Once described by a British critic as looking like “a bloodhound with a head cold”, the magnificently rumpled Walter Matthau parlayed his marvelous character face, drooping posture, ungainly walk and growling voice into a prolific screen career, first as a villain, later as a comedic and sometimes romantic leading man, and finally as the quintessential (but adorable) grumpy old man.
Despite making his professional stage debut at age 11 in the musical “The Dishwasher” (1931), he did not begin acting in earnest until after WWII in a 1946 summer stock production of “Ten Nights in a Bar Room” in Erie, Pennsylvania. Two years later he bowed on Broadway as the aged Bishop Fisher in Maxwell Anderson’s “Anne of the Thousand Days”, the first of 18 plays in which he would act on the Great White Way. Matthau’s Broadway successes included “The Liar” (1950), the 1955 revival of “Guys and Dolls” (as Nathan Detroit), “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?” (also 1955) and “A Shot in the Dark” (1961), which earned him his first Tony.
He is best remembered, however, for originating the role of Oscar Madison opposite Art Carney’s Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” (1965), a performance netting him that year’s Tony Award as Actor in a Play.
After playing an evil saloon keeper who bullwhips Burt Lancaster in his feature debut, “The Kentuckian” (1955), Matthau got typed as a villain and subsequently essayed a steady diet of reprehensible characters like the cynical newsman investigating ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes (Andy Griffith) in “A Face in the Crowd” (1957), the violent crime boss at odds with Elvis Presley in “King Creole” (1958), the comically harassed sheriff in “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) and the Machiavellian advisor (a precursor of Henry Kissinger) in Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe” (1964).
His only foray to directing came with “Gangster Story” (1959), which he self-deprecatingly calls the “worst film ever made.” He also worked frequently during the Golden Age of TV on such classic live shows as “Studio One”, “Playhouse 90″ (both CBS), “Philco TV Playhouse” and “Kraft Television Theater” (both NBC). It is amazing that he never worked with Jack Lemmon when both young actors were alternating between stage and live TV, though they were both briefly in the Broadway cast of “Room Service” (1953) until Matthau had to withdraw.
When they finally did team together in Billy Wilder’s caustic comedy “The Fortune Cookie” (1966), it was Matthau’s sharp portrayal of unethical lawyer ‘Whiplash’ Willie that drew all the raves and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar while Lemmon’s role as the bedridden victim offered him few chances to shine.
Gene Kelly’s “A Guide for the Married Man” (1967) cast Matthau as the lovely Inger Stevens’ husband (no wonder he was so loathe to stray), but it was his Oscar-nominated leading turn as the sloppy Oscar to Lemmon’s fastidious Felix in Gene Saks’ screen adaptation of “The Odd Couple” (1968) that firmly established him as a comedic leading man.
Kelly then gave him his chance as a romantic leading man (who sings) opposite Barbra Streisand’s Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” (1968), after which he reteamed with Saks on the mildly amusing “Cactus Flower” (1969), featuring an Oscar-winning supporting performance by Goldie Hawn in her first significant role. Continuing their collaboration, Lemmon directed Matthau to a second Academy Award nod as Best Actor in “Kotch” (1971).
They also reteamed in Wilder’s uneven remake of “The Front Page” (1974), with Matthau as editor Walter Burns and Lemmon as reporter Hildy Johnson, and Wilder’s last film, the slapstick black comedy “Buddy Buddy” (1981). Matthau also got to face off against the formidable comic talents of Elaine May in May’s “A New Leaf” (also 1971) and Carol Burnett in Martin Ritt’s “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” (1972), wooing and winning his woman in both.
In addition to “The Odd Couple”, Matthau has acted in a number of film comedies scripted by Neil Simon from his plays. He appeared in all three vignettes of “Plaza Suite” (1971), directed by Arthur Hiller, scoring particularly well in the last one as the flustered father of a reluctant bride. He then embarked on the first of three films directed by Herbert Ross from Simon scripts, “The Sunshine Boys” (1975), which paired him with George Burns (a Best Supporting Actor winner for his role) as cranky vaudeville partners coaxed out of retirement for a TV special.
He worked again with Ross on “California Suite” (1978), reuniting with Elaine May as her cheating husband, and the listless “I Ought to Be in Pictures” (1981), portraying a screenwriter visited by his teenage daughter (Dinah Manoff). Matthau’s lovable gruffness also served him well as coach of “The Bad News Bears” (1976), a motley assortment of little leaguers headed by Tatum O’Neal, and he was equally memorable in several dramatic roles, including the bank robber hero of Don Siegel’s “Charley Varrick” (1973) and the embittered protagonist of the ironically-titled thriller “The Laughing Policeman” (1974).
His established New Yorker persona abetted one of his strongest performances as a harried NYC cop out to snare a subway hijacker in Joseph Sargent’s “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974).
At the height of his big screen success, Matthau made a rare TV appearance in the PBS adaptation of Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” (1972) and returned to the stage for the first (and final) time in nearly a decade in a 1974 Los Angeles production of “Juno and the Paycock”.
The 80s, however, were not kind to him. His turn as a Supreme Court justice in “First Monday in October” (1981) and his peg-leg portrayal of a Cockney-speaking Captain Red for Roman Polanski’s commercially unsuccessful “Pirates” (1986) represented his best work of the decade, and, fed up with the kinds of scripts he was getting, he turned to the small screen for renewal. Reteaming with Sargent, Matthau acted for the first time in a made-for-television movie, playing Harmon Cobb, a small-town attorney during World War II who must defend a German POW accused of murder in the Emmy-winning “The Incident” (CBS, 1990).
He later reprised the Cobb role in two well-received sequels, “Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore” (CBS, 1992) and “Incident in a Small Town” (CBS, 1994). He also appeared opposite Ellen Burstyn in “Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love” (CBS, 1991) and later reteamed with Carol Burnett in “The Marriage Fool” (CBS, 1998), both helmed by his son Charles.
Matthau returned to leading feature roles as the long-suffering Mr. Wilson in John Hughes’ “Dennis the Menace”, reaching a whole new audience of pre-adolescents, and dusted off the ol’ chemistry with Lemmon to score a major hit with “Grumpy Old Men” (both 1993). Suddenly, the curmudgeonly basset hound was hot again. He teamed with Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins for the would-be modern screwball comedy “I.Q.” (1994), garnering the film’s best notices for his pleasingly cute and corny portrayal of Albert Einstein, and reunited with Lemmon as “Grumpier Old Men” in 1995.
Son Charles cast him against type as the very sweet, very kind and loving Judge Cool in “The Grass Harp” (also 1995), a thoughtful drama based on Truman Capote’s evocative memoir of his boyhood in the South featuring one scene between Matthau and Lemmon. He then played a feisty elderly Jew who forms an unlikely friendship with a black boxer (Ossie Davis) in Herb Gardner’s “I’m Not Rappaport” (1996). He was back with Lemmon as grumpy old men “Out to Sea” (1997), but “The Odd Couple II” (1998), unfortunately, was once too often to the well for the Simon, Matthau, Lemmon triumvirate.
Two years later he was a perfect fit as the irascible father of Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow in Keaton’s “Hanging Up”, recycling the tried-and-true shtick that made him a legend.
Walter Matthau movies
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Filed Under: Actor Profile