100 Years of Walter Matthau

A celebration today of the great character actor Walter Matthau (1920-2000).

Matthau grew up on the Lower East Side, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. One of his jobs as a teenager had been working the box office at a Yiddish theatre. After service on bomber planes in World War Two, he returned to New York and began to study acting with Erwin Piscator at the New School (the same guy who taught Judith Malina — boy did they go in two different directions!). He began to get supernumerary parts on stage and television in the late 1940s.

Bigger stage and screen roles came to Matthau starting in the ’50s. Earlier stage successes included a 1955 revival of Guys and Dolls (as Nathan Detroit), the original 1955 production of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and A Shot in the Dark (1961), which was later adapted into a Pink Panther movie. Matthau recieved a Tony for his performance in this stylish thriller. The 1963 movie Charade was in a similar vein and one thinks of it as a partial breakthrough in terms of his persona. While we cherish Matthau above all as a comic actor (that punim!) it took well over a decade for that element to explode out of him. Many of his earlier films cast him as villains, seedy agents, weary cops, and the like. He’s okay in these roles, but they seemed to only partially tap into his gifts. These early films include Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1957), King Creole (1958) with Elvis Presley, Gangster Story (1959, which he also directed), and Fail Safe (1964). And lots and lots of television guest shots.

The original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (1965) was Matthau’s epic career breakthrough. It was a smash hit, he won his second Tony for creating the role of Oscar Madison, then went on to co-star in the 1968 screen version with Jack Lemmon as a follow up to their pairing in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie the previous year. And this is when Matthau the comic genius starts to emerge. His relationship with Simon’s works was especially fruitful, in such vehicles as Plaza Suite (1971), The Sunshine Boys (1975), California Suite (1978), and I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982). His role as an old man in Kotch (1971), directed by Lemmon, surely was one of the factors in getting him cast as an old vaudevillian in The Sunshine Boys. Matthau, Lemmon, and Wilder reuinited for the 1974 remake of The Front Page and for Buddy, Buddy (1981), which proved to be Wilder’s last movie. Other “Peak Matthau” to my mind would include A New Leaf (1971) with Elaine May, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) his scene stealing cameo in Earthquake (1974), The Bad News Bears (1976), House Calls (1978, which, like The Odd Couple, later became a hit sit com), and if you out a gun to my head, I suppose the Grumpy Old Men pictures (1993, 1995) which reunited him with Lemmon and Ann-Margret (his co-star from I Ought to Be in Pictures).

As for Middling Matthau: he played Doc, the former William Powell role, in Ensign Pulver, the 1964 sequel to Mister Roberts starring Robert Walker Jr. He was in the late ’60s comedies A Guide for the Married Man (1967), The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968), Candy (1968) and Cactus Flower (1968) and was in the 1969 screen version of Hello Dolly. In 1972 he starred opposite Carol Burnett in Pete ‘n’ Tillie and was in a tv adaptation of Odet’s Awake and Sing. He was the voice of Ebeneezer Scrooge in the animated Rankin-Bass holiday special The Stingiest Man in Town (1978). Hopscotch (1980) was a comedy that tweaked the kind of spy characters Matthau had played in Charade (1963) and Mirage (1965). Also in 1980 he produced and acted in a remake of Damon Runyon’s Little Miss Marker, reminding us that he’d played Nathan Detroit onstage a quarter century earlier. Michael Ritchie’s The Survivors paired him with Robin Williams, a symbolic meeting of generations. He played one of his most outre roles (“Captain Red”) in Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986). In the 1993 screen adaptation of Dennis the Menace he was ingeniously cast as Mr. Wilson. I’m sure Judd Hirsch was not pleased when Matthau got his role in the 1996 screen version of I’m Not Rappaport. The Odd Couple II (1998) would have been a downright sad note to go out on. Fortunately his last project proved to be Hanging Up (2000) directed by and starring Diane Keaton, written by Nora Ephron, based in her sister Delia’s novel. In either case, not with a bang but a whimper.

Some odds and ends. Matthau’s second wife was Carol Marcus, the ex of William Saroyan. In real life he was a hard-core opera lover. In some of his roles you can catch him whistling some classical theme. (Perhaps he should have played Felix instead of Oscar!) And, according to major directors like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, he was an extremely difficult actor to wrangle. But maybe he just didn’t like Nichols and May!

A heart attack was what took Matthau away from us at the age of 79. It was not his first one. He’d had one on the set of The Fortune Cookie in 1966. Thus you could say that his peak career as a comic actor was bookended by heart attacks. I don’t know why, but there’s something kinda Neil Simon about that.