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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,651

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This is the grave of Walter Matthau.

Born in 1920, Walter Matthow (don’t know why you’d change your name a bit from that), grew up in the Jewish immigrant community in New York. His mom worked in the sweatshops, his father was a peddler. But as the Jewish camp thing developed in these years (an interesting phenomenon I was unaware of until moving to the east coast), he left the city during the summers. At these camps, he began to act and liked it.

In World War II, Matthau joined the Army Air Force and was a radioman-gunner based out of England. He flew on several missions and obviously survived them, ending the war as a staff sergeant. When he got out of the war, he decided on acting as a profession. He studied at the Dramatic Workshop, located at the New School, which was associated with people such as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, who taught there before they went out on their own to attempt to transform acting, with controversial results. Matthau succeeded and was a real find. Now, Matthau had the face of a character actor, no question about that. This wasn’t your handsome leading man. But of course the day of the great character actor no matter how you looked made for better films because it didn’t matter that much! So you had Ernest Borgnine and Jack Klugman and Walter Matthau out there (and people such as Edward G. Robinson before them and Steve Buscemi or John Turturro more in the present) simply making every film or play they were in better because they were in it.

Matthau’s first semi-major role was in the TV show Mister Peepers, in 1952, at which time he was using the stage name of Wally Cox. By the time he started appearing in films though, he was using his own name (or at least his version of it), beginning with The Kentuckian, in 1955, working with Burt Lancaster. He was the bad guy in the early Elvis vehicle King Creole, and Elvis got to beat him up in it. His first major picture was A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Andy Griffith. He showed real skill here and he began to be consistently cast in good material. My favorite early Matthau role is in Lonely Are the Brave, where he plays the sheriff chasing down Kirk Douglas. It’s a character that reminds of how Tommy Lee Jones played the sheriff in No Country for Old Men and I wonder if Jones studied Matthau’s work there. Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life was another major role for Matthau early in his career.

By the early 60s, Matthau was recognized as a really fantastic actor and Broadway came calling, or more specifically Neil Simon. Simon cast The Odd Couple with Matthau and Art Carney for Broadway for its 1965 premier and Matthau won the Tony for the role. Gene Saks directed the film version, replacing Carney with Jack Lemmon but keeping Matthau. It was the third highest grossing film of 1968. Lemmon and Matthau also by this time were in one of the greatest and longest-lived acting parings in Hollywood history here. In fact, their first role together was before this–it was in Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie, in 1966. But that film almost didn’t happen as planned. See, Matthau smoked three packs a day. Will it surprise you that he had a heart attack during the production? I don’t imagine so. Filming was shut down for three months while Matthau recovered and he also managed to kick the cancer sticks, so that’s good. It’s especially good because Matthau won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for it, his only Oscar victory.

Of course Matthau continued to work in other films during the 60s as well, perhaps most notably in Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, starring Henry Fonda, but with Matthau in a key supporting role. One thing The Odd Couple did for him was open directors to cast him in film comedies, which hadn’t really happened before and in fact Matthau’s work would increasingly be in comedy as he aged. That included Elaine May’s debut film A New Leaf in 1971 and Martin Ritt’s Pete ‘n’ Tillie in 1972. Lemmon himself directed Matthau in 1971’s Kotch and Matthau got himself a Best Actor nomination. Then Herbert Ross cast him with George Burns in the adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys in 1975 and that was Matthau’s other Best Actor nomination. Matthau won the Golden Globe for Best Actor for that one. He and Lemmon worked together on Billy Wilder’s The Front Page in 1974 and the same year, Matthau starred in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, one of the classic New York Sucks movies of that decade. And how could we forget The Bad New Bears, from 1976?

George Burns loved Matthau, thought he was an acting genius. After working with him on The Sunshine Boys, Burns said, ”Walter doesn’t need funny lines. He’s fearless — no inhibitions. If you want him to play soprano, or be a toe dancer, he’d do it.” I don’t know what higher acclaim you could possibly have than George Burns saying that about you. Matthau was also just a funny guy who often made fun of his own looks, once calling himself “The Ukrainian Cary Grant.”

Matthau’s real golden period ended in the early 80s after a couple more acclaimed performances in Hopscotch in 1980 and First Monday in October in 1981. After that, things slowed down a bit for awhile. He worked fairly consistently but the movies weren’t very good, including Roman Polanski’s 1986 film Pirates.

But the 90s were good for Matthau. He played Russell Long in JFK. Then he and Lemmon got together for the Grumpy Old Men series, which aren’t great movies really but if you like grumpy old men, and I do as I relate, I mean, you can do a heck of a lot worse. Their chemistry was so good that Neil Simon got the band back together for Odd Couple II in 1998. I don’t even remember this and supposedly it is terrible, but whatever, everyone was old.

Matthau kept working pretty much to the end. His last film was Diane Keaton’s 2000 film Hanging Up, where he played the terrible father to Keaton, Meg Ryan, and Lisa Kudrow. It is supposed to suck. That year, Matthau’s heart finally gave out for good. He had a heart attack and died the next day. He was 79 years old. By the time he died, Matthau was known as a “rumpled star and comic icon” as his New York Times obituary put it. I don’t know, I still prefer Matthau’s dramatic roles, but I certainly don’t see how that’s an incorrect portrayal of him.

Walter Matthau is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other people nominated for Oscars in 1966, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sandy Dennis, who won for Best Supporting Actress in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is in Lincoln, Nebraska and Ida Kaminska, nominated for Best Actress for The Shop on Main Street, is in Queens. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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