Best know to classic movie fans for his role as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple opposite his on screen partner Jack Lemmon.
The Indian Fighter
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
Voice in the Mirror
Ride a Crooked Trail
Strangers When We Meet
Lonely Are the Brave
Who’s Got the Action?
Island of Love
The Fortune Cookie
A Guide for the Married Man
The Secret Life of an American Wife
A New Leaf
Pete ‘n’ Tillie
The Laughing Policeman
The Front Page
The Lion Roars Again
The Gentleman Tramp
The Bad News Bears
La polizia ha le mani legate
Little Miss Marker
First Monday in October
Neil Simon’s I Ought to Be in Pictures
Movers & Shakers
The Couch Trip
The Little Devil
Beyond ‘JFK’: The Question of Conspiracy
Dr. Seuss Video Classics: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Dennis the Menace
Grumpy Old Men
The Grass Harp
Grumpier Old Men
I’m Not Rappaport
Out to Sea
The Odd Couple II
Love After Death
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
I think doing comedy is more difficult … than doing noncomedic or tragic or whatever you want to call it. Because it’s difficult to make all kinds of different audiences understand what you’re doing, and moving you to laughter. ~ Walter Matthau
Walter Matthau was born Walter John Matthow on October 1, 1920, in New York City’s Lower East Side. His mother, Rose (née Berolsky), was a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who worked in a garment sweatshop, and his father, Milton Matthow, was a Russian Jewish peddler and electrician, from Kiev, Ukraine. As part of a lifelong love of practical jokes, Matthau himself created the rumors that his middle name was Foghorn and his last name was originally Matuschanskayasky (under which he is credited for a cameo role in the film Earthquake).
As a young boy, Matthau attended a Jewish non-profit sleepaway camp, Tranquillity Camp, where he first began acting in the shows the camp would stage on Saturday nights. He also attended Surprise Lake Camp. He went to high school at Seward Park High School. He worked for a short time as a concession stand cashier in the Yiddish Theatre District.
During World War II, Matthau served in the U.S. Army Air Forces with the Eighth Air Force in Britain as a Consolidated B-24 Liberator radioman-gunner, in the same 453rd Bombardment Group as James Stewart. He was based at RAF Old Buckenham, Norfolk during this time, and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He reached the rank of staff sergeant
He took classes in acting at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School with German director Erwin Piscator. He often joked that his best early review came in a play where he posed as a derelict.
Matthau appeared in the pilot of Mister Peepers (1952) with Wally Cox. For reasons unknown he used the name Leonard Elliot. His role was of the gym teacher Mr. Wall. He made his motion picture debut as a whip-wielding bad guy in The Kentuckian (1955) opposite Burt Lancaster. He played a villain in King Creole (1958), in which he gets beaten up by Elvis Presley. Around the same time, he made Ride a Crooked Trail with Audie Murphy, and Onionhead (both 1958) starring Andy Griffith; the latter was a flop. Matthau had a featured role opposite Griffith in the well received drama A Face in the Crowd (1957), directed by Elia Kazan. Matthau also directed a low-budget movie called The Gangster Story (1960) and was a sympathetic sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave (1962), which starred Kirk Douglas. He appeared opposite Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963).
Comedies were rare in Matthau’s work at that time. He was cast in a number of stark dramas, such as Fail Safe (1964), in which he portrayed Pentagon adviser Dr. Groeteschele, who urges an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union in response to an accidental transmission of an attack signal to U.S. Air Force bombers. Neil Simon cast him in the play The Odd Couple in 1965, with Matthau playing slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison, opposite Art Carney as Felix Ungar. Matthau later reprised the role in the film version, with Jack Lemmon as Felix Ungar. He played detective Ted Casselle in the Hitchcockian thriller Mirage (1965), directed by Edward Dmytryk.
He achieved great success in the comedy film, The Fortune Cookie (1966), as a shyster lawyer, William H. “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich, starring opposite Lemmon, and the first of many collaborations with Billy Wilder, and a role that would earn him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Filming had to be placed on a five-month hiatus after Matthau suffered a serious heart attack. He gave up his three pack a day smoking habit as a result. Matthau appeared during the Oscar telecast shortly after having been injured in a bicycle accident; nonetheless, he scolded actors who had not attended the ceremony, especially the other major award winners that night: Paul Scofield, Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis.
Oscar nominations would come Matthau’s way again for Kotch (1971), directed by Lemmon, and The Sunshine Boys (1975), another adaptation of a Neil Simon stage play, this time about a pair of former vaudeville stars. For the latter role he won a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Broadway hits turned into films continued to cast Matthau in lead roles in Hello, Dolly! and Cactus Flower (both 1969); for the latter film, Goldie Hawn received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Matthau played three roles in the film version of Simon’s Plaza Suite (1971) and was in the cast of its followup California Suite (1978).
Matthau starred in three crime dramas in the mid-1970s, as a detective investigating a mass murder on a bus in The Laughing Policeman (1973), as a bank robber on the run from the Mafia and the law in Charley Varrick (also 1973) and as a New York transit cop in the action-adventure The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). A change of pace about misfits on a Little League baseball team turned-out to be a solid hit when Matthau starred as coach Morris Buttermaker in the comedy The Bad News Bears (1976). Matthau portrayed Herbert Tucker in I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982), with Ann-Margret and Dinah Manoff. Matthau played Albert Einstein in the film I.Q. (1994), starring Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan.
His partnership with Lemmon became one of the most successful pairings in Hollywood. They became lifelong friends after making The Fortune Cookie and would make a total of 10 movies together—11 counting Kotch, in which Lemmon has a cameo as a sleeping bus passenger. Apart from their many comedies, the two appeared (although they did not share any scenes) in the Oliver Stone drama, JFK (1991). Matthau narrated the Doctor Seuss Video Classics: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1992) and played the role of Mr. Wilson in the film Dennis the Menace (1993).
Matthau and Lemmon reunited for the comedy Grumpy Old Men (1993), co-starring Ann-Margret, and its sequel, Grumpier Old Men (1995), also co-starring Sophia Loren. This led to further pairings late in their careers, Out to Sea (1997) and a Simon-scripted sequel to their much earlier success, The Odd Couple II (1998). Hanging Up (2000), directed by Diane Keaton, was Matthau’s final appearance onscreen.
Matthau was married twice; first to Grace Geraldine Johnson from 1948 to 1958, and then to Carol Marcus from 1959 until he died in 2000. He had two children, Jenny and David, by his first wife, and a son, Charlie Matthau, with his second wife.
A heavy smoker and drinker, Matthau suffered a heart attack in 1966, the first of at least three in his lifetime. In 1976, ten years after his first heart attack, he underwent heart bypass surgery. After working in freezing Minnesota weather for Grumpy Old Men (1993), he was hospitalized for double pneumonia. He was also hospitalized in May 1999 for more than two months, owing again to pneumonia. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 1999.
In addition to colon cancer, Matthau suffered from atherosclerotic heart disease during the last years of his life. On the late evening of June 30, 2000, he suffered a heart attack at his home and was taken by ambulance to the St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica where he died a few hours later at 1:42 a.m. on July 1, 2000. He was 79 years old. His remains are interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.