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You'd be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely movie star than slope-shouldered Walter Matthau, who started stealing pictures the minute he appeared on screen as a supporting actor, and cajoled audiences into loving him throughout his storied career. The roles may have gotten bigger, but Matthau always approached his work as if he was just another Joe who was somehow allowed to appear in a high-stakes Hollywood movie. "I don't look like an actor," Matthau once said. "I could be anyone from a toilet attendant to a business executive. People either ask me, 'Are you a television actor?,' or else 'Are you from Erie, Pennsylvania?'"
Onionhead (1958), which stars Andy Griffith as a love-struck member of the Coast Guard, features Matthau in one of his earliest comic roles. In theory, the film was meant to take advantage of the steam generated by Griffith's well-received turn in No Time for Sergeants (1958). But Onionhead's script isn't all that it could be, and Matthau chews the scenery with enough basset-hound appeal to overwhelm the rest of the cast.
Griffith plays Al Woods, a college student-lothario who decides to join the Coast Guard when he starts having problems with his girlfriend (Erin O'Brien). The ship that he's assigned to, which is populated by the usual cross-cultural crew of misfits, is also home to "Red" Wildoe (Matthau), a grumpy cook with a particularly enticing girlfriend named Stella (Felicia Farr). When Al and flirty Stella hook up, the expected sparks fly, but the real reason to watch is Matthau's majestic sense of comic timing.
At this point in his career, Matthau still made regular guest appearances on various TV shows, and garnered most of his praise via the Broadway stage. Shortly after co-starring in Onionhead, he returned to the Great White Way, where he won a second New York Drama Critics Award for his work in Harry Kurnitz's comedy, Once More with Feeling. But Matthau would finally focus solely on film work. Among other things, the bigger paychecks enabled him to indulge in his lifelong passion for gambling.
However, Matthau's mother, who raised her son in poverty, never really believed that their financial struggle was over. "I got my mother out of a tenement in New York and down to Florida," the actor later recounted. "Now my mother has a habit of stealing toilet paper from cafeterias. She goes to a cafeteria, has a cup of coffee, goes to the john, and steals the toilet paper." By the time she moved, Mrs. Matthau had collected "10 or 15 brown bags full" of paper. "I said, 'Mom, this is a new apartment, I don't want you stealing toilet paper, go out and buy some.'" Matthau then dumped the offending rolls into the bath tub and soaked them with water, much to his mother's chagrin. Angry, he went for a walk to cool off, only to return to find individual sheets of paper drying on the terrace.
Producer: Jules Schermer
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Nelson Gidding (based on a novel by Weldon Hill)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Editing: William H. Ziegler
Music: David Buttolph
Art Design: Leo K. Kuter
Costume Design: Howard Shoup
Principal Cast: Andy Griffith (Al Woods), Felicia Farr (Stella), Walter Matthau ("Red" Wildoe), Erin O'Brien (Jo Hill), Joe Mantell ("Doc" O'Neill), Ray Danton (Ensign Dennis Higgins), James Gregory ("Skipper"), Joey Bishop (Gutsell), Roscoe Karns ("Windy" Woods), Claude Akins (Poznicki), Ainslie Pryor (Chief Miller), Sean Garrison (Yeoman Kaffhamp).
by Paul Tatara