Specializing in playing curmudgeonly cranks, actor Walter Matthau parlayed his rumpled, hangdog features into a long career in film and on television. Matthau started on the stage and enjoyed lasting success on Broadway, before making the transition to villainous supporting roles in films like "King Creole" (1958) and "Charade" (1963). Following more supporting roles in the comedy sequel "Ensign Pulver" (1964) and the tense political thriller "Fail-Safe" (1964), Matthau partnered for the first time with Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder's caustic comedy, "The Fortune Cookie" (1966). The pair would go on to star opposite each other in their most famous partnership, "The Odd Couple" (1968), while Matthau branched off as the lead in a number of classic crime thrillers, including "Charlie Varrick" (1973) and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974). He forged another successful, albeit brief partnership with George Burns for "The Sunshine Boys" (1975) and delivered his most popular performance as the beer-swilling manager of a misfit Little League baseball team in "The Bad News Bears" (1976). Matthau spent much of the 1980s in a number of forgettable movies before reuniting with Lemmon for the surprisingly successful "Grumpy Old Men" (1993), which spawned the lesser sequel "Grumpier Old Men" (1995) and the unrelated "Out to Sea" (1997). Though he ended his career with a string of box office misfires, Matthau nonetheless left behind a last legacy that included numerous hit comedies, surprisingly well-acted thrillers, and one of the greatest onscreen partnerships in cinema history.
Born on Oct. 1, 1920 in New York City, Matthau was raised by his Jewish immigrant parents, Milton, an electrician and street peddler, and Rose, who toiled away in a sweatshop. When he was three years old, Matthau's father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to singlehandedly care for him and his brother, Henry. Interested in performing at a young age, he made his professional debut at 11 years old in the musical "The Dishwasher" (1931). Though he played bit parts in local Yiddish theater productions as a child, Matthau did not pursue acting in earnest until later in life. Meanwhile, he graduated from Seward Park High School in 1939 and joined the U.S. Army Air Force, where he served as a radio operator and cryptographer in the same bombardment group as James Stewart. Stationed in England, France and Germany, Matthau reached the rank of staff sergeant before his discharge in 1945. Upon his return to the United States, he moved to Reno, NV, where he worked at the Railway Express, before moving back to Manhattan.
Once back home, Matthau briefly attended the School of Journalism at Columbia University, before studying acting at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research, where he counted Tony Curtis, Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando among his classmates. Matthau took to the stage in 1946, performing in a summer stock production of "Ten Nights in a Bar Room" in Pennsylvania, and becoming a stock player for the Orange County Playhouse in New York. After becoming an understudy for "Anne of the Thousand Days" in 1948, Matthau made his Broadway debut in the play as the 85-year-old Bishop Fisher, marking the first of 18 plays in which he would act on the Great White Way. While finding success on Broadway in productions like "The Liar" (1950), Matthau made his television debut in the "Last Cruise" episode of the long-running anthology series, "Studio One" (CBS, 1948-1958). After playing Iago in a "Philco Television Playhouse" (NBC, 1948-1955) presentation of "Othello," he made his feature debut as a villainous, whip-cracking saloon-keeper in "The Kentuckian" (1955), starring and directed by Burt Lancaster.
While he was making strides on both big and small screens, Matthau's main success still came from the stage. He had his first major Broadway hit with "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1955) and also starred as Nathan Detroit in a 1955 revival of "Guys and Dolls." Back on the big screen, he had a supporting role in Nicholas Ray's psychological drama "Bigger than Life" (1956), which starred James Mason as a mild-mannered family man who becomes a willing participant in a drug experiment that goes awry. He went on to play a cynical newsman investigating a conniving backwoods preacher (Andy Griffiths) in "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), before returning to television to star in the short-lived syndicated series, " Tallahassee 7000" (1957). After portraying an evil crime boss who gets beat up by Elvis Presley in "King Creole" (1958), Matthau made his one and only film as a director, "Gangster Story" (1959), in which he played an up-and-coming gangster who tries to infiltrate his rival while his girlfriend (Carole Grace) attempts to reform him.
Following a supporting turn in the melodramatic "Strangers When We Meet" (1960), Matthau played a sympathetic sheriff sworn to bringing in an escaped Kirk Douglas in the allegorical Western "Lonely are the Brave" (1962). He won his first Tony Award for Best Featured Actor for his performance in Marcel Achard's "A Shot in the Dark" (1962), before turning in another fine villainous portrayal in Stanley Donen's comic mystery thriller "Charade" (1963), starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. He next co-starred opposite Robert Walker in "Ensign Pulver" (1964), rather forgettable sequel to John Ford's classic comedy "Mister Roberts" (1955), and went on to play a Henry Kissinger-like scientist opposite Henry Fonda as the U.S. president in Sidney Lumet's excellent nuclear thriller, "Fail-Safe" (1964). The following year, Matthau originated the role of Oscar Madison opposite Art Carney's Felix Unger in Neil Simon's Broadway smash, "The Odd Couple" (1965), a performance that netted him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. From there, he teamed up with actor Jack Lemmon for the first time in Billy Wilder's caustic comedy, "The Fortune Cookie" (1966), where Matthau's sharp portrayal of an unethical lawyer who convinces Lemmon's injured cameraman to feign being paralyzed drew raves as well as earned the actor an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
After playing the husband if Inger Stevens in Gene Kelly's "A Guide for the Married Man" (1967), Matthau reprised Oscar Madison to Jack Lemmon's fastidious Felix Unger for Gene Saks' adaptation of "The Odd Couple" (1968), a role that firmly established him as a comedic leading man. Kelly then gave him his chance as a romantic leading man who sings opposite Barbra Streisand's Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" (1968), after which he reunited with Saks on the mildly amusing "Cactus Flower" (1969), featuring an Oscar-winning supporting performance by Goldie Hawn in her first significant role. Continuing their collaboration, Lemmon directed Matthau to a second Academy Award nod as Best Actor in "Kotch" (1971), a light drama where he played a curmudgeonly septuagenarian widower struggling with his family to maintain his independence. He next starred opposite Elaine May in the actress' dark romantic comedy, "A New Leaf" (1971), where he played a conniving middle-aged playboy who plans on marrying a dowdy heiress to a large fortune (May) for her money. Aside from "The Odd Couple," Matthau acted in a number of comedies adapted by Neil Simon from his plays, including appearing in all three vignettes of "Plaza Suite" (1971), directed by Arthur Hiller, scoring particularly well in the last one as the flustered father of a reluctant bride.
After starring with Carol Burnett in Martin Ritt's "Pete 'n' Tillie" (1972) and making a rare small screen appearance in "Awake and Sing" (PBS, 1972), Matthau switched gears and delivered several memorable dramatic performances. He was a cool and calculating bank robber unafraid to do what it takes to escape the law in Don Siegel's underappreciated crime thriller, "Charlie Varrick" (1973), before playing an embittered San Francisco cop on the hunt for a deranged killer in the ironically titled "The Laughing Policeman" (1973). He went on to deliver one of his strongest performances as a harried New York City cop out to nab a group of subway hijackers in Joseph Sargent's classic, "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974), before reuniting with Wilder and Lemmon for the uneven comedy "The Front Page" (1974). He followed with a return to the stage for the first - and ultimately last - time in nearly a decade for the Los Angeles production of "Juno and the Paycock" (1974), and moved on to make the first of three films directed by Herbert Ross from Neil Simon scripts, "The Sunshine Boys" (1975), in which he starred alongside George Burns as cranky vaudeville partners coaxed out of retirement for a television special.
Matthau's lovable gruffness served him well in one of the most popular roles of his career, playing a drunk, down-and-out former baseball player who takes over managing a group of misfit Little Leaguers in the beloved comedy, "The Bad News Bears" (1976). As the beer-swilling pool cleaner, Morris Buttermaker, he turns the team of hopeless losers into winners with the help of a smart-mouthed hurler (Tatum O'Neal) and a cigarette-smoking punk (Jackie Earle Haley) who can hit the ball a country mile. Chock full of vulgarities uttered by pre-pubescent kids and the occasional ethnic slur - none of which would ever occur in more contemporary films - "Bad News Bears" was a true product of its time and remained a favorite among later generations. After starring with Glenda Jackson and Art Carney in the comedy "House Calls" (1978), Matthau reunited with Ross, Simon and Elaine May for a supporting turn as a cheating husband in "California Suite" (1978). But while he enjoyed enormous critical and commercial success in the 1970s, Matthau hit a rough patch in the following decade. After starring in Billy Wilder's last film, the unfortunately subpar slapstick comedy "Buddy Buddy" (1981), Matthau was top billed in Herbert Ross' listless "I Ought to Be in Pictures" (1981), portraying a screenwriter who is visited by his teenage daughter (Dinah Manoff).
Following a turn as a Supreme Court justice in the comedic drama, "First Monday in October" (1981), Matthau co-starred with Robin Williams in the poorly received comedy, "The Survivors" (1983). His disappointing choices continued with the forgettable "Movers & Shakers" (1985), a peg-leg portrayal of the Cockney-speaking Captain Red for Roman Polanski's commercial disaster, "Pirates" (1986), and the screwball comedy about mental illness "The Couch Trip" (1988). Fed up with scripts he was receiving, Matthau turned to the small screen for to revive his career. He acted for the first time in a made-for-television movie, playing Harmon Cobb, a small-town attorney during World War II who must defend a German POW accused of murder in the Emmy-winning "The Incident" (CBS, 1990), while also appearing opposite Ellen Burstyn in "Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love" (CBS, 1991). Matthau was memorable in a cameo as a skeptical U.S. senator who sows the seeds of doubt into the mind of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) about the assassination of "JFK" (1991). Meanwhile, he reprised the small-screen role of Harmon Cobb in two well-received sequels, "Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore" (CBS, 1992) and "Incident in a Small Town" (CBS, 1994).
Matthau returned to leading feature roles as the long-suffering Mr. Wilson in John Hughes' "Dennis the Menace" (1993), reaching a whole new audience of pre-adolescents before dusting off the old chemistry with partner Jack Lemmon to score a major comedy hit with "Grumpy Old Men" (1993). Suddenly, the curmudgeonly basset hound was hot again. He teamed with Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins for the would-be modern screwball comedy "I.Q." (1994), garnering the film's best notices for his pleasing portrayal of Albert Einstein, and reuniting with Lemmon for the lesser sequel, "Grumpier Old Men" (1995). His son, director Charles Matthau, cast him against type as the sweet, loveable Judge Cool in "The Grass Harp" (1995), a thoughtful drama based on Truman Capote's evocative memoir of his boyhood in the South that featured a scene between Matthau and Lemmon. He then played a feisty elderly Jew who forms an unlikely friendship with a black boxer (Ossie Davis) in Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport" (1996). From there, he reteamed with Lemmon as grumpy old men in the mediocre "Out to Sea" (1997), but went a bridge too far with the ill-conceived sequel, "The Odd Couple II" (1998). Following a reunion with Carol Burnett in "The Marriage Fool" (CBS, 1998), helmed by his son Charles, he was the perfect fit as the irascible father of Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow in the otherwise forgettable romantic comedy "Hanging Up" (2000). That proved to be the coda to his long, venerable career, as he died on June 1, 2000 after suffering a heart attack. Matthau was 79 years old, and had earlier been diagnosed with colon cancer, which had spread to other parts of his body. His old friend and comedy partner Jack Lemmon followed almost exactly a year later.
By Shawn Dwyer