Walter Matthau

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Walter Matthau
Walter Matthau.jpg
Walter Matthau in A New Leaf (1972)
Born Walter John Matthow
(1920-10-01)October 1, 1920
New York City, New York, United States
Died July 1, 2000 (aged 79)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Cause of death Heart disease and cancer
Resting place Westwood Village Memorial Park
Residence Santa Monica, California
Nationality American
Education Seward Park High School
Alma mater The New School
Occupation Actor, singer
Years active 1944–2000
Notable work The Odd Couple,
The Bad News Bears,
The Fortune Cookie,
Grumpy Old Men
Home town New York, New York, United States
Height 6' 2" (1.89 m)
Spouse(s) Grace Geraldine Johnson (1948–1958; divorced; 2 children)
Carol Marcus (1958–2000; his death; 1 child)
Children Charles Matthau
Jenny Matthau
David Matthau
Parent(s) Milton and Rose (née Berolsky) Matthow
Awards Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Tony Award, Golden Globe Award

Walter Matthau (/ˈmæθ/;[1] October 1, 1920 – July 1, 2000) was an American actor best known for his role as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and his frequent collaborations with Odd Couple co-star Jack Lemmon, as well as his role as Coach Buttermaker in the 1976 comedy The Bad News Bears. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the 1966 Billy Wilder film The Fortune Cookie. Besides the Oscar, he was the winner of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Tony awards.

Early life[edit]

Matthau was born Walter John Matthow[2][3] 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.[4][5][6] 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).[7]

As a young boy, Walter 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. His high school was Seward Park High School.[8] He worked for a short time as a concession stand cashier in the Yiddish Theater District.[9]


During World War II, Matthau served in the U.S. Army Air Forces with the Eighth Air Force in England as a B-24 Liberator radioman-gunner, in the same 453rd Bombardment Group as James Stewart. He was based at RAF Old Buckenham during this time. He reached the rank of staff sergeant and became interested in acting.[citation needed]

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. One reviewer said, "The others just looked like actors in make-up, Walter Matthau really looks like a skid row bum!" Matthau was a respected stage actor for years in such fare as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and A Shot in the Dark. He won the 1962 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a play.[10]

Matthau in 1952

In 1952, Matthau appeared in the pilot of Mr. Peepers with Wally Cox. For reasons unknown he used the name Leonard Elliot. His role was of the gym teacher Mr. Wall. In 1955, he made his motion picture debut as a whip-wielding bad guy in The Kentuckian opposite Burt Lancaster. He played a villain in King Creole (1958), in which he gets beaten up by Elvis Presley). That same year, he made Ride a Crooked Trail with Audie Murphy, and Onionhead 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, directed by Elia Kazan. Matthau also directed a low-budget 1960 movie called The Gangster Story. In 1962, he was a sympathetic sheriff in Lonely are the Brave, which starred Kirk Douglas. He appeared opposite Audrey Hepburn in Charade.[11]

Appearances on television were common too, including two on Naked City, as well as the 1963 episode "A Tumble from a Tall White House" of The Eleventh Hour. He appeared eight times between 1962 and 1964 on The DuPont Show of the Week and as Franklin Gaer in 1964 in the episode "Man Is a Rock" on Dr. Kildare. Lastly, he starred in the syndicated crime drama Tallahassee 7000, as a Florida-based state police investigator (1961–62).[11]

Matthau and Art Carney in The Odd Couple, 1965

Comedies were rare in Matthau's work at that time. He was cast in a number of stark dramas, such as 1964's Fail-Safe, 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. In 1965, Neil Simon cast him in the hit play The Odd Couple, playing slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison, opposite Art Carney as Felix Unger.[10] Matthau later reprised the role in the film version, opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix Ungar. Also in 1965, he played detective Ted Casselle in the Hitchcockian thriller Mirage, directed by Edward Dmytryk.[11]

He achieved great success in a 1966 comedy film, The Fortune Cookie, as a shyster lawyer, William H. "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich, starring opposite Lemmon, and the first of numerous collaborations with Billy Wilder, and a role that would earn him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.[11] 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.[12] Matthau was visibly banged up during the Oscar telecast, having been involved 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.[13]

Oscar nominations would come Matthau's way again for 1971's Kotch, directed by Lemmon, and 1975's The Sunshine Boys, another Simon vehicle transferred from the stage, this one 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.[11]

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 1971 film version of Simon's Plaza Suite and was in the cast of its followup California Suite in 1978.[11]

Matthau starred in three crime dramas in the mid-1970s, as a detective investigating a mass murder on a bus in The Laughing Policeman, as a bank robber on the run from the Mafia and the law in Charley Varrick and as a New York transit cop in the action-adventure The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. A change of pace about misfits on a Little League baseball team turned-out to be a solid hit in 1976, when Matthau starred as coach Morris Buttermaker in the comedy The Bad News Bears. In 1982, Matthau portrayed Herbert Tucker in I Ought to Be in Pictures, with Ann-Margret and Dinah Manoff.[11]

Matthau in Hello, Dolly!, 1969

Matthau played Albert Einstein in the film IQ, 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 1991 Oliver Stone drama, JFK. In 1992, Matthau narrated the Doctor Seuss Video Classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Matthau played the role of Mr. Wilson in the 1993 movie Dennis the Menace.[11]

Matthau and Lemmon reunited in 1993 for the hit comedy Grumpy Old Men, co-starring Ann-Margret, and the 1995 sequel, Grumpier Old Men, that also co-starred Sophia Loren. This led to more pairings late in their careers, notably Out to Sea and a Simon-scripted sequel to one of their great successes, The Odd Couple II. Hanging Up (2000), directed by Diane Keaton, was Matthau's final appearance onscreen.[11]

Personal life[edit]


Matthau was married twice; first to Grace Geraldine Johnson from 1948 to 1958, and then to Carol Marcus from 1959 until his death in 2000. He had two children, Jenny and David, by his first wife, and a son, Charlie Matthau, with his second wife. David is a radio news reporter, currently at WKXW "New Jersey 101.5" in Trenton, New Jersey. Jenny is president of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. Matthau also helped raise his stepchildren, Aram Saroyan and Lucy Saroyan. His grandchildren include William Matthau, an engineer, and Emily Rose Roman, a student at Binghamton University. Charlie Matthau directed his father in The Grass Harp (1995).[11]

Walter Matthau in Charade

Health problems[edit]

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 in 1993, he was hospitalized for double pneumonia. In December 1995 he had a colon tumor removed; it tested benign. He was also hospitalized in May 1999 for more than two months after another bout of pneumonia.[12] In November 1999, he was diagnosed with colon cancer shortly after completing his final acting role Hanging Up.


Walter Matthau gravesite

Matthau suffered from atherosclerotic heart disease and colon cancer, which had spread to his liver, lungs and brain.[14] He died of a heart attack in Santa Monica on July 1, 2000. He was 79 years old.[15] His remains are interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Less than a year later, the remains of Jack Lemmon (who died of colon and bladder cancer) were buried at the same cemetery. After Matthau's death, Lemmon as well as other friends and relatives had appeared on Larry King Live in an hour of tribute and remembrance; many of those same people appeared on the show one year later, reminiscing about Lemmon. Carol Marcus, also a native of New York, died of a brain aneurysm in 2003. Her remains are buried on top of those of her husband, Matthau. The remains of actor George C. Scott are buried to the left of those of Walter Matthau, in an unmarked grave, and Farrah Fawcett's remains are buried to the right.[citation needed]



Year Film Role Notes
1955 The Kentuckian Stan Bodine
1955 The Indian Fighter Wes Todd
1956 Bigger Than Life Wally Gibbs
1957 A Face in the Crowd Mel Miller
1957 Slaughter on Tenth Avenue Al Dahlke
1958 King Creole Maxie Fields
1958 Voice in the Mirror Dr. Karnes
1958 Ride a Crooked Trail Judge Kyle
1958 Onionhead Red Wildoe
1960 Gangster Story Jack Martin Also director
1960 Strangers When We Meet Felix Anders
1962 Lonely Are the Brave Sheriff Morey Johnson
1962 Who's Got the Action? Tony Gagouts
1963 Island of Love Tony Dallas
1963 Charade Carson Dyle aka Hamilton Bartholomew
1964 Ensign Pulver Doc
1964 Fail-Safe Professor Groeteschele
1964 Goodbye Charlie Sir Leopold Sartori
1965 Mirage Ted Caselle
1966 The Fortune Cookie William H. "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
Laurel Award for Top Male Supporting Performance
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1967 A Guide for the Married Man Paul Manning
1968 The Odd Couple Oscar Madison Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1968 The Secret Life of an American Wife The Movie Star Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1968 Candy General
1969 Hello, Dolly! Horace Vandergelder Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1969 Cactus Flower Dr. Julian Winston
1971 A New Leaf Henry Graham
1971 Plaza Suite Sam Nash/Jesse Kiplinger/Roy Hubley
1971 Kotch Joseph P. Kotcher Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1972 Pete 'n' Tillie Pete Seltzer BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1973 The Laughing Policeman Detective Sergeant Jake Martin
1973 Charley Varrick Charley Varrick BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1974 The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Lieutenant Zachary Garber
1974 Earthquake Drunk Credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky[citation needed]
1974 The Front Page Walter Burns David di Donatello for Best Foreign Actor
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1975 The Lion Roars Again Himself Short subject
1975 The Gentleman Tramp Documentary
1975 The Sunshine Boys Willy Clark Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Nominated – Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1976 The Bad News Bears Morris Buttermaker Nominated – BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1978 Casey's Shadow Lloyd Bourdelle
1978 House Calls Dr. Charles "Charley" Nichols
1978 California Suite Marvin Michaels
1980 La polizia ha le mani legate Documentary
1980 Little Miss Marker Sorrowful Jones
1980 Hopscotch Miles Kendig Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1981 First Monday in October Associate Justice Daniel Snow Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1981 Buddy Buddy Trabucco
1982 Neil Simon's I Ought to Be in Pictures Herbert Tucker
1983 The Survivors Sonny Paluso
1985 Movers & Shakers Joe Mulholland
1986 Pirates Captain Thomas Bartholomew Red
1988 The Little Devil Father Maurice
1988 The Couch Trip Donald Becker
1991 JFK Senator Russell B. Long
1992 Beyond 'JFK': The Question of Conspiracy Documentary
1992 Doctor Seuss Video Classics: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Narrator
1993 Dennis the Menace George Wilson
1993 Grumpy Old Men Max Goldman
1994 I.Q. Albert Einstein
1995 The Grass Harp Judge Charlie Cool
1995 Grumpier Old Men Max Goldman
1996 I'm Not Rappaport Nat Moyer
1997 Out to Sea Charlie Gordon
1998 The Odd Couple II Oscar Madison
1998 Love After Death
1998 The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg Himself Documentary
2000 Hanging Up Lou Mozell


Year Stage Role Notes
1948 Anne of the Thousand Days
1950 The Liar
1951 Twilight Walk Sam Dundee
1952 Fancy Meeting You Again Sinclair Heybore
1952 One Bright Day George Lawrence
1952 In Any Language Charlie Hill
1952 The Grey-Eyed People John Hart
1953 The Ladies of the Corridor Paul Osgood
1953 The Burning Glass Tony Lack
1955 Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Michael Freeman
1955 Guys and Dolls Nathan Detroit
1958 Once More, with Feeling! Maxwell Archer Nominated – Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play
1961 Once There Was a Russian Potemkin
1961 A Shot in the Dark Benjamin Beaurevers Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play
1963 My Mother, My Father and Me Herman Halpern
1965 The Odd Couple Oscar Madison Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play


Year Title Role Notes
1954 The Motorola Television Hour Episode: "Atomic Attack"
1954 Justice
1958 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Episode: "The Crooked Road"
1959 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Episode: "Dry Run"
1960 Juno and the Paycock
1961 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Episode: "Cop for a Day"
1961 Route 66 Episode: "Eleven, the Hard Way"
1961 Tallahassee 7000 Cast member
1961–1962 Target: The Corruptors! Two episodes
1972 Awake and Sing! Moe Axelrod
1978 Actor
1978 Saturday Night Live Host Season 4, Episode 7 (2 December 1978)
1978 The Stingiest Man in Town Ebenezer Scrooge Voice role
1990 The Incident Harmon J. Cobb
1991 Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love
1992 Against Her Will: An Incident in Baltimore Harmon J. Cobb
1994 Incident in a Small Town Harmon J. Cobb
1998 The Marriage Fool


  1. ^ Matthau, Walter - Oxford Dictionaries
  2. ^ Edelman, Rob; Audrey E. Kupferberg (2002). Matthau: a life. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 0-87833-274-X. 
  3. ^ Wright, Stuart J. (2004). An emotional gauntlet: from life in peacetime America to the war in European skies. Terrace Books. p. 179. ISBN 0-299-20520-7. 
  4. ^ Stone, Judy (September 8, 1968). "Matthau – A Sex Symbol Or a Jewish Mother?". The New York Times ( Retrieved 2014-02-03. subscription required
  5. ^ "Walter Matthau profile at". Retrieved 2014-02-03. 
  6. ^ Gussow, Mel (July 2, 2000). "Walter Matthau, 79, Rumpled Star and Comic Icon, Dies". The New York Times ( Retrieved 2014-02-03. 
  7. ^ "Walter Matthau". October 19, 2005. Retrieved 2014-02-03. 
  8. ^ "Famous Alumni". Seward Park High School Alumni Association. Retrieved 2014-02-03. 
  9. ^ Cofone, Annie (June 8, 2012). "Strolling Back Into the Golden Age of Yiddish Theater". The New York Times ( Retrieved 2014-02-03. 
  10. ^ a b Walter Matthau at the Internet Broadway Database
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Walter Matthau at the Internet Movie Database
  12. ^ a b Obituary,; accessed August 20,2015.
  13. ^ The Fortune Cookie Lemmon & Matthau Behind-the-Scenes, Hollywood Legacy
  14. ^ Biography,; accessed August 20, 2015.
  15. ^ "Actor Walter Matthau dies". BBC News (BBC). Retrieved 2014-02-03. 


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