From the Archives: Walter Matthau, An Expert Actor Perfected Grumpy, Rumpled Roles

Walter Matthau
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “Grumpy Old Men.”
(Warner Bros.)
Special to The Times

Walter Matthau, the lovably grumpy comic actor with the hangdog face and gruff voice, died Saturday at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. He was 79.

Matthau was brought into the hospital in full cardiac arrest, a St. John’s spokeswoman said, and died at 1:42 a.m.

One of the few actors in Hollywood to successfully move from supporting roles as heavies and ethnic types to leading man, Matthau excelled at both comedy and drama in his career of more than 50 years. But it was the comic persona perfected in such movies as Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” opposite his frequent foil Jack Lemmon, for which he was best known.

Matthau and playwright Simon seemed perfectly suited for each other (“I talk the way he writes, and he writes the way I talk,” the actor once said), and he starred in several movie adaptations of Simon’s work, including “Plaza Suite” in 1971, “The Sunshine Boys” in 1975 and “California Suite” in 1978.


Matthau’s association with Simon began on the New York stage. Three years before he and Lemmon appeared as the slob Oscar Madison and the finicky Felix Unger, respectively, in the movie version of “The Odd Couple,” Matthau created the role of Madison on Broadway opposite Art Carney and won a Tony Award for best actor.

An inveterate gambler known for his private penchant for raunchy humor, Matthau is indelibly linked in the public’s mind with Lemmon, with whom he bickered and sparred in 10 movies, starting with “The Fortune Cookie” in 1966. Among their other pairings were “Grumpy Old Men” in 1993 and “Grumpier Old Men” in 1995, “Out to Sea” in 1997 and a sequel to “The Odd Couple” in 1998 in which Madison and Unger reunite after 30 years to travel to the wedding of their children. In addition, Lemmon directed Matthau in the 1971 film “Kotch,” the only movie on which Lemmon worked behind the camera.

“I have lost someone I loved as a brother, as a closest friend and a remarkable human being,” Lemmon said Saturday. “We have also lost one of the best damn actors we’ll ever see.”

Because of Matthau’s trademark rumpled look and droopy posture and the way his delivery modulated crankily between a growl and a bark, he often came across as a grumpy old man even when he was relatively young.


In those days, Matthau was self-conscious about his looks and relative lack of education, but he discovered that he had a way of getting audiences on his side.

“I did a great deal of brooding about myself,” Matthau told Lillian and Helen Ross in their 1962 book, “The Player: A Profile of an Art.” “I wasn’t handsome. I didn’t have good clothes. I used to wonder why people would hire me when they could get college graduates and Oxford scholars. Then it became apparent that when I got up on a stage, people actually wanted to look at me.”

The 1965 film “Mirage” gave Matthau one of his first big roles. The movie, which starred Gregory Peck, was a disorienting thriller, but Matthau stole the show with his portrayal of a determined yet deadpan private eye. To see the movie today is to marvel at how consistent the actor’s persona was through so many roles.

“He could just do anything and everything and just do it so well,” said A.C. Lyles, a longtime producer for Paramount Pictures and a friend of Matthau. “I think the thing he had above everything else was believability. Anything he did you believed. He did it with such ease. He didn’t seem to be putting out effort. It just came so natural for him.”

Never a conventional romantic idol, Matthau played out his stardom opposite some of Hollywood’s leading ladies and comics, including Barbra Streisand (“Hello, Dolly!”), Carol Burnett (“Pete ‘n’ Tillie”), Elaine May (“A New Leaf”), Ingrid Bergman (“Cactus Flower”) and Glenda Jackson (“House Calls” and “Hopscotch”).

Although what he did on screen often looked effortless, Matthau was a serious actor who spent years honing his craft on stage before turning to screen work.

“He was an extraordinary actor,” said Times film critic Kenneth Turan. “I think people forget that he was a really trained and very gifted actor, to which he added this natural sense of humor. He was one of those people that almost anything he said was funny.”

In an interview early in his career, Matthau spoke of the hard labor that went into creating a character, and of his preference for the theater.


“On the stage, you have a chance to work on a part and then to work on it some more,” he said. “Sometimes it takes me six months before I find out what a line means, even if the writing is superficial. . . . To do a play right, really, I’d like to take two years of rehearsal. You study the character by living with him.”

By contrast, acting for movies and television brought him little pleasure. “Working for the screen is almost like being in the Army,” he said. “You set your mind to it, and you do it.”

In that same 1962 interview, he talked about how much fun it was for him, as an actor, to mingle anonymously with people and study their behavior. “I never want to lead the sheltered, unmingling life,” he said. “I have too much fun being anonymous.”

By then Matthau had appeared on Broadway in such plays as “Guys and Dolls,” “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” and “A Shot in the Dark,” for which he won the first of his two Tony Awards. He also had been in a number of movies, including “A Face in the Crowd” and “Lonely Are the Brave” and on television programs such as “Playhouse 90" and “Studio One.” His anonymous days were over.

Walter Matthau with presenter Shelley Winters.
Walter Matthau with presenter Shelley Winters.
(AP Photo )

Best Supporting Actor

In 1966, he won the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as an unethical lawyer in Billy Wilder’s caustic comedy “The Fortune Cookie.” It was the first of three films he made with Wilder and the first movie he appeared in with Lemmon. Matthau also received best actor Oscar nominations for “Kotch” and “The Sunshine Boys.”

He was Wilder’s only choice to play the lawyer in “The Fortune Cookie.” A decade earlier, the director had tested Matthau for the male lead opposite Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch.”


“I was talked out of it by [20th Century Fox studio head Darryl] Zanuck, because they thought they had a pretty good actor [Tom Ewell] in the play in New York,” Wilder recalled Saturday. “We decided ultimately to abandon the idea of bringing [Matthau] out here from New York and having him playing opposite Marilyn Monroe. I always remembered that test I made with him, which was a remarkable test. . . . He was absolutely superb.

“I much regret that we will not see him anymore,” Wilder added. “He was a first-class man and a great human being.”

Matthau directed one movie, “The Gangster Story” (1960), in which he co-starred. He later described it as “the worst film ever made.”

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Matthau grew up on New York’s Lower East Side. As a boy he sold soft drinks and three-flavored ice bricks during intermission at Yiddish theaters on 2nd Avenue. “Then,” he recalled, “they put me on stage and gave me a couple of lines. I played an old lady in a crowd scene.”

But playing bit roles for 50 cents a performance didn’t immediately lead to a life in the theater. After graduating from high school, where he excelled in sports as well as drama, Matthau passed through a series of jobs as a filing clerk, boxing instructor, basketball coach, floor scrubber and cement bag handler. During World War II he served three years in the Air Force as a radio operator and cryptographer in the European theater.

Determined after the war to become an actor, Matthau enrolled at the renowned Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research and began appearing in summer stock productions. His first professional job was in 1946 in “Three Men on a Horse” at the Erie County Playhouse, followed by “Ten Nights in a Barroom.” He got bit roles on Broadway, such as that of the candelabrum carrier in the 1948 production of “Anne of a Thousand Days,” starring Rex Harrison.

Starting in the 1950s, Matthau shuttled back and forth between Broadway, Hollywood and the world of live TV, where he attracted attention in such productions as the famous adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock.” Overall he appeared in almost 100 television shows.

Matthau loved the spontaneity of live TV, the way it made him think on his feet. He once said that form offered “the best acting experience you could ever have.”

Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand in “Hello, Dolly!”
Walter Matthau and Barbra Streisand in “Hello, Dolly!”
(20th Century Fox )

He continued: “If you’re sitting around and doing Chekhov and the cat walks in, you must pay attention to the cat. You cannot continue the dialogue of Chekhov without including the cat. So on live television we’d automatically go into ad-lib gear.

“There’s the famous story: Suddenly the phone rings on stage and there’s not supposed to be a phone call. And it’s persistent. And eventually the guy walks over, picks up the phone, says, ‘Hello?’ Then he looks at the other actor and says, ‘It’s for you.’ ”

Matthau was married twice, once to Grace Johnson, with whom he had two children, David and Jenny. They were divorced in 1958 after 10 years of marriage.

A year later he married actress Carol Marcus, who was the inspiration for Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” They met when Matthau starred on Broadway in “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"—in which she played a small role. They had one son, Charles, who directed his father in a few TV movies and the 1996 feature film “The Grass Harp,” which also starred Lemmon.

A vivacious beauty who had been married twice to author William Saroyan, Marcus had relationships with the likes of James Agee and hobnobbed with the rich and famous. But her relationship with Matthau endured. They seemed to be good for each other.

“She lifts me to several levels above that which would make me comfortable,” he told a Times reporter in 1992, upon publication of her memoir, “Among the Porcupines.” “I would be an ordinary character actor on Broadway with no desire to do anything else,” he said, had he not married her.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Saturday.

The long and varied acting career of Walter Matthau, who died Saturday at the age of 79, included these feature films:


* Hanging Up


* The Odd Couple II (1998)

* Out to Sea (1997)

* I’m Not Rappaport (1996)

* Grumpier Old Men (1995)

* The Grass Harp (1995)

* I.Q. (1994)

* Dennis the Menace (1993)

* Grumpy Old Men (1993)

* JFK (1991)


* The Couch Trip (1988)

* Pirates (1986)

* Movers & Shakers (1985)

* The Survivors (1983)

* I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982)

* Buddy Buddy (1981)

* First Monday in October (1981)

* Little Miss Marker (1980)

* Hopscotch (1980)


* House Calls (1978)

* California Suite (1978)

* Casey’s Shadow (1978)

* The Bad News Bears (1976)

* The Sunshine Boys (1975)

* The Front Page (1974)

* The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

* Charley Varrick (1973)

* The Laughing Policeman (1973)

* Pete ‘n’ Tillie (1972)

* Plaza Suite (1971)

* A New Leaf (1971)

* Kotch (1971)


* Cactus Flower (1969)

* Hello, Dolly! (1969)

* Candy (1968)

* The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968)

* The Odd Couple (1968)

* A Guide for the Married Man (1967)

* The Fortune Cookie (1966)

* Mirage (1965)

* Goodbye Charlie (1964)

* Ensign Pulver (1964)

* Fail-Safe (1964)

* Charade (1963)

* Island of Love (1963)

* Lonely Are the Brave (1962)

* Who’s Got the Action? (1962)

* Strangers When We Meet (1960)


* The Gangster Story (1959)

* Voice in the Mirror (1958)

* King Creole (1958)

* Onionhead (1958)

* Ride a Crooked Trail (1958)

* A Face in the Crowd (1957)

* Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957)

* Bigger Than Life (1956)

* The Indian Fighter (1955)

* The Kentuckian (1955)

Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.


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