The funeral for Walter Matthau was short and sweet, witnessed by immediate family and a few adoring friends. An ambulance took him to a Santa Monica hospital late on the last night of June, and the burial came a couple of sunrises later, on a Sunday, for a towering figure of the stage and screen with the posture of a question mark.
Most of the obituaries reported, as so many film historians hilariously have, that the much-loved actor was born with a mouthful of a name, Walter Matuschanskavasky, on the first day of October, 1920. At least they got the date right. Those who loved Walter Matthau most knew the facts, that this was just another of his great gags, that his given name was Matthow, emphasis on the ow.
Something else known to his son, Charles Matthau, 35, was the way Walter wanted to go out. In a plain pine box. Nothing fancy for him. And since their kinship was such that Charlie came to call him "as close to perfect as a human being can possibly be," granting a last wish was the least he could do.
Yet even such a moment as this couldn't pass without a laugh, for Walter would have wanted it that way as well. At the graveyard in Westwood, therefore, noting the crypt of Marilyn Monroe nearby, the younger Matthau joked that knowing his father, he'd have insisted that the cemetery give billing to its stars alphabetically.
There was but one bottom line for Charlie to add after that, being familiar with Walter's love of baseball and favorite childhood park.
"Poppy," he addressed his dad, as ever, "you said that you wanted a simple pine casket, so that's what we got you. But we want you to know, this plot alone cost as much as Ebbets Field."
Jack Lemmon needed a few days to get over the loss of his friend, his role mate, the on-and-offstage Pythias to his Damon. Of course he will never truly get over it, because Lemmon and Matthau practically came with an ampersand between their names, coupled like a duet, buddy-buddy till the end.
A fortnight after his death, the mere speaking of Matthau's name makes Lemmon's eyes moist. He postpones a golf game with a newfound friend and makes an appointment to see a nerve specialist because, like bolts from the blue, twinges of pain "like flashes of lightning" have begun shooting from Lemmon's temple to his eye.
"Any mementos in here remind you of Walter in particular?" he is asked.
A familiar crooked smile forms on Lemmon's 75-year-old face. He points to a Polaroid taped to a desktop lamp.
"Walter autographed that one to me personally," he says.
The two words written on the picture can be spoken in many a film, but not printed in many a newspaper.
A splendidly groomed, charcoal-colored poodle called Chloe pads into the room. Lemmon brightens at the remembrance of having taken his dog to the hospital at UCLA a number of weeks ago to pay a call on Walter, and the dog, not on a leash, getting to the room first. A vision of Matthau as a W.C. Fields type, immune to the charms of kids and pets, is a hard one to shake.
It is inaccurate. "Walter was not a curmudgeon," Lemmon says. "That's the first mistake people make."
There were many. One was the made-up name. Another was the illusion of a robust man, roughhewn, hide tough as a 10-cent steak, the confusing of the actor with the act: the shyster "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich with the disorderly roll-top desk, the beer-guzzling Little League coach Morris Buttermaker, the slovenly vaudevillian Willie Clark, the even sloppier sportswriter Oscar Madison.
Fact is, says the actor whose finicky Felix Unger played opposite Oscar, they were an odder couple than some realized, for the Matthau he knew was a fragile figure, susceptible to ailments of all kinds, with a pinch of hypochondria thrown in, who would cringe and bruise if a stranger made the mistake of slapping him on the back.
Lemmon says: "He was Felix."
In 1966, while they were shooting the first film they did together, "The Fortune Cookie," a heart attack felled Matthau for weeks. Later, he fought congestive heart failure, a relapse of stomach cancer, double pneumonia, you name it, Lemmon says.
"Now that I've had a few days to mull it over, I still hate that old bromide, 'It's better this way,' but Walter's quality of life was less than zero. He probably would never have gotten out of a wheelchair, which for him would have been unbearable. He was just skin and bones, no flesh at all. He'd tell me, 'I don't know why they're prolonging it. Why don't they just let me go?' "
Then he'd tell a joke.
"Two Irishmen walk out of a pub," Matthau said to Lemmon.
"It could happen."
Nobody else in 10 words or fewer could make Lemmon smile like that. The morning of July 1, his wife, Felicia, broke in on Jack in the bathroom. This also made him grin. "You aren't going to smile anymore," she said, and cradled him in her arms. "Walter's gone."