Summary

Conflict Period:
World War II 1
Branch:
Army Air Forces 1
Rank:
Staff Sergeant 1
Birth:
01 Oct 1920 2
New York City, New York, 3
Death:
01 Jul 2000 2
Santa Monica, California 4
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Walter John Matthau 3
Full Name:
Walter Matthau 2
Birth:
Male 1
Birth:
01 Oct 1920 2
New York City, New York, 3
Male 3
Death:
01 Jul 2000 2
Santa Monica, California 3
Cause: full cardiac arrest 3
Residence:
Last Residence: Encino, CA 2
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Birth:
Mother: Rose Berolsky 1
Father: Milton Matthow 1
Marriage:
Carol Grace 1
1959 1
Marriage:
Grace Geraldine Johnson 1
1948 1
Divorce Date: 1958 1
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World War II 1

Branch:
Army Air Forces 1
Rank:
Staff Sergeant 1
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Occupation:
Actor 3
Social Security:
Card Issued: Unknown Code (PE) 2
Social Security Number: ***-**-9840 2

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Walter Matthau, 79, Rumpled Star and Comic Icon, Dies

Walter Matthau, whose performances as cantankerous but endearing characters made him a distinctive leading man in movies, theater and television, died yesterday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 79.

The cause was a heart attack, said Lindi Funston, a spokeswoman for St. John's Health Center, where he died.

Mr. Matthau's breakthrough role was as Oscar Madison, the slovenly sportswriter in Neil Simon's 1965 Broadway comedy and 1968 film ''The Odd Couple.'' But that was only one of an extraordinarily diverse galaxy of characters. In his long career he played lawyers, editors, detectives, spies and sheriffs, and each one of them looked and acted like Walter Matthau.

In 1994, he played a comic version of Albert Einstein in the movie ''I.Q.,'' and Einstein began to resemble the shaggy, shambling actor. Although Mr. Matthau was an experienced stage actor, in common with great film stars of the past like Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, he created character through the magnetism of his own personality.

Mr. Simon credited Mr. Matthau's rumpled persona and ironic wit as being the inspiration for Oscar, the nemesis of his fussy apartment-mate and fellow dropout from marriage, Felix Unger (Art Carney on stage, Jack Lemmon in the film). In his memoirs, the playwright said the actor at first wanted to play Felix, in retrospect a mind-boggling idea, but one that Mr. Matthau undoubtedly could have accomplished. He was, Mr. Simon said, ''the greatest instinctive actor I've ever seen.''

Mr. Matthau was a tall man with a perpetual slouch and a perpetual frown. No matter how elegant his character was supposed to be, in common with Oscar he usually looked as if he had been sleeping in his clothes. But through a kind of reverse chic Mr. Matthau could make himself seem stylish. Without airs or affectations, he became a widely respected international star.

Though he often played dramatic roles, comedy was his principal metier. With his hangdog face and growling voice, he added humor to his line readings. Dialogue that would not be so funny in print became hilarious when delivered by Mr. Matthau. With perfect timing, he was an expert at the slow burn, the double take, the explosion into exasperation. ''Walter doesn't need funny lines,'' George Burns, who starred with him in the movie of Mr. Simon's play ''The Sunshine Boys,'' once said. ''He's fearless -- no inhibitions. If you want him to play soprano, or be a toe dancer, he'd do it.''

A Comedy Duo Through the Years

It was with Jack Lemmon that he became half of one of America's favorite, if floating, comedy teams. In addition to ''The Odd Couple,'' they were in three Billy Wilder comedies, ''The Fortune Cookie,'' ''The Front Page'' and ''Buddy Buddy.'' The two aged together before the camera until they were playing the twinned title roles in ''Grumpy Old Men.'' In the sequel, they became ''Grumpier Old Men,'' and probably would have been on their way to ''Grumpiest.''

In a statement yesterday from Los Angeles, Mr. Lemmon said: ''I have lost someone I loved as a brother, as a closest friend and a remarkable human being. We have also lost one of the best damn actors we'll ever see.''

Last year in the book ''Conversations With Wilder,'' Mr. Wilder said that Mr. Matthau was ''one of the handful of great actors.''

Mr. Matthau worked his way up from poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to varied roles in stock, more than 20 Broadway plays (mostly flops) and scores of live television shows. He became, successively, an adept movie villain and comedian and later, improbably, a romantic leading man.

He was tireless in improvising fresh comic business to sharpen and enhance plays and films, and in spinning perceptive observations from commonplace events. With sly self-mockery, he described his Hollywood image as a ''Ukrainian Cary Grant.''

Film portraits shaped by Mr. Matthau included a tricky lawyer in ''The Fortune Cookie'' (a performance that earned him a 1966 Academy Award as best supporting actor), an inept rake in ''A Guide for the Married Man'' (1967), sly philanderers in ''The Secret Life of an American Wife'' (1968) and ''Cactus Flower'' (1969), and three tour de force roles in Mr. Simon's ''Plaza Suite'' (1971), as a callous husband, a vulgar filmmaker and a put-upon father.

He enlivened thrillers like Don Siegel's ''Charley Varrick'' (1973) and ''The Taking of Pelham One Two Three'' (1974), and he played W. C. Fields-like child-detesters in ''The Bad News Bears'' (1976) and the 1980 remake of ''Little Miss Marker.'' Other characters were a lugubrious editor in ''The Front Page'' (1974), a henpecked assassin in ''Buddy Buddy'' (1981) and a crusty Supreme Court justice in ''First Monday in October'' (1981). In 1993 he was the beleaguered Mr. Wilson in ''Dennis the Menace.''

Mr. Matthau's personality also gleamed in bouts with other potent personalities: Barbra Streisand in ''Hello, Dolly!'' (1969), Elaine May in ''A New Leaf'' (1971), Carol Burnett in ''Pete 'n' Tillie'' (1972), Mr. Burns in ''The Sunshine Boys'' (1975), and Glenda Jackson in ''House Calls'' (1978) and ''Hopscotch'' (1980).

Comedy, he said in 1981, should be shaped very seriously and have an emotional foundation, evoke genuine laughter and then provide some insight. Asked to compare stage and film acting, he said: ''Theater is pure, while movies are bits and pieces. Right now, I like acting in movies better because it's much easier, more fun, though not as satisfying. Doing a play is like having a seven-course meal, but a movie is like eating a lot of hors d'oeuvres. You get filled up, but you're never quite satisfied.

''There are very few good stage actors,'' he continued, ''but there are many good movie actors,'' partly because of efforts by the director, the cameraman, the editor. ''On the stage, there are no tricks, it's you.''

Walter Matthau was born in New York City on Oct. 1, 1920, to Milton Matuschanskayasky and the former Rose Berolsky, impoverished Jewish immigrants. His father, from Russia, was an electrician turned process server who abandoned the family when Walter was 3 years old and who died 12 years later. Walter's mother, who was from Lithuania, kept him and his elder brother, Henry, in a day nursery while she worked as a sweatshop seamstress. The family moved often because she could not pay the rent for their cold-water flats.

Acting Offers a Refuge For a Boy in Poverty

Young Walter took refuge in acting, appearing in theatricals in schools and settlement houses and reading Shakespeare nearly every day. At 11, he started selling ice cream and soft drinks in the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue and, for an extra 50 cents a show, did bit parts while studying the great Yiddish actors. At Seward Park High School, he lettered in six sports and was also in demand as a campaign manager for student office-seekers, he once said, because schoolmates were invariably won over by ''the way I stood or looked or sounded.''

Jobs after graduation included forestry in Montana in the Civilian Conservation Corps and coaching boxing and basketball in New York City. In World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He served as a radio operator and cryptographer in Europe, rose to staff sergeant and earned six battle stars.

Back in Manhattan, he used his G.I. benefits to study at the New School's Dramatic Workshop under the director, Erwin Piscator. He later recounted the following exchange with Mr. Piscator:

'' 'Matthau, you say here every line wrong.' Another actor might have been destroyed. I was destroyed for about 20 seconds. Then I said, 'Teach me how to say every line right.' One way and another, I began to learn how to talk, how to look, how to walk -- how to act.''

In a summer stock production of ''Three Men on a Horse'' in 1946, he received what he considered to be the finest compliment. A theatergoer told him he was the only one in the play he did not like. ''The others looked like actors,'' he said. ''You just looked like a poolroom bum.''

The irrepressible Mr. Matthau was reflective and personable in interviews, but he sometimes enlivened them with outrageous lies, saying that his father had been a renegade, defrocked Orthodox priest, and falsifying his training credentials, saying he had studied at Oxford University, the Abbey Theater in Dublin and the Moscow Art Theater.

On Broadway, he advanced from a candelabra carrier in ''Anne of the Thousand Days'' (in 1948) to a bookish lover in ''The Ladies of the Corridor,'' an urbane playwright in ''Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?'' and an exuberant impresario in ''Once More With Feeling.'' In 1962 he won a Tony award for his performance as a Parisian aristocrat in ''A Shot in the Dark,'' and three years later won another Tony for ''The Odd Couple.''

In acting, he used his intuition and his native intelligence about people, especially those with eccentricities. ''You study the character by living with him,'' he said. ''Even when you're sleeping, you're developing the character. An actor shouldn't think on the stage. He must only do.''

A Reformed Man After a Heart Scare

In 1966 Mr. Matthau suffered a severe heart attack brought on, his doctor said, by heavy smoking, compulsive gambling and insufficient exercise. The crisis created a reformed man: a nonsmoker, a more moderate gambler (or so it was said) and a dedicated walker.

His obsession with gambling reached a low point early in his career when he bet and lost $183,000 in only two weeks on spring-training baseball games and scrimped for six years to pay off the debt to an underworld loan shark. But his tendency to take risks paid off later, when he reaped a fortune after opting to receive percentages of film profits rather than salaries. He later still placed bets, but relatively small ones, on racehorses that he owned with friends.

Mr. Matthau disliked jogging but became an avid walker, averaging 15 miles a week and varying his pace along ocean beaches near his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. ''It makes you ease up, if you have any sense,'' he said of the heart attack. ''It makes you think about what's important. I feel as though I've been given a second life, one better than the old one.'' In 1976, Mr. Matthau underwent heart bypass surgery. Last year, he was hospitalized for two months with pneumonia.

He was a lifelong enthusiast of sports and classical music, habitually playing records at home and tapes in his cars. In contrast to the crotchety characters he generally played on screen, he was known to friends and colleagues as one of the best natured of men. In later years, he made about one film a year, and when an interviewer suggested in 1990 that he might be approaching retirement, Mr. Matthau replied sharply: ''That word is alien to my vocabulary. Retire to what? I'm doing the work I like.''

He also said he would not direct another film. His first and last was a 1960 low-budget melodrama, ''Gangster Story.'' ''It was one of the worst films ever made,'' he said with characteristic candor, and then added, ''Let me put it another way: it was the worst I ever made.''

His son Charles eventually became a movie director. In 1996 he made a film of ''The Grass Harp,'' in which Walter Matthau played gentlemanly Judge Cool and Jack Lemmon was a salesman.

Mr. Matthau, who teamed up with Mr. Lemmon in ''The Odd Couple II'' in 1998, most recently appeared in ''Hanging Up,'' released in February and starring Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow.

Charles Matthau said that his father approved his choice of career although he suggested that it would have been wiser for his son to have a newsstand and ''find a husky woman who, at the end of a day's work, can carry me home.''

In addition to Charles, Mr. Matthau is survived by his wife, Carol, and two children from a previous marriage, another son, David, and a daughter, Jenny.

Also in 1996, Mr. Matthau starred opposite Ossie Davis in the film version of Herb Gardner's play ''I'm Not Rappaport.'' The role had been created on Broadway by Judd Hirsch and had been played in London by Paul Scofield, but, as was often the case, once Mr. Matthau played a character, he made it definitively his own. Not only did the role seem written specifically for the actor, it also seemed as if he might have been the real-life model: a stubborn old codger who refused to surrender his independence, an irascible (but lovable) survivor of all wars, political and domestic.

Matthau on Film

These are among Walter Matthau's most important films:

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

A Guide for the Married Man (1967)

The Odd Couple (1968)

Hello, Dolly! (1969)

Plaza Suite (1971)

A New Leaf (1971)

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

The Bad News Bears (1976)

Casey's Shadow (1978)

Hopscotch (1980)

Grumpy Old Men (1993)

I'm Not Rappaport (1996)

An Expert Actor Perfected Grumpy, Rumpled Roles

Walter Matthau, the lovably grumpy comic actor with the hangdog face and gruff voice, died Saturday at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica. He was 79.

Matthau was brought into the hospital in full cardiac arrest, a St. John's spokeswoman said, and died at 1:42 a.m.

One of the few actors in Hollywood to successfully move from supporting roles as heavies and ethnic types to leading man, Matthau excelled at both comedy and drama in his career of more than 50 years. But it was the comic persona perfected in such movies as Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," opposite his frequent foil Jack Lemmon, for which he was best known.

Matthau and playwright Simon seemed perfectly suited for each other ("I talk the way he writes, and he writes the way I talk," the actor once said), and he starred in several movie adaptations of Simon's work, including "Plaza Suite" in 1971, "The Sunshine Boys" in 1975 and "California Suite" in 1978.

Matthau's association with Simon began on the New York stage. Three years before he and Lemmon appeared as the slob Oscar Madison and the finicky Felix Unger, respectively, in the movie version of "The Odd Couple," Matthau created the role of Madison on Broadway opposite Art Carney and won a Tony Award for best actor.

An inveterate gambler known for his private penchant for raunchy humor, Matthau is indelibly linked in the public's mind with Lemmon, with whom he bickered and sparred in 10 movies, starting with "The Fortune Cookie" in 1966. Among their other pairings were "Grumpy Old Men" in 1993 and "Grumpier Old Men" in 1995, "Out to Sea" in 1997 and a sequel to "The Odd Couple" in 1998 in which Madison and Unger reunite after 30 years to travel to the wedding of their children. In addition, Lemmon directed Matthau in the 1971 film "Kotch," the only movie on which Lemmon worked behind the camera.

"I have lost someone I loved as a brother, as a closest friend and a remarkable human being," Lemmon said Saturday. "We have also lost one of the best damn actors we'll ever see."

Because of Matthau's trademark rumpled look and droopy posture and the way his delivery modulated crankily between a growl and a bark, he often came across as a grumpy old man even when he was relatively young.

In those days, Matthau was self-conscious about his looks and relative lack of education, but he discovered that he had a way of getting audiences on his side.

"I did a great deal of brooding about myself," Matthau told Lillian and Helen Ross in their 1962 book, "The Player: A Profile of an Art." "I wasn't handsome. I didn't have good clothes. I used to wonder why people would hire me when they could get college graduates and Oxford scholars. Then it became apparent that when I got up on a stage, people actually wanted to look at me."

The 1965 film "Mirage" gave Matthau one of his first big roles. The movie, which starred Gregory Peck, was a disorienting thriller, but Matthau stole the show with his portrayal of a determined yet deadpan private eye. To see the movie today is to marvel at how consistent the actor's persona was through so many roles.

"He could just do anything and everything and just do it so well," said A.C. Lyles, a longtime producer for Paramount Pictures and a friend of Matthau. "I think the thing he had above everything else was believability. Anything he did you believed. He did it with such ease. He didn't seem to be putting out effort. It just came so natural for him."

Never a conventional romantic idol, Matthau played out his stardom opposite some of Hollywood's leading ladies and comics, including Barbra Streisand ("Hello, Dolly!"), Carol Burnett ("Pete 'n' Tillie"), Elaine May ("A New Leaf"), Ingrid Bergman ("Cactus Flower") and Glenda Jackson ("House Calls" and "Hopscotch").

Although what he did on screen often looked effortless, Matthau was a serious actor who spent years honing his craft on stage before turning to screen work.

"He was an extraordinary actor," said Times film critic Kenneth Turan. "I think people forget that he was a really trained and very gifted actor, to which he added this natural sense of humor. He was one of those people that almost anything he said was funny."

In an interview early in his career, Matthau spoke of the hard labor that went into creating a character, and of his preference for the theater.

"On the stage, you have a chance to work on a part and then to work on it some more," he said. "Sometimes it takes me six months before I find out what a line means, even if the writing is superficial. . . . To do a play right, really, I'd like to take two years of rehearsal. You study the character by living with him."

By contrast, acting for movies and television brought him little pleasure. "Working for the screen is almost like being in the Army," he said. "You set your mind to it, and you do it."

In that same 1962 interview, he talked about how much fun it was for him, as an actor, to mingle anonymously with people and study their behavior. "I never want to lead the sheltered, unmingling life," he said. "I have too much fun being anonymous."

By then Matthau had appeared on Broadway in such plays as "Guys and Dolls," "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and "A Shot in the Dark," for which he won the first of his two Tony Awards. He also had been in a number of movies, including "A Face in the Crowd" and "Lonely Are the Brave" and on television programs such as "Playhouse 90" and "Studio One." His anonymous days were over.

Best Supporting Actor

In 1966, he won the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as an unethical lawyer in Billy Wilder's caustic comedy "The Fortune Cookie." It was the first of three films he made with Wilder and the first movie he appeared in with Lemmon. Matthau also received best actor Oscar nominations for "Kotch" and "The Sunshine Boys."

He was Wilder's only choice to play the lawyer in "The Fortune Cookie." A decade earlier, the director had tested Matthau for the male lead opposite Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch."

"I was talked out of it by [20th Century Fox studio head Darryl] Zanuck, because they thought they had a pretty good actor [Tom Ewell] in the play in New York," Wilder recalled Saturday. "We decided ultimately to abandon the idea of bringing [Matthau] out here from New York and having him playing opposite Marilyn Monroe. I always remembered that test I made with him, which was a remarkable test. . . . He was absolutely superb.

"I much regret that we will not see him anymore," Wilder added. "He was a first-class man and a great human being."

Matthau directed one movie, "The Gangster Story" (1960), in which he co-starred. He later described it as "the worst film ever made."

The actor was born Walter Matuschanskayasky. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he grew up on New York's Lower East Side. As a boy he sold soft drinks and three-flavored ice bricks during intermission at Yiddish theaters on 2nd Avenue. "Then," he recalled, "they put me on stage and gave me a couple of lines. I played an old lady in a crowd scene."

But playing bit roles for 50 cents a performance didn't immediately lead to a life in the theater. After graduating from high school, where he excelled in sports as well as drama, Matthau passed through a series of jobs as a filing clerk, boxing instructor, basketball coach, floor scrubber and cement bag handler. During World War II he served three years in the Air Force as a radio operator and cryptographer in the European theater.

Determined after the war to become an actor, Matthau enrolled at the renowned Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research and began appearing in summer stock productions. His first professional job was in 1946 in "Three Men on a Horse" at the Erie County Playhouse, followed by "Ten Nights in a Barroom." He got bit roles on Broadway, such as that of the candelabrum carrier in the 1948 production of "Anne of a Thousand Days," starring Rex Harrison.

Starting in the 1950s, Matthau shuttled back and forth between Broadway, Hollywood and the world of live TV, where he attracted attention in such productions as the famous adaptation of Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock." Overall he appeared in almost 100 television shows.

Matthau loved the spontaneity of live TV, the way it made him think on his feet. He once said that form offered "the best acting experience you could ever have."

He continued: "If you're sitting around and doing Chekhov and the cat walks in, you must pay attention to the cat. You cannot continue the dialogue of Chekhov without including the cat. So on live television we'd automatically go into ad-lib gear.

"There's the famous story: Suddenly the phone rings on stage and there's not supposed to be a phone call. And it's persistent. And eventually the guy walks over, picks up the phone, says, 'Hello?' Then he looks at the other actor and says, 'It's for you.' "

Matthau was married twice, once to Grace Johnson, with whom he had two children, David and Jenny. They were divorced in 1958 after 10 years of marriage.

A year later he married actress Carol Marcus, who was the inspiration for Truman Capote's character Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." They met when Matthau starred on Broadway in "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"--in which she played a small role. They had one son, Charles, who directed his father in a few TV movies and the 1996 feature film "The Grass Harp," which also starred Lemmon.

A vivacious beauty who had been married twice to author William Saroyan, Marcus had relationships with the likes of James Agee and hobnobbed with the rich and famous. But her relationship with Matthau endured. They seemed to be good for each other.

"She lifts me to several levels above that which would make me comfortable," he told a Times reporter in 1992, upon publication of her memoir, "Among the Porcupines." "I would be an ordinary character actor on Broadway with no desire to do anything else," he said, had he not married her.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete late Saturday.

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