One of the Most Important Actors of the 20th Century
Walter Matthau (October 1, 1920 – July 1, 2000) was born Walter John Matthow in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He was a child actor in the Yiddish theater, and paid his dues on Broadway, in summer stock, and on television before going on to an illustrious film career.
He won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his tour-de-force performance as Whiplash Willie Gingrich in “The Fortune Cookie.” He was nominated for an Academy Award twice in the Best Actor category for “The Sunshine Boys” and “Kotch,” and for six Golden Globe Awards, winning for his performance in “The Sunshine Boys.”
Matthau served in the Air Force during World War II (under Lt. Jimmy Stewart) and earned six battle stars. After returning from overseas Matthau began studying at the Dramatic Workshop in The New School in New York City. He acted in summer stock for several years.
In 1948, Matthau made his Broadway debut in “Anne of the Thousand Days.” He played an 80-year-old man. His numerous stage appearances include “Season in the Sun,” “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter,” “The Burning Glass,” and “In Any Language.” He won the New York Drama Critics Award for “Once More with Feeling.”
Matthau made his movie debut in 1955′s “The Kentuckian” and followed up with roles in “The Indian Fighter,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” “Ride a Crooked Trail,” and “King Creole.”
In 1960 Walter both directed and appeared in “Gangster Story” which co-starred his newlywed bride, Carol Grace.
In the busy years to follow, Matthau worked non-stop on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood. He received critical acclaim for his superb screen performances in “Lonely Are the Brave,” “Fail-Safe,” “Goodbye Charlie,” and “Mirage.”
In 1962, his Broadway role in “A Shot in the Dark” brought Matthau his first Tony Award, winning for Best Supporting actor. He received his second Tony Award this time for Best Actor, in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.”
His career took a turn in the late 60′s when Walter surprised everyone but himself by becoming the first character actor to successfully transition to playing the romantic lead. Walter won the heart of not just one gorgeous leading lady but two in the romantic comedy “Cactus Flower” co-starring Goldie Hawn and Ingrid Bergman.
Audiences continued to fall in love with that unlikely face as Walter’s on-screen romances to follow included top Hollywood stars of the day. In “Hello, dolly!” matchmaker Barbra Streisand pursued him. In “A New Leaf” Walter played a wealthy playboy seeking to restore his lost fortune by conning an unsuspecting heiress (Elaine May) into marriage. The ever-versatile Matthau topped himself by playing all three leading roles in Neil Simon’s vignette comedy “Plaza Suite.”
Over the next few years Walter continued to crank out a string of comedy hits while still managing to squeeze in a few challenging dramatic roles. When pal Jack Lemmon had difficultly finding studio backing for a script he hoped to direct, Walter offered his support a and played a character that was 25 years older than he was at the time. Matthau won an Oscar nomination for his touching performance as “Kotch,” the tale of a retired man who finds that his family and society have no use for him in what should have been his golden years.
Matthau also gambled on the dramatic story of “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” which took a very frank and insightful look at the ups and downs of marriage. The risk paid off and Matthau won the British Academy Award for heart-rending performance.
In 1975, Matthau was again nominated for an Oscar for his hilarious performance as cranky vaudevillian Willie Clark in the comedy classic “The Sunshine Boys.”
This was followed by audience favorites “The Bad News Bears,” “House Calls,” “California Suite,” “Hopscotch,” “First Monday in October,” “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” and “The Survivors.”
Next, the Matthau, Lemmon, Wilder team was reunited in “The Front Page” and again in “Buddy Buddy.”
When most men his age were retiring, Walter had more offers than at any other time in his career. The 90′s were a busy time for him with one box office hit after another: “Dennis the Menace,” “JFK,” “Grumpy Old Men,” “Out to Sea,” and “Grumpier Old Men.” Walter also appeared in the film version of the play “I’m Not Rappaport” and in the critically-acclaimed film based on Truman Capote’s novella, “The Grass Harp,” directed by his son Charlie Matthau. In 1998 he appeared opposite Carol Burnett in “The Marriage Fool,” which the young Matthau also directed.
Thirty years after Walter gave his breakthrough performance as Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple,” he was reunited with pal Jack Lemmon in “The Odd Couple II.” Life imitated art when, after three decades of battling numerous life-threatening illnesses, Walter played the role of an ailing father in “Hanging Up.” While filming “Hanging Up” Matthau fell ill and was admitted to the same hospital as his character, who also slipped into a coma. However, Walter surprised everyone by overcoming insurmountable odds and miraculously recovering. He not only went home, he promoted the release of his last film, granted several interviews and made an appearance on Larry King Live.
Walter’s last few months were spent at home doing what he always loved most: reading books, listening to Mozart, flirting with his beloved wife Carol, sneaking bets to his bookie, playing Scrabble, and hanging out with his best friend, and son, Charlie.
Walter died on July 1, 2000. Friends, family, and co-starts gathered in August at a memorial hosted by Walter’s wife Carol and son Charlie at the Director’s Guild of America. Walter was eulogized by his pal Jack Lemmon, director Diane Keaton, admirer Larry King, and other Hollywood friends who shared stories, jokes, laughter and tears in a celebration of Walter’s life and career. As always, Walter left us smiling.