage of his career, Matthau did some extraordinary work in otherwise slight, forgettable films. In the Audie Murphy Western Ride a Crooked Trail, he offers a spirited performance as a flamboyant, dipsomaniacal judge.

Matthau did not transcend his status as all-purpose character actor until, in an inspired bit of casting, he and Jack Lemmon played opposite each other in The Fortune Cookie. Matthau won an Oscar for his role as a crooked lawyer who fast-talks television cameraman Lemmon into an insurance fraud. In their best pairings, Lemmon and Matthau are cast as opposite character types who are contrasted to comic effect. Perhaps their best film is The Odd Couple, with its humor deriving from the disparate characters of slob-supreme Oscar Madison (a role which Matthau originated on Broadway) and fastidious neatnik Felix Ungar (Lemmon). Over the course of three-plus decades, Matthau and Lemmon became as famous a team as Tracy and Hepburn and Hope and Crosby. A Matthau-Lemmon-like relationship is the basis of the comedy in The Sunshine Boys, in which Matthau and George Burns play two cantankerous former vaudevillains induced into reuniting for a television show.

Matthau was at his funniest playing the gloriously ornery slob whom you might find sitting across a card table, with cigar in one hand and beer can in the other as he hangs out with his cronies. The comedy is derived from his characters' becoming involved in unlikely situations. In The Odd Couple, Matthau's Oscar Madison becomes the roommate of Felix Ungar. In The Bad News Bears, Matthau's Morris Buttermaker, another slob-supreme, is coerced into coaching a team of Little League misfits. In these films, he combines a sort of grouchy shiftiness with soul, wit, cunning, nonjudgmental forbearance, and obstinate persistence. Later on in his career, he caricatured this persnickety persona in Dennis the Menace, playing the forever-flustered Mr. Wilson.

He was also expert at playing drawing room comedy, cast in roles that in an earlier era would have been tailor-made for Spencer Tracy. In these films, Matthau effectively plays on the tensions between social coexistence and masculine awkwardness. Indeed, in First Monday in October, he and co-star Jill Clayburgh, playing Supreme Court justices with contrasting political philosophies, closely replicate a Tracy-Hepburn relationship. In Plaza Suite, he offers a tour de force playing three disparate roles, teamed with three different actresses: the jaded, adulterous husband of Maureen Stapleton; a Hollywood producer attempting to seduce ex-girlfriend Barbara Harris; and a father of the bride, married to Lee Grant. He also has played the older man who becomes a romantic object. In Hello, Dolly!, he is a brusque self-made man matrimonially targeted by Barbra Streisand. In Cactus Flower, he is a defensively overworked dentist targeted by Ingrid Bergman. In House Calls, he is a widowed doctor targeted by Glenda Jackson.

By the early 1970s, Matthau had become a top ten box-office star, quite an accomplishment for a craggy-faced actor with an unpolished gait and drooping posture, not to mention his trademark New York snarl. Lemmon, feeling that no film had really tapped Matthau's depths, directed him in Kotch, a humanistic comedy in which he plays an irascible grandfather put to pasture by his family. He also has appeared in several straight dramatic roles, as cops (The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), a stunt pilot-turned-luckless bank robber (Charley Varick), and an ex-CIA agent defying official embargoes on his memoirs (Hopscotch).

All-too-often, Matthau's late-career roles were comedies in which he was prone to self-caricature. In addition to playing Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace, he re-teamed with Lemmon in Grumpy Old Men. In the latter, the twosome play endlessly quarreling long-time friends who are senior citizen variations of The Odd Couple's Oscar and Felix. The film's success led to their pairing in a ho-hum follow-up, Grumpier Old Men, the idiotic Out to Sea, and the stale and needless Odd Couple II. Then in 2000 Matthau—looking every one of his eighty years—was cast in Hanging Up as the feisty, inconsiderate father of the film's three heroines.

Matthau's better late-career parts were roles as sage (rather than self-absorbed) senior citizens. In I.Q., he brought warmth to his role as Albert Einstein, who plays matchmaker for his niece and a garage mechanic. In The Grass Harp, directed by his son Charles—who looks like a younger, leaner, less craggier version of his dad—he is a wizened, widowed retired judge who idles away his hours sitting in his small town's barbershop and drugstore. As the scenario progresses, he comes to share a deeply moving relationship with a gentle-souled maiden aunt. Here, Matthau displays his ability to play tender as well as persnickety, as his character talks of his late wife, and the meaning of love and how difficult and elusive it is to find. These sequences seem to be gifts that a devoted director-son would aspire to present to a beloved actor-father.

—Raymond Durgnat, updated by Rob Edelman

Walter Matthau

views updated May 17 2018

Walter Matthau

For half a century Walter Matthau (1920-2000) delighted theater, television, and movie audiences with his portrayals of a huge variety of characters. Al though known best for his comedy, Matthau could play any kind of role from romantic lead to grouchy slob to Supreme Court justice. Matthau was memorable as an actor because his face, posture, and voice were always his own, yet he had the ability to create a completely believable character.

Off-screen, Matthau battled chronic gambling and health problems caused by smoking and an unhealthy diet. He loved to joke, and interviewers often had difficulty knowing what to believe when he spoke of his past. Friends and family adored him. His son Charlie, according to People Weekly, wrote in a Father's Day card, "You are a giant. The most loyal and patient husband, and as a father, a volcanic and infinite explosion of unconditional love, universal wisdom and a supernova of everything that is right and good in this world. Apart from that, however, I'm not very pleased with you!" On reading it, Matthau broke down and cried and then never mentioned it again.

Rough Beginnings

Walter Matthau was born on October 1, 1920, in New York City. According to his son, Charlie Matthau, speaking on "Larry King Live," on July 14, 2000, his real last name was spelled Matthow. Walter Matuschanskayasky, which he claimed was his real name, was made up to run in the credits of Earthquake (1974), so Matthau could get even for being tricked into a much larger part in the movie than he had wanted.

Matthau's Lithuanian seamstress mother, Rose, raised him alone in the mostly Jewish Lower East Side of New York. His father Milton, a former peddler from Kiev, Ukraine, became an electrician and then a process server. He abandoned Matthau and his older brother, Henry, when Matthau was a three-year-old. According to an article in People Weekly, Matthau ran a card game on the roof of his building when he was six years old. He sold refreshments at local Yiddish theaters and broke into acting when, at age 11, he got a small part in The Dishwasher. He played bit parts in Yiddish musical comedies while still selling refreshments during the intervals. He was paid 50 cents for each of his occasional parts. "I was shaped by the whole experience of the Depression," he stated in an interview with The San Francisco Examiner in 1996. "The humiliation of the competition in the theater, the humiliation of poverty." The Lower East Side "was a nightmare—a dreadful, horrible, stinking nightmare," he recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1971. After graduating from Seward Park High School, Matthau held government positions as a forester in Montana, a gym instructor for the Works Progress Administration, and a boxing coach for policemen.

From Bombs to Broadway

In 1942, Matthau enlisted in the United States Army Air Force as radio cryptographer in a heavy bomber unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps in Europe. He served as a radio operator and gunner in England, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany and won six battle stars. He spent three years in the service.

After leaving the army, he took some journalism courses at Columbia University and studied acting on the G.I. Bill at New York's New School for Social Research. He met actor Tony Curtis when they studied acting together in the late 1940s. Work in summer stock led to small parts on Broadway and television shows. Matthau's first role on Broadway was as an understudy for the part of an 83-year-old English bishop in Anne of the Thousand Days. By 1948 Matthau played regularly on Broadway. He made his first film appearance in 1955 in The Kentuckian, as a villain. Through the rest of the 1950s, he played bad guys and drunks in a variety of modest movies, including the Elvis Presley movie King Creole (1958) and a Western, Ride a Crooked Trail (1958).

Hello, Hollywood

David Ansen described Matthau's physique in a Newsweek article. "He was a cross between W. C. Fields and a bloodhound, poured into a stooped, 6-foot-3 frame. No Hollywood leading man has ever looked or sounded or shuffled like Walter Matthau: out of that craggy sourpuss face, with its seen-it-all eyes, came a growl of withering disdain that could stop any outburst of innocence in its tracks."

Matthau had a serious gambling habit. In the 1950s, he owed several hundred thousand dollars in gambling debts. His luck changed in 1955 when he got a part in the hit Broadway show Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He fell in love with a fellow cast member, actress Carol Marcus, the former wife of the writer William Saroyan. At the time, Matthau was married to Grace Johnson, whom he had wed in 1948 and with whom he had two children, David and Jenny. Matthau and Johnson divorced in 1958. He married Marcus in 1959, and the two had one son, Charlie. In her book Among the Porcupines Carol Matthau wrote of her husband, "To the outside world, he is casual, a man's man, funny, rude. … In actuality, he is the most passionate man I have ever known. He is the most tender, the most romantic, the most sensual."

Carol Matthau co-starred with her husband in Gangster Story (1960), which he directed and described as one of the worst movies ever made. He played a ship's doctor in Ensign Pulver (1964), a professor in Fail-Safe (1964), and a private detective in Mirage (1965). His part as the ambulance-chasing lawyer opposite his friend, actor Jack Lemmon, in The Fortune Cookie (1966) earned him his only Academy Award, for best supporting actor. Director Billie Wilder tailored the role of shyster lawyer "Whiplash Willie" for Matthau after seeing him play sportswriter slob Oscar Madison on Broadway in The Odd Couple. Matthau's true calling was comedy, although he disliked being labeled a comic actor. Describing his work habits, his wife noted, "I don't know of anyone who works that hard and yet seems never to work at all. He insists on maintaining his relaxed manner when he is working, in order to make the rest of the players feel more comfortable. That, too, is acting. It is not Walter. Walter is not a relaxed man."

Matthau recreated his Tony Award-winning Broadway role, which playwright Neil Simon created for him, in the movie version of The Odd Couple (1968). "Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality," Matthau said in an interview with Time in 1971. "The Odd Couple was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that."

In the 1970s, Matthau appeared in A New Leaf (1971), Pete 'n' Tillie (1972), and The Front Page (1974) and received Oscar nominations for Kotch (1971) and The Sunshine Boys (1975). Besides comedic roles, Matthau could successfully play a romantic leading man, a bank-robber hero, or even a horse trainer. Neil Simon praised him as "the greatest instinctive actor" he'd ever seen.

Although he worked throughout the 1980s, his films from this period were not memorable. In May 1993, Matthau was honored with a Lifetime's Achievement Award by America's National Association of Theatre Owners. The 1993 hit movie Grumpy Old Men (in which he starred once again with Lemmon) rejuvenated his career. Charlie Matthau, a filmmaker, directed his father in 1995's The Grass Harp. In his last film, Hanging Up, Matthau gave a powerful performance as a dying screenwriter. Charlie appeared in his father's last film as the younger version of his father's character. Matthau has appeared in a number of TV movies, including the Emmy-winning The Incident (1990) and Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love (1991), in which he was directed by his son.

Matthau described his versatility as an actor in a 1994 interview with Karen Duffy for Interview. "I could play a cop, I could play a crook, I could play a lawyer, I could play a dentist, I could play an art critic—I could play the guy next door. I am the guy next door. I could play Catholic, Jewish, Protestant. As a matter of fact, when I did The Odd Couple, I would do it a different way each night. On Monday I'd be Jewish, Tuesday Italian, Wednesday Irish-German—and I would mix them up. I did that to amuse myself, and it always worked." Describing how he did 20 takes of a scene in movie in which he had to cry, Matthau noted, "I wasn't thinking of the sadness, of my mother dying, of my child being run over by a car. I just did it! You gotta just do it, and it either comes or it doesn't. Because if you start thinking about it, it's too late."

Matthau believed that his true talent was performing in theater, rather than in films. "That's where I was good—on the stage," he said in an interview in 1996. "In the movies … passable. But on the stage I could move with freedom and ease. And I had something: presence. On screen, all the power is in the hands of the director or the editor."

Plagued by Ill Health

Matthau suffered his first heart attack in 1966, which caused him to quit smoking. It occurred during the filming of The Fortune Cookie. Production of the film had to stop for three months while he recuperated. Ten years later he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He had cancer three times. He spent two weeks in the hospital with pneumonia in May 1999, but made a full recovery. Matthau refused to be depressed about his health. "Even just rolling by in a stretcher, he would say 'Hi!' to the person rolling by in the other direction," says Delia Ephron, in an article in People Weekly. "He was in the hospital on a respirator for 24 or 26 weeks, and who walks out of a hospital after that? But he did. You knew he just loved every minute of every day."

Even with his poor health, Matthau did not intend to retire. In a 1995 interview with People Weekly he stated, "Some people retire and go fishing. If I retired, I'd go acting." Matthau died of a heart attack on July 1, 2000, at the age of 79.

A Simple Burial

"He wanted as little fuss made about it as possible, a simple burial in a plain pine casket," Charlie Matthau stated to an Associated Press reporter after his father's death. About 50 family members and close friends attended the service, where Matthau was buried according to Jewish law. He was laid to rest at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles. Noted his wife, "It was impossible not to love him."


Matthau, Carol, Among the Porcupines, Turtle Bay Books, 1992.

Saroyan, Aram, Trio: Oona Chaplin, Carol Matthau, Gloria Vanderbilt. Portraits of an Intimate Friendship, Linden Press, 1985.


Entertainment Weekly, January 5, 2001.

"Genius," Interview, December 1994.

Newsweek, July 10, 2000.

People Weekly, January 16, 1995; July 17, 2000.


"Actor Walter Matthau dies at 79," CNN, (October 29, 2001).

"Walter Matthau," Mr. Showbiz, (October 29, 2001). □

Matthau, Walter

views updated May 23 2018


(b. 1 October 1920 in New York City; d. 1 July 2000 in Santa Monica, California), comic character actor best known for playing grumpy old men in such movies as The Odd Couple (1966) and The Fortune Cookie (1967), playing alongside Jack Lemmon.

Matthau, who is listed in some sources with the surname Matthow or Matuschanskayasky, was the son of Jewish Russian immigrants. His father, Milton, was a street peddler in New York City, and his mother, Rose Berolsky, was a garment worker. After his father left the family, from the age of three Matthau lived with his mother and older brother Henry in a Ukrainian ghetto on New York's Lower East Side. He began acting at age eleven at the New York Yiddish Theater and also became a proficient boxer. After graduating from Seward Park High School he served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, receiving six battle stars, and then attended the New School's Dramatic Workshop on the GI Bill. He studied under Erwin Piscator, alongside Tony Curtis and Rod Steiger. Matthau was well known for misleading interviewers. He was fond of explaining that his father was a defrocked Russian Orthodox priest, while Matthau apparently invented the elaborate surname Matuschanskayasky in revenge for having been given more work than expected on the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake.

Matthau's acting career began with a part in an off-Broadway production of The Aristocrats in 1946 and continued when he was the understudy for the role of an octogenarian bishop in Anne of a Thousand Days on Broadway in 1948. He married Grace Johnson in 1948, and they had two children, but the couple divorced in 1958. In 1959 Matthau married Carol Marcus Saroyan, with whom he had a son, Charles, who is a film director. Matthau made his screen debut in The Kentuckian (1955) and by the late 1950s was combining regular stage appearances with minor character roles in movies. In particular he gave picture-stealing performances as villains in Westerns such as Ride a Crooked Trail (1958) and Lonely Are the Brave (1962). With his sagging, bloodhound face, Matthau always struggled to win leading roles on the stage or in movies, but by the 1960s he was an established Hollywood character actor. By 1965 he had appeared in more than twenty movies, 150 television shows, and twenty Broadway plays. Even so, he was in his late thirties before his name and his face became well known.

Interviewed in 1971, Matthau said, "Every actor looks for a part that will combine his talents with his personality." Disheveled sportswriter Oscar Madison was the part that did this for him. He first took the role in Neil Simon's play The Odd Couple on Broadway in 1965, winning a Tony Award for best actor and a New York Drama Critics' Award. The following year Matthau teamed up with Jack Lemmon for the first time in Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (1966), and the pair began an on-screen double act that became one of the most successful in movie history. After the success of the stage version of The Odd Couple, The Fortune Cookie was something of a return to Matthau's movie origins, in which he often played crooked lawyers. But this time, as an attorney who persuades his brother-in-law to fake a sports injury to win damages in a lawsuit, Matthau found himself alongside an actor who complimented his deadpan comic delivery to perfection. Reviews of the film were mixed, but Matthau won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, and the obvious chemistry between the two male leads made a repeat performance inevitable. He was nominated for Oscars twice more, for Kotch (1971), directed by Lemmon, and The Sunshine Boys (1975), in which he starred with George Burns.

The Matthau-Lemmon partnership surfaced for the second time in 1968, in the form of the movie version of The Odd Couple, probably Matthau's best-known film appearance. Reprising his part as Oscar Madison, Matthau slouches around the apartment he has agreed to share with his newly separated friend Felix Ungar, played by Lemmon. In the 1960s, as divorce rates rose, The Odd Couple provided sharp comic commentary on an increasingly common temporary domestic arrangement. As the plot progresses Oscar and Felix begin to argue incessantly about their living arrangements. Oscar is a disorganized slob, while Felix is excessively clean and tidy. At one point Oscar complains that Felix keeps leaving him reminder notes such as "We are all out of cornflakes, F.U." He explains, "It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar." While Oscar and Felix squabbled on screen, Matthau and Lemmon became close friends. After Matthau's death in 2000, Lemmon said, "I have lost someone I loved as a brother, a closest friend, and a remarkable human being. We have also lost one of the best damn actors we'll ever see."

In the 1960s Matthau and Lemmon formed one of the most enduring screen partnerships in movie history. They worked together many times between 1966 and Matthau's death in 2000, often revisiting their Odd Couple characters in all but name. Best known for playing irascible, obstinate slobs, Matthau was in fact a versatile actor, as appearances in Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964) and Edward Dmytryk's Mirage (1965) show. In Plaza Suite (1971) he convincingly played multiple characters.

A heavy smoker and gambler, Matthau suffered his first major heart attack in 1966, while making The Fortune Cookie, and estimated that he had gambled away over $5 million during his lifetime. Though generally good-humored, he was inclined to tell tall tales and to make life difficult for anyone he disliked. One of his favorite jokes was to speak to movie executives only in Yiddish. After appearing in over seventy films in his forty-five-year career, Matthau died at the Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, following a heart attack. He is buried at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

A full-length biography of Matthau is Allan Hunter, Walter Matthau (1984). Carol Matthau is candid about her life with Matthau in her book Among the Porcupines: A Memoir (1993). Allen Eyles, "Walter Matthau," Focus on Film (spring 1972) is also useful. Among the best interviews with Matthau is Karen Duffy, "Genius," Interview (1 Dec. 1994). Obituaries are in the Times (London) (3 July 2000) and Time (10 July 2000).

Chris Routledge

Matthau, Walter

views updated May 23 2018


MATTHAU, WALTER (1920–2000), U.S. actor. Born in New York to Russian immigrant parents, Matthau started out selling soft drinks and playing bit parts at a Yiddish theater at age 11. After graduating from Seward Park High School, he worked as a forester, gym instructor, and boxing coach for police officers. During World War ii he served on an Army Air Force bomber in Europe and returned home a sergeant with six battle stars. Afterwards he attended acting classes and performed on Broadway. Matthau appeared in more than a dozen Broadway plays, among them Anne of the Thousand Days (1949), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (1955), Once More, with Feeling (nominated for a Best Actor Tony, 1959), A Shot in the Dark (won a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor, 1962), and The Odd Couple (Best Actor Tony, 1965).

Matthau made his film debut in The Kentuckian in 1955 and from then acted in more than 40 films, including Gangster Story (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Charade (1963), Fail-Safe (1964), Goodbye, Charlie (1964), Mirage (1967), Hello Dolly! (1969), Cactus Flower (1971), A New Leaf (1972), Plaza Suite (1972), Charley Varrick (1973), Pete 'n Tillie (1974), The Laughing Policeman (1974), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Earthquake (1974), The Bad News Bears (1976), House Calls (1978), Hopscotch (1980), California Suite (1980), Little Miss Marker (1981), Pirates (1986), jfk (1991), Dennis the Menace (1993), i.q. (1994, as Albert Einstein), I'm Not Rapaport (1996), and Hanging Up (2000).

In 1966 Matthau won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role as "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich in The Fortune Cookie, co-starring with Jack Lemmon with whom he appeared in a number of films, including The Odd Couple (1968), The Front Page (1974), Buddy, Buddy (1981), Grumpy Old Men (1993), Grumpier Old Men (1995), and The Odd Couple ii (1998). Matthau was nominated twice for Best Actor Oscars, for his roles in Kotch (1971) and The Sunshine Boys (1975).

Matthau appeared in several tv movies, such as Awakeand Sing! (1972), The Incident (1990), Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love (1991), Incident in a Small Town (1994), and The Marriage Fool (1998).


R. Edelman and A. Kupferberg, Matthau: A Life (2002); C. Matthau, Among the Porcupines: A Memoir (1992); A. Hunter, Walter Matthau (1984).

[Jonathan Licht /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]