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Walter Matthau Profile
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Walter Matthau Profile
* Films in Bold Type Air on 8/11

Walter Matthau was an unlikely movie star. Stooped-shouldered and with a hang-dog face, his talent kept him in demand as an actor long after his handsome contemporaries were forgotten. He created an indelible film character - a rumpled, grouchy, anti-hero with the proverbial heart of gold. Or if he didn't have a heart of gold, we wanted him to.

Matthau made up stories so often that family and friends, as well as interviewers, never knew when he was pulling their leg, so details of his early life are questionable. He once said his mother was a gypsy and his father (or grandfather) was an "Orthodox priest in Czarist Russia, who was removed after he claimed that the Pope was infallible". According to his official website,, among the tall tales he told about himself were that "he was in line of succession to the throne of England...his grandmother was a Chinese stowaway (he claimed that is how his family ended up in America)...his father was a jewel thief and Russian spy." The truth was not so exotic. His parents were impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants. He also claimed that his real name was Walter Matuschanskayasky, but it was actually Walter Matthow. (When registering with the Social Security Administration in 1937, he listed his middle name as "Foghorn" and continued to use it for the rest of his life). What we do know is that he was born on October 1, 1920, in New York City and grew up on the Lower East Side in a series of cold water flats that the family often abandoned when they couldn't pay the rent. Matthau's father had run out on the family when Walter was a small child, and his mother became a garment worker to support Walter and his older brother, Henry. In a rare serious moment, he once remembered making his worried mother laugh by impersonating the landlord demanding the rent.

Among the occupations he was supposed to have held as a young man were: soft drink seller, boxing coach for the police, Montana forester, gym instructor for the WPA (Works Progress Administration, a public works program during the Depression), and performer in the Yiddish theater, for which he was paid fifty cents per performance. During World War II, he served under Lt. Jimmy Stewart in the Army Air Corps, acting as radio cryptographer in a bomber plane. He received six battle stars and left the service as a sergeant.

Back in the States, he attended the Columbia University School of Journalism and the New School for Social Research's "Dramatic Workshop" program, where fellow students included Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis and Harry Guardino. Matthau got his first role on Broadway as an understudy in Rex Harrison's 1948 production of Anne of the Thousand Days. The 28-year-old Matthau's role was an 83 year-old English bishop.

By 1951 he had received the New York Drama Critics' Award for Twilight Walk and was appearing frequently on television in programs like The Motorola Television Hour, Lux Video Theater, Mr. Peepers, Suspense, Studio One, and The United States Steel Hour to name only a few. His first film role was in the 1955 film The Kentuckian which was quickly followed by Bigger Than Life (1956), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), and King Creole (1958). Matthau played comedic and dramatic roles, good guys and bad, in westerns, gangster, and contemporary films. There were also more stage roles, including A Shot in the Dark (for which he won a 1962 Tony Award as Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic)), and in 1965 a Best Actor (Dramatic) Tony for The Odd Couple, of which he said, "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."

1966 was a busy year for Walter Matthau and it was almost his last. During filming of The Fortune Cookie, his first film success, his first film with Jack Lemmon, and his first Academy Award nomination (and only win for Best Supporting Actor); he suffered his first heart attack. As his website says, "Walter was not expected to live beyond 1966. Every birthday was a victory that only those closest to him could fully appreciate." A heavy smoker and plagued by a chronic gambling problem (he claimed he lost over $5 million gambling and while acting on the stage, "I always had one ear offstage, listening for the call from the bookie."). At his doctor's insistence he quit smoking, began walking five miles a day and tried to cut down on the gambling. Despite serious health problems, including heart surgery, cancer and pneumonia, he astounded his family and his doctors by continuing his career for another three decades.

In 1968 he recreated his stage role in The Odd Couple co-starring with Lemmon, who became his closest friend and with whom he eventually made ten films, including Kotch (1971) which Lemmon directed and which also earned Matthau an Academy Award nomination. Lemmon once said, "The biggest problem, and the only problem, I have working with Walter, who is a great actor, is that I have a great deal of difficulty not laughing."

Matthau seemed to be everywhere for the next three decades, having made the unusual transition from character actor to leading man, romancing actresses on-screen like Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower (1969), being pursued by Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly! (1969), pursuing heiress Elaine May in A New Leaf (1971) and arguing with Jill Clayburgh in First Monday in October (1981). He was the coach of a foul-mouthed Little League team in The Bad News Bears (1976), co-starred in a remake of The Front Page(1974), again with Jack Lemmon; and earned another Academy Award nomination for his role as the irascible ex-Vaudevillian Willie Clark in The Sunshine Boys (1975). In typical Matthau-fashion, he brushed off praise for his performance by claiming he was just imitating his mother. It could be true, but knowing Matthau, one can never tell. He was not a man to brag of his accomplishments and he was often the butt of his own jokes. Describing his bad health he once said, "My doctor gave me six months to live, and then, when I couldn't pay the bill, he gave me six months more."

Age and bad health began to slow down his career by the late 1990s but not before he and Jack Lemmon had once again topped the box office charts with films like Grumpy Old Men (1993), Out to Sea (1997) and The Odd Couple II (1998). His last film was Diane Keaton's Hanging Up (2000) in which he played the dying father of Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow. Matthau was able to do some interviews in support of the film but shortly after had a fatal heart attack. He died on July 1, 2000 at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He was 79 and had outlived his doctors' expectations by nearly 35 years. He was survived by his second wife and his three children. Jack Lemmon summed it up best when he said, "I have just lost someone I've loved as a brother, as my closest friend and a remarkable human being. We have also lost one of the best damn actors we'll ever see."

by Lorraine LoBianco

The Internet Movie Database

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