Walter Matthau

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Walter Matthau (October 1, 1920 - July 1, 2000)
Matthau and  in Grumpier Old Men
Matthau and Sophia Loren in Grumpier Old Men

Walter Matthau (October 1, 1920July 1, 2000) was an American comedy actor possibly best known for his role as the gruff and less tidy member of The Odd Couple.

Matthau was born in New York City as Walter John Matthow and served with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He attained the rank of Staff Sergeant and became interested in acting. He often joked that his best early review came in a play he did 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.

In 1955, he made his film debut as a whip-wielding bad guy in The Kentuckian opposite Kirk Douglas. He appeared in many films after this as a villain such as the 1958 King Creole (where he is beaten up by Elvis Presley!). That same year he made a western called Ride A Crooked Trail with Audie Murphy. Matthau also directed a low budget 1960 film called The Gangster Story. In 1962, Matthau won acclaim as a sympathetic sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave.

In addition to his busy movie and stage schedule, Matthau made many television appearances in live TV plays. Although he was constantly working, it seemed that the fact that he was not handsome in the traditional sense would keep him from being a top star.

The sweet smell of success came late for Matthau. He was 45 when, in 1965, Neil Simon cast him in the hit play The Odd Couple opposite Art Carney. It was also during this time that Matthau nearly died of a heart attack. In 1966, he again achieved glory as a shady lawyer opposite Jack Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie.

He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for that film, and also made a memorable acceptance speech. He was visibly banged up, having been involved in an auto accident shortly before the awards show. He started out with a joke about having "fallen off his bicycle". Then he scolded nominated actors who were perfectly healthy and had not bothered to come to the ceremony, especially three of the other four major award winners: Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis and Paul Scofield.

Matthau and Lemmon became lifelong friends after making The Fortune Cookie and in an amazing act of teamwork made a total of ten films together, including the film version of The Odd Couple (with Lemmon playing the Art Carney role) and the popular 1993 hit Grumpy Old Men.

There is a persistent rumor that Matthaus birth name was Walter Matuschanskayasky, which is completely false. Walter's birthname was not Matuschanskayasky, nor was it Matashansky, Matansky, or any of the other reported names. In truth-- as reported by the authors of "Matthau: A Life", Rob Edelman and Audrey Kupferberg--along with Walter's son, Charles Matthau-- Walter was a teller of tall tales. In his youth, he found the joy of embellishment lifted a story (and the listener) to such enjoyable heights, that he couldn't resist trying to pass off the most bogus of information, just to see who was gullible enough to believe it.

He told many stories to many reputable people-- including the Social Security Department. When he registered, he was amazed that they only wanted him to write his name, and offer no proof of his identity. So, as another of his traditional goofs, Walter wrote that his true name was "Walter Foghorn Matthau".

His true name, as records from his youth prove, was Walter John Matthow. However, he was also called "Jake", so he occasionally signed his name as "Walter Jake Matthow". When, as a young man, Walter began acting in the Yiddish theatre in New York, he decided to change the spelling of his name. He believed that "Matthow" looked too brash and crude, and opted for the "more-elegant" spelling of "Matthau", and he kept it for the rest of his life.

The "Matuschanskayasky" rumor culminated with the release of 1974's Earthquake. The director, Mark Robson, came to Matthau and asked him to play the starring role in the film. Matthau wasn't interested and rejected the part, as he didn't want to have a heavy presence in such a film. However, Robson persisted and pleaded with Matthau to take a part-- any part. So, Matthau agreed to take the small part of "The Drunk". However, after viewing the pre-screening of the film, Matthau was furious. The film featured his "Drunk" character so prominently that he appeared to be a feature player in the film, opposite Charlton Heston. The film was already made, and there was no editing it by this point. However, when it came time to insert the credits, Walter reached into his old bag of tricks and pulled out a whopper: He instructed the credits writer to credit him with his "birth name", and gave it as the ridiculously-long name, "Matuschanskayasky", thereby preventing the famous name "Walter Matthau" from being used on promotional products for the film.

Matthau's tall tale about his last name is still listed as gospel in the "Original Names of Selected Entertainers" section of The World Almanac, including the edition published in the fall of 2004.

Matthau died of a massive heart attack in Santa Monica, California at the age of 79, and is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California. Almost exactly one year later, Lemmon, his old pal and frequent co-star, was also buried at the cemetery.

After Matthau's death, Lemmon as well as other other friends and relatives appeared on Larry King Live in an hour of tribute and remembrance. Poignantly, many of those same people appeared on the show one year later, reminiscing about Lemmon.

Matthau had two children, Jennifer and David, by his first wife, Grace Geraldine Johnson, and a son, Charlie, by his second wife and widow, Carol Marcus. Grandchildren include Will and Emily. Charles directed his father in the movie The Grass Harp (1995).



TV Work

Stage Appearances

External links

es:Walter Matthau eo:Walter MATTHAU pl:Walter Matthau sv:Walter Matthau he:ולטר_מתאו


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