Oscar Profile #447: Walter Matthau

Born October 1, 1920 in New York City’s Lower East Side to a mother who worked in a sweatshop and a father who was a peddler and electrician, Walter John Matthow (later Matthau) had several jobs before his service during World War II where he was a radioman-gunner in the same 453rd Bombardment Group as James Stewart. He flew missions over Continental Europe during the Battle of the Bulge before returning to the States where he took part in the demobilization at the end of the war.

Determined to become an actor, Matthau was educated at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York. He married first wife Grace Johnson in 1948 with whom he had two children. He made his Broadway debut as a servant in that same year’s Anne of the Thousand Days and his TV debut as a reporter in 1950’s The Big Story.

Matthau made his film debut as the whip brandishing villain in 1955’s The Kenuckian directed by and starring Burt Lancaster. He would continue to be noticed in major supporting roles for the next ten years in such films as Bigger Than Life, A Face in the Crowd, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, King Creole, Voice in the Mirror, Strangers When We Meet, Lonely Are the Brave, Charade, Fail-Safe, Goodbye, Charlie and Mirage. At the same time, he became a major star on Broadway in such shows as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? , Once More with Feeling and A Shot in the Dark, winning a Tony for the latter.

Divorced from his first wife in 1958, Matthau married Carol Saroyan in 1959 with whom he had a son, director Charles Matthau.

He had a huge hit in 1965’s Broadway smash, The Odd Couple opposite Art Carney, winning a second Tony. The following year he won an Oscar for The Fortune Cookie opposite Jack Lemmon with whom he would co-star in the 1968 film version of The Odd Couple. A major film star now, Matthau was soon starring opposite Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly! , Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower, Elaine May in A New Leaf and Lee Grant, Barbara Harris and Maureen Stapleton in Plaza Suite. 1971’s Kotch, directed by Lemmon, would earn him a second Oscar nomination. Acclaimed dramatic roles in 1973’s Charley Varrick and 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three would be followed by a third Oscar nomination for 1975’s The Sunshine Boys opposite George Burns.

Matthau’s successes over the next five years would include The Bad News Bears, Casey’s Shadow, House Calls, California Suite and Hopscotch. A long series of flops in the 1980s would lead to resurgence in the 1990s in such films as JFK , Grumpy Old Men, I.Q. , The Grass Harp, Grumpier Old Men and Out to Sea.

Walter Matthau died on July 1, 2000. He was 79.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966), directed by Billy Wilder

It’s ironic that Matthau finally gets a starring role in a film and they give him an Oscar in the supporting category. His shyster lawyer nicknamed “Whiplash Willie” for good reason, easily outshines Jack Lemmon as his nebbish brother-in-law and victim of his latest get rich quick scheme. The two would reteam three years later for the even more successful film version of The Odd Couple for which Matthau had won a Tony opposite Art Carney on Broadway. Three years after that Lemmon would direct him to a Best Actor nomination for Kotch.

CACTUS FLOWER (1969), directed by Gene Saks

Matthau’s popularity in the wake of The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple was such that he could be cast in just about anything and was. In late 1969 he starred in the film versions of two popular Broadway plays, the musical Hello, Dolly! opposite Barbra Streisand and more surprisingly, the comedy Cactus Flower in which he played a dentist opposite both Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn, both of whom are incredibly in love with him. Bergman was his receptionist, Hawn a young girl whose infatuation leads to an attempted suicide.

CHARLEY VARRICK (1973), directed by Don Siegel

Matthau received a BAFTA nomination for what is generally considered his best dramatic performance as a small-time hood who, with his wife and friend, robs a bank unaware that the money they’ve stolen belongs to the mob. Siegel made this at the height of his popularity, the year after Dirty Harry, and elicits strong support from Joe Don Baker as a sadistic hit man, Andy Robinson as Matthau’s sweaty partner, John Vernon as the Mafia banker, Sheree North as a two-timing photographer, Marjorie Bennett as a nosey landlady, and along the way, Benson Fong, Norman Fell and William Schallert.

CASEY’S SHADOW (1978), directed by Martin Ritt

This gentle family film centered around a horse, provided Mattha with his most sensitive role as the father of three sons, played by Andrew Rubin, Steve Burns and Michael Hershewe as the youngest son, the Casey of the title. Casey’s Shadow is the name of the horse that follows Casey around and proves to be a formidable racehorse. Ritt considered this to be one of his four favorite films, on a par with Hud, Sounder and Norma Rae. Alas, the film was not a success, having opened on the same day as Matthau’s comedy, House Calls in which he starred opposite Glenda Jackson.

I.Q. (1994), directed by Fred Schepisi

Matthau disliked being called a comedic actor, yet his best loved roles were in that realm. Here he plays Albert Einstein who plays Cupid in order to get his mathematician niece Meg Ryan to choose mechanic Tim Robbins over academic Stephen Fry. Lou Jacobi, Gene Saks, Tony Shalhoub, Frank Whaley, Charles Durning and Keene Curtis as President Eisenhower all figure in the action. Love will find a way, though it takes more than Einstein and Eisenhower to pull it off. They’re helped by a convertible, a motorcycle, waltz music, engineered automotive troubles and a comet in this most congenial comedy.

WALTER MATTAU AND OSCAR

  • The Fortune Cookie (1966) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
  • Kotch (1971) – nominated – Best Actor
  • The Sunshine Boys (1975) – nominated – Best Actor

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