It's been said that he had one of those faces that only a mother can love. If that were true, he wouldn't have brought smiles to the faces of millions of people in a career that spanned over fifty years.
My earliest recollection of Walter Matthau comes from the movie The Odd Couple. As a matter of fact, a couple of my favorite movie scenes of all time comes when Matthau, playing the role of slob sports reporter Oscar Madison decides to confront his new neat freak neurotic roommate Felix Unger played by Jack Lemmon over what’s being served for dinner.
Felix,: “"It's not spaghetti, it's linguini.”
Oscar: (hurls full plate of linguini at kitchen wall) “Now, it’s garbage!”
Later in the movie, Oscar finds a note on his pillow from Felix describing their breakfast dilemma: The note simply reads:
"We’re out of cornflakes.-F.U."
Oscar: "It took me THREE HOURS to figure out F.U. was Felix Unger!”
He’d later go on to make another ten films with Jack Lemmon
So what can you say about the guy? He never had what you might call the good looks to be considered a leading man but yet he went on to appear in over 70 films during his long career. His face reminded me of something between a basset hound and a shar-pei and his demeanor as depicted by the characters was like he’d been kicked like an aging dog. It was either that or maybe because to me he had that look like he'd been just dragged out of bed and would rather be anywhere else than in fornt of a camera. But, therein lays the story of his success.
Walter Matthau was born in New York City on October 20, 1920. By the time he was eleven he had already taken to playing bit parts in a local Yiddish theater. By the time World War II rolled around he enlisted in the Air Force and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant. After his discharge, he returned to New York to study acting full-time at the New School for Social Research Dramatic Workshop.
At first, the roles came sparingly and Matthau alternated his time between the big-screen and the Broadway stage. In perhaps a testament to his “old Man” look, his first role called for him to play a character that was in his eighties. He was all of twenty-eight. He was about to give up but a got a huge break when he landed a role in a play called A Shot in the Dark where he was nominated for a Tony Award.. He followed that up by taking on Neil Simon’s classic The Odd Couple on both the Broadway stage and the Hollywood screen.
Over the years, Matthau was nominated twice for the Oscar for Best Actor for his roles in another Neil Simon adaptation about two aging comics called The Sunshine Boys where he played opposirte George Burns and for his role in “Kotch” where he played a retired traveling salesman.. He would eventually win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as “Whiplash Willie Gingrich” opposite who else, Jack Lemmon.
Probably one of the most interesting events in his career occurred in 1974. He was approached by the director of the disaster film Earthquake to play the leading role but declined citing the “heavy” nature of the character. Charlton Heston went on to grab the role but Matthau also conceded to play what he thought was going to be a bit part of a character called “The Drunk”. Well, as it turned out, “The Drunk” turned out to be one of the major characters and Matthau was pissed. So pissed in fact that he demanded that his “birth name” of “Walter Matuschanskayasky” be used in the credits and in any trailers promoting the film.
As he got older, Matthau was probably best known for his role in Grumpy Old Men
opposite you know who
but to me, he’ll always be remembered as the lovable, crotchety slob known as Oscar Madison. He died of heart failure on July 1, 2000 in California
. His son Charles, has carried on the Matthau legacy and has tried his hand at directing. He’s probably best known for The Glass Harp
Here’s a listing of some of Walt's more prominent movies.
A Face in the Crowd
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
Lonely are the Brave
The Fortune Cookie
The Odd Couple
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
The Front Page
The Sunshine boys
The Bad News Bears
The Couch Trip
Grumpy Old Men
Grumpier Old Men