Walter Matthau (October 1, 1920 – July 1, 2000) was an American actor best known for his role as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and his frequent collaborations with Odd Couple star Jack Lemmon, as well as his role as Coach Buttermaker in the 1976 comedy The Bad News Bears. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the 1966 Billy Wilder film The Fortune Cookie. Besides the Oscar, he was the winner of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony awards.
Matthau was born Walter John Matthow on October 1, 1920, in New York City's Lower East Side, His mother, Rose (née Berolsky), was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who worked in a garment sweatshop, and his father, Milton Matthow, was a Russian Jewish peddler and electrician, from Kiev. As part of a lifelong love of practical jokes, Matthau himself created the rumors that his middle name was Foghorn and his last name was originally Matuschanskayasky (under which he is credited for a cameo role in the film Earthquake).
As a young boy, Walter attended a Jewish non-profit sleepaway camp, Tranquillity Camp, where he first began acting in the shows the camp would stage on Saturday nights. He also attended Surprise Lake Camp. His high school was Seward Park High School. He had a brief career as a Yiddish Theater District concessions stand cashier.
During World War II, Matthau served in the U.S. Army Air Forces with the Eighth Air Force in England as a B-24 Liberator radioman-gunner, in the same 453rd Bombardment Group as James Stewart. He was based at RAF Old Buckenham during this time. He reached the rank of staff sergeant and became interested in acting. He took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School with German director Erwin Piscator. He often joked that his best early review came in a play where he posed as a derelict. One reviewer said, "The others just looked like actors in make-up, Walter Matthau really looks like a skid row bum!" Matthau was a respected stage actor for years in such fare as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and A Shot in the Dark. He won the 1962 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a play.
In 1952, Matthau appeared in the pilot of Mr. Peepers with Wally Cox. For reasons unknown he used the name Leonard Elliot. His role was of the gym teacher Mr. Wall. In 1955, he made his motion picture debut as a whip-wielding bad guy in The Kentuckian opposite Burt Lancaster.
Matthau appeared as a villain in subsequent movies, such as 1958's King Creole (in which he is beaten up by Elvis Presley). That same year, he made a western called Ride a Crooked Trail with Audie Murphy and Onionhead starring Andy Griffith and Erin O'Brien, which was a flop. Matthau had a featured role opposite Griffith in the well received drama A Face in the Crowd, directed by Elia Kazan. Matthau also directed a low-budget 1960 movie called The Gangster Story. In 1962, he was a sympathetic sheriff in Lonely are the Brave, which starred Kirk Douglas. He appeared opposite Audrey Hepburn in Charade.
Appearances on television were common too, including two on ABC's police drama, Naked City, as well as the 1963 episode "A Tumble from a Tall White House" of The Eleventh Hour. He appeared eight times between 1962 and 1964 on The DuPont Show of the Week and as Franklin Gaer in 1964 in the episode "Man Is a Rock" on Dr. Kildare. Lastly, he starred in the syndicated crime drama Tallahassee 7000, as a Florida-based state police investigator, in the 1961–1962 season.
Comedies were rare in Matthau's work at that time. He was cast in a number of stark dramas, such as 1964's Fail-Safe, in which he portrayed Pentagon adviser Dr. Groeteschele, who urges an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union in response to an accidental transmission of an attack signal to U.S. Air Force bombers, in the tense and timely cold-war thriller.
In 1965, however, a plum comedy role came Matthau's way when Neil Simon cast him in the hit play The Odd Couple, playing the slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison, opposite Art Carney as Felix Ungar. Matthau later reprised the role in the film version, opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix Ungar.
Also in 1965, he played detective Ted Casselle in the Hitchcockian thriller Mirage, with Gregory Peck and Diane Baker, a film directed by Edward Dmytryk, based on a novel by Howard Fast.
He achieved great film success in a 1966 comedy as a shyster lawyer called William H. "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich starring opposite Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie, the first of numerous collaborations with Billy Wilder, and a role that would earn him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Filming had to be placed on a five-month hiatus after Matthau suffered a serious heart attack. He gave up his three pack a day smoking habit as a result.
Matthau was visibly banged up during the Oscar telecast, having been involved in a bicycle accident; nonetheless, he scolded actors who had not bothered to come to the ceremony, especially the other major award winners that night: Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis and Paul Scofield.
Oscar nominations would come Matthau's way again for 1971's Kotch, directed by Lemmon, and 1975's The Sunshine Boys, another Simon vehicle transferred from the stage, this one about a pair of former vaudeville stars. For the latter role he won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Broadway hits turned into films continued to cast Matthau in the leads with 1969's Hello, Dolly! and that same year's Cactus Flower, for which co-star Goldie Hawn received an Oscar. He played three roles in the 1971 film version of Simon's Plaza Suite and was in the cast of its followup California Suite in 1978.
Matthau starred in three crime dramas in the mid-1970s, as a detective investigating a mass murder on a bus in The Laughing Policeman, as a bank robber on the run from the Mafia and the law in Charley Varrick and as a New York transit cop in the action-adventure The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. A change of pace about misfits on a Little League baseball team turned-out to be a solid hit in 1976, when Matthau starred as coach Morris Buttermaker in the comedy The Bad News Bears
In 1982, Matthau portrayed Herbert Tucker in I Ought to Be in Pictures, with Ann-Margret and Dinah Manoff, the daughter of Matthau's Plaza Suite co-star, Lee Grant.
Matthau played Albert Einstein in the film "IQ", also starring Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan. His partnership with Lemmon became one of the most successful pairings in Hollywood. They became lifelong friends after making The Fortune Cookie and would make a total of 10 movies together—11 counting Kotch, in which Lemmon has a cameo as a sleeping bus passenger. Apart from their many comedies, the two appeared (though not together) in the 1991 Oliver Stone drama about the presidential assassination, JFK. In 1992, he played the narrator in Doctor Seuss Video Classics: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Matthau played the role of Mr. Wilson in the 1993 movie Dennis the Menace.
Matthau and Lemmon reunited in 1993 for the surprise box-office hit comedy Grumpy Old Men, co-starring Ann-Margret, and the 1995 sequel, Grumpier Old Men, that also co-starred Sophia Loren. This led to more pairings late in their careers, notably Out to Sea and a Simon-scripted sequel to one of their great successes, The Odd Couple II. Hanging Up, a 2000 film directed by Diane Keaton, was Matthau's final appearance onscreen.
Matthau was married twice; first to Grace Geraldine Johnson from 1948 to 1958, and then from 1959 until his death in 2000 to Carol Marcus. He had two children, Jenny and David, by his first wife, and a son, Charlie Matthau, with his second wife. David is a radio news reporter, currently at WKXW "New Jersey 101.5" in Trenton, New Jersey. Jenny is president of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. Matthau also helped raise his stepchildren, Aram Saroyan and Lucy Saroyan. His grandchildren include William Matthau, an engineer, and Emily Rose Roman, a student at SUNY Binghamton. Charlie Matthau directed his father in The Grass Harp (1995).
A heavy smoker and drinker, Matthau suffered a heart attack in 1966, the first of at least three in his lifetime. In 1976, ten years after his first heart attack, he underwent heart bypass surgery. After working in freezing Minnesota weather for Grumpy Old Men in 1993, he was hospitalized for double pneumonia. In December 1995 he had a colon tumor removed; it tested benign. He was also hospitalized in May 1999 for more than two months after another bout of pneumonia. In November 1999, he was diagnosed with colon cancer shortly after completing his final acting role Hanging Up.
Matthau was a compulsive gambler, who once estimated his lifetime losses as five million dollars.
Matthau suffered from atherosclerotic heart disease and colon cancer, which spread to his liver, lungs and brain. He died of a heart attack in Santa Monica on July 1, 2000. He was 79 years old. His remains are interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Less than a year later, the remains of Jack Lemmon (who died of colon and bladder cancer) were buried at the same cemetery. After Matthau's death, Lemmon as well as other friends and relatives had appeared on Larry King Live in an hour of tribute and remembrance; many of those same people appeared on the show one year later, reminiscing about Lemmon.
Carol Marcus, also a native of New York, died of a brain aneurysm in 2003. Her remains are buried on top of Matthau's.
The remains of actor George C. Scott are buried to the left of those of Walter Matthau, in an unmarked grave, and Farrah Fawcett's remains are buried to the right.
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