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.
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).
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, http://www.cnn.com (October 29, 2001).
"Walter Matthau," Mr. Showbiz, http://mrshowbiz.go.com (October 29, 2001).