Nationality: American. Born: Walter Matuschanskayasky (some sources say Matasschanskayasky) in New York City, 1 October 1920. Education: Attended the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop under Irwin Piscator. Military Service: U.S. Air Force as a radioman-gunner, 1942–45. Family: Married 1) Grace Johnson, 1948 (divorced 1958), one son and daughter; 2) Carol Marcus Saroyan, 1959, one son: the director Charles Matthau. Career: Worked as a child actor in the New York Yiddish theater; made professional adult stage debut, 1946; worked in summer stock and on Broadway, 1948; later stage work includes roles in Once More , with Feeling , 1958, A Shot in the Dark , 1962, and The Odd Couple , 1965; made film debut in The Kentuckian, 1955; appeared in the TV series Tallahassee 7000, 1959; directed the film Gangster Story, 1960. Awards: Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for The Fortune Cookie , 1966; Best Actor British Academy Award, for Pete 'n' Tillie and Charley Varrick , 1973; Best Motion Picture Actor-Musical/Comedy Golden Globe, for The Sunshine Boys, 1975; American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, 1997. Died: Santa Monica, California, of a heart attack, 1 July 2000.
The Kentuckian (Lancaster) (as Sam Bodine); The Indian Fighter (De Toth) (as Wes Todd)
Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray) (as Wally Gibbs)
A Face in the Crowd (Kazan) (as Mel Miller); Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (Laven) (as Al Dahlke)
King Creole (Curtiz) (as Maxie Fields); Voice in the Mirror (Keller) (as Dr. Leon Karnes); Onionhead (Taurog) (as Red Wildoe); Ride a Crooked Trail (Hibbs) (as Judge Kyle)
Strangers When We Meet (Quine) (as Felix Andrews)
Lonely Are the Brave (Miller) (as Sheriff Johnson); Who's Got the Action? (Daniel Mann) (as Tony Gagoots)
Island of Love (De Costa) (as Tony Dallas); Charade (Donen) (as Hamilton Bartholomew/Carson Dyle)
Ensign Pulver (Logan) (as Doc); Fail-Safe (Lumet) (as Groeteschele); Goodbye Charlie (Minnelli) (as Sir Leopold Sartori)
Mirage (Dmytryk) (as Ted Caselle)
The Fortune Cookie (Wilder) (as Willie Gingrich)
A Guide for the Married Man (Kelly) (as Paul Manning)
The Odd Couple (Saks) (as Oscar Madison); The Secret Life of an American Wife (Axelrod) (as Movie Star "Charlie"); Candy (Marquand) (as Gen. Smight)
Hello, Dolly! (Kelly) (as Horace Vandergelder); Cactus Flower (Saks) (as Julian Winston)
A New Leaf (May) (as Henry Graham); Plaza Suite (Hiller) (as Sam Noah/Jesse Kiplinger/Roy Hubley); Kotch (Lemmon) (title role)
Pete 'n' Tillie (Ritt) (as Pete)
Charlie Varrick (Siegel) (title role); The Laughing Policeman ( An Investigation of Murder ) (Rosenberg) (as Jake Martin)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Sargent) (as Garber); Earthquake (Robson) (as token drunk); The Front Page (Wilder) (as Walter Burns)
The Sunshine Boys (Ross) (as Willy Clark); The Gentleman Tramp (Patterson—doc) (as narrator)
The Bad News Bears (Ritchie) (as Morris Buttermaker)
House Calls (Zieff) (as Dr. Charley Nichols); Casey's Shadow (Ritt) (as Lloyd Bourdell); California Suite (Ross) (as Marvin Michaels)
Little Miss Marker (Bernstein) (as Sorrowful Jones); Hopscotch (Neame) (as Miles Kendig); Portrait of a 60 Perfect Man (Trescot—doc) (as himself)
First Monday in October (Neame) (as Dan Snow); Buddy Buddy (Wilder) (as Trabucco)
I Ought to Be in Pictures (Ross) (as Herbert Tucker)
The Survivors (Ritchie) (as Sonny Paluso)
Movers and Shakers (Asher) (as Joe Mulholland)
Pirates (Polanski) (as Capt. Thomas Bartholomew Red)
The Couch Trip (Ritchie) (as Donald Becker); Il piccolo diavolo ( The Little Devil ) (Benigni) (as Maurice)
The Incident (Sargent—for TV) (as Harmon Cobb)
Visitor (Newman); JFK (Stone) (as Sen. Russell Long); Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love (Charles Matthau—for TV) (as Clifford)
Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Harmon Cobb)
Dennis the Menace (Castle) (as Mr. Wilson); Grumpy Old Men (Petrie) (as Max Goldman)
Incident in a Small Town (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Harmon Cobb); I.Q. (Schepisi) (as Albert Einstein)
The Grass Harp (Charles Matthau) (as Judge Cool); Grumpier Old Men (Deutch) (as Max Goldman);
I'm Not Rappaport (Gardner) (as Nat Moyer)
Out to Sea (Coolidge) (as Charlie Gordon)
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (Kempner) (doc) (as himself); The Odd Couple II (Deutch) (as Oscar Madison); The Marriage Fool (Charles Matthau) (as Frank Walsh)
Hanging Up (Keaton) (as Lou Mozell)
Gangster Story (+ ro as Jack Martin)
"Rumpled Royalty" (excerpt from "The Player—III," New Yorker , 4 November 1961), interview with Lillian Ross, in New Yorker , 31 May 1993.
"Genius," interview with Karen Duffy, in Interview (New York), December 1994.
"Kids!" interview with H.C. Beck, in Interview (New York), Janu-ary 1996.
"An Interview with Walter Matthau," interview with E. May, in New Yorker , 25 November 1996.
Hunter, Allan, Walter Matthau , New York, 1984.
Current Biography 1966 , New York, 1966.
Eyles, Allen, "Walter Matthau," in Focus on Film (London), Spring 1972.
Photoplay (London), January 1981 and April 1982.
Rubinstein, Leslie, "One Fortunate Cookie," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July-August 1983.
Film Dope (London), March 1989.
Slodowski, Jan, "Walter Matthau," in Iluzjon (Warsaw), January-June 1990.
Parkinson, David, "A Grumpy Old Couple," in Radio Times (Lon-don), 3 May 1997.
* * *
Walter Matthau was one of the motion picture industry's solid, respected character actors. He has 70 films to his credit, commencing—after years of acting on the stage, where he honed his craft—with The Kentuckian and The Indian Fighter in 1955. He was at his beloved best playing comically persnickety characters, generally opposite Jack Lemmon, his longtime co-star.
Early in his career, Matthau displayed his versatility in roles as dissimilar as Mel Miller, the astutely perceptive writer who sees through the sham of cynically manipulative television personality Lonesome Rhodes, in A Face in the Crowd ; Maxie Fields, the crime boss who menaces Elvis Presley, in King Creole ; and Sheriff Johnson, the Western lawman who doggedly pursues Kirk Douglas, in Lonely Are the Brave . At this stage of his career, Matthau did some extraordinary work in otherwise slight, forgettable films. In the Audie Murphy Western Ride a Crooked Trail , he offers a spirited performance as a flamboyant, dipsomaniacal judge.
Matthau did not transcend his status as all-purpose character actor until, in an inspired bit of casting, he and Jack Lemmon played opposite each other in The Fortune Cookie . Matthau won an Oscar for his role as a crooked lawyer who fast-talks television cameraman Lemmon into an insurance fraud. In their best pairings, Lemmon and Matthau are cast as opposite character types who are contrasted to comic effect. Perhaps their best film is The Odd Couple , with its humor deriving from the disparate characters of slob-supreme Oscar Madison (a role which Matthau originated on Broadway) and fastidious neatnik Felix Ungar (Lemmon). Over the course of three-plus decades, Matthau and Lemmon became as famous a team as Tracy and Hepburn and Hope and Crosby. A Matthau-Lemmon-like relationship is the basis of the comedy in The Sunshine Boys , in which Matthau and George Burns play two cantankerous former vaudevillains induced into reuniting for a television show.
Matthau was at his funniest playing the gloriously ornery slob whom you might find sitting across a card table, with cigar in one hand and beer can in the other as he hangs out with his cronies. The comedy is derived from his characters' becoming involved in unlikely situations. In The Odd Couple , Matthau's Oscar Madison becomes the roommate of Felix Ungar. In The Bad News Bears , Matthau's Morris Buttermaker, another slob-supreme, is coerced into coaching a team of Little League misfits. In these films, he combines a sort of grouchy shiftiness with soul, wit, cunning, nonjudgmental forbearance, and obstinate persistence. Later on in his career, he caricatured this persnickety persona in Dennis the Menace , playing the forever-flustered Mr. Wilson.
He was also expert at playing drawing room comedy, cast in roles that in an earlier era would have been tailor-made for Spencer Tracy. In these films, Matthau effectively plays on the tensions between social coexistence and masculine awkwardness. Indeed, in First Monday in October , he and co-star Jill Clayburgh, playing Supreme Court justices with contrasting political philosophies, closely replicate a Tracy-Hepburn relationship. In Plaza Suite , he offers a tour de force playing three disparate roles, teamed with three different actresses: the jaded, adulterous husband of Maureen Stapleton; a Hollywood producer attempting to seduce ex-girlfriend Barbara Harris; and a father of the bride, married to Lee Grant. He also has played the older man who becomes a romantic object. In Hello, Dolly! , he is a brusque self-made man matrimonially targeted by Barbra Streisand. In Cactus Flower , he is a defensively overworked dentist targeted by Ingrid Bergman. In House Calls , he is a widowed doctor targeted by Glenda Jackson.
By the early 1970s, Matthau had become a top ten box-office star, quite an accomplishment for a craggy-faced actor with an unpolished gait and drooping posture, not to mention his trademark New York snarl. Lemmon, feeling that no film had really tapped Matthau's depths, directed him in Kotch , a humanistic comedy in which he plays an irascible grandfather put to pasture by his family. He also has appeared in several straight dramatic roles, as cops ( The Laughing Policeman , The Taking of Pelham One Two Three ), a stunt pilot-turned-luckless bank robber ( Charley Varick ), and an ex-CIA agent defying official embargoes on his memoirs ( Hopscotch ).
All-too-often, Matthau's late-career roles were comedies in which he was prone to self-caricature. In addition to playing Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace , he re-teamed with Lemmon in Grumpy Old Men. In the latter, the twosome play endlessly quarreling long-time friends who are senior citizen variations of The Odd Couple's Oscar and Felix. The film's success led to their pairing in a ho-hum follow-up, Grumpier Old Men, the idiotic Out to Sea, and the stale and needless Odd Couple II. Then in 2000 Matthau—looking every one of his eighty years—was cast in Hanging Up as the feisty, inconsiderate father of the film's three heroines.
Matthau's better late-career parts were roles as sage (rather than self-absorbed) senior citizens. In I.Q. , he brought warmth to his role as Albert Einstein, who plays matchmaker for his niece and a garage mechanic. In The Grass Harp , directed by his son Charles—who looks like a younger, leaner, less craggier version of his dad—he is a wizened, widowed retired judge who idles away his hours sitting in his small town's barbershop and drugstore. As the scenario progresses, he comes to share a deeply moving relationship with a gentle-souled maiden aunt. Here, Matthau displays his ability to play tender as well as persnickety, as his character talks of his late wife, and the meaning of love and how difficult and elusive it is to find. These sequences seem to be gifts that a devoted director-son would aspire to present to a beloved actor-father.
—Raymond Durgnat, updated by Rob Edelman