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With its release in 1993, Grumpy Old Men marked the return of the comedy pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Beginning with The Fortune Cookie (1966), hitting their stride with the seminal The Odd Couple (1968), and continuing with the underrated The Front Page (1974) and Buddy, Buddy (1981), Lemmon and Matthau established themselves as one of the premier comedy teams in film history. In the nine years since their last comic offering, each actor had enjoyed some success on his own - Lemmon with a powerfully dramatic turn in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), Matthau stealing scenes from Robin Williams in the comedy The Survivors (1983) - but nothing like the chemistry produced by their on-screen performances in The Odd Couple. As Matthau mused, "Every actor looks all his life for a part that will combine his talents with his personality. The Odd Couple was mine. That was the plutonium I needed. It all started happening after that." Grumpy Old Men, the tale of two codgers in a lifelong rivalry exacting daily revenge upon each other, ignited the Lemmon/Matthau spark once again, delighting old fans while creating new ones.
Supported by a stellar cast including Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ossie Davis, and Daryl Hannah, Grumpy Old Men categorically owed its runaway hit status to its two leading men. In a 1996 interview, Matthau quickly circumvented any self-congratulatory talk and declares the secret of the film's success: "Because it was about a couple of guys in the Midwest, snapping at each other, calling each other names, looking forward to that every day." For all their onscreen barbs, the duo was relaxed and fun-loving behind the scenes.
In a 2001 Larry King Live interview, Ann-Margret recalled an anecdote about the recently-deceased Matthau during the filming of Grumpy: "...it was so wonderful to see his relationship with Jack, you know. Just really concerned about each other, and I've got a picture of them and Jack doesn't know this. It's so cute. It's the sun and the snow and that goofy hat that Walter always wore and here they are in their director's chairs, and they're both taking a snooze in the sun. It's so cute."
On location in Minnesota, the film suffered a couple of mishaps during shooting. In her 1994 autobiography My Story, Ann-Margret tells of a snow ride with Lemmon gone awry: "As I drove Jack on the back of my snowmobile, I took an icy turn very fast and careened into a steel Dumpster. Worried about losing Jack, I clung to the bike as if my life depended on it. I desperately looked around for Jack. Then someone told me that he'd bailed out far back and was fine. I nursed a broken wrist for a while. But no big deal. Life goes on." Matthau, on the other hand, waited until the wrap for his misfortune; he was hospitalized with double pneumonia shortly after filming ended. He would suffer another run-in with the illness in the late 1990s before finally succumbing in July 2000. Lemmon would die just four days short of a year later; he was buried near his friend "Waltz" in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. The eternal jokester, Lemmon's headstone reads, "Jack Lemmon -- In."
Grumpy provided the two actors with not only a return to form, but a box office validation of their efforts. In the new 2006 biography, A Twist of Lemmon, son Chris Lemmon comments, "I remember seeing Pop after the success of Grumpy, and I sensed immediately that it seemed like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Not only had this movie put him and Walter back on the map, it was the first big commercial hit for Pop in a while as well, and in a profession as perilous as acting, where there are no guarantees (except, of course, that you'll probably fail), this was a blessed event, one that allowed Pop to sit back and relax a little." One imagines Matthau as more nonplussed; after all, the lifelong friends enjoyed a yin-yang acting relationship. As Grumpy producer John Davis noted, "Where Walter was irascible and funny and mean and challenging, Jack was just always laughing at Walter's jokes and being sweet and lovable." But as one of the only two true experts on the subject, Lemmon eloquently declared, "It was a very unusual relationship right off the bat, the very first day, because it clicked so totally and easily there was just nothing to it." And Matthau? No comment. After all, this is the man who wanted to be a pharmacist when he grew up.
Producer: Richard C. Berman, John Davis, Dan Kolsrud
Director: Donald Petrie
Screenplay: Mark Steven Johnson
Cinematography: Johnny E. Jensen
Film Editing: Bonnie Koehler
Art Direction: Mark Haack
Music: Irving Berlin, Felix Bernard, R. Bush, Rudy Clark, Richard Fairbrass, Rob Manzoli, Frank Marocco, Thomas Newman, Jack Owens, Arthur Resnick, Alan Silvestri, Frankie Yankovic
Cast: Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Ann-Margret (Ariel Truax), Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson), Daryl Hannah (Melanie), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman).
by Eleanor Quin